Wednesday 18th November 2015

Four Tigers and a Leopard appear…at least to some

Following our move from Kanha to Pench, it was not long before our rather slow rate of wildlife sightings picked up somewhat, even if only temporarily. On our first morning Gypsy ride, I was treated to a distant but splendid sighting of a large tigress loping along a grassy ridge, and shortly after followed by two half-grown cubs. Sadly Rosemary was unable to latch onto these and missed the whole scene, which I found sad as for me this was one of the more impressive viewings of a tiger I have enjoyed to date.

The tigress seemed to glow against the brownish background

The location was good, with a long view across the lake at “Centre Point” in the park, and the open grassland at the far side allowed for clear vistas, and the short grass meant that the tigers could not hide. The animals seemed to positively glow against the dry grass and grey-green bushes behind. There were other vehicles around us, but for once there was little jostling and revving, perhaps because they were far away and therefore everyone had the same chance to see (or not to see) them.

Pench was the location for that wonderful BBC documentary called “Spy in the Jungle”, where remote-controlled cameras allowed for filming of tigers and other wildlife at far closer range than would otherwise have been possible, and I shall certainly view that programme again with renewed interest now that I have been here. The forest is much less dense than at Bandhavgarh or Kanha, permitting easier sightings, and the larger bodies of water attract greater numbers of birds.

Having said these positive things, the modern type of tiger tourism just is not my thing. Every morning one rolls out of bed at 04.15, piles on several layers of clothing as even this far south the morning Gypsy rides are a chilly experience, gulps down a hot cup of masala chai, and then climbs up onto the game-viewing seats of the vehicle, and then bumps and swerves along the rough roads to the park entrance, where passports have to be shown, a guide is picked up, and into the park one drives. There then follows a four-hour apparently rather aimless drive around on the jungle tracks in a desperate quest for a tiger sighting.

After four days of this sort of bumping along the jungle tracks and seeing remarkably little, I for one was becoming a little desperate. We did have one reasonable tiger sighting, this time of a tigress in the long grass some distance away to our left. Manoj, our Rural Traveller guide, managed to get some quite reasonable long-distance photographs using Rosemary’s new Canon SX60 camera, with its 60X zoom, which caused me some frustration, as my new Canon SX530 did not produce anything like as sharp images.

The Canon SX530 did not seem to be able to produce a really sharp image of the tigress

Perhaps the most amusing mammalian encounter we experienced at Pench involved a somewhat smaller creature than the tigers and the other large mammals we had really come to see. Last year, while on our Naturetrek tour of Bhutan, north-eastern India and the Sundarbans, I had developed a particular liking for a biscuit brand called Dream Creams. This year, I had only managed to locate them at one shop, and I was saving my second and last packet for a celebration in case we spotted a leopard or some other target species. However, when I returned one evening to the bedroom, where I had left my day pack on the bed, I found to my horror that there was a large hole in the pack, and shreds of white plastic wrapping were strewn across the bed. A mouse with clearly an advanced sense of taste had gnawed its way into my rucksack, and bitten through the plastic in order to get at the Dream Creams, spurning two other brands of biscuit, Marie and Marie Light, in its quest for the best!

Dream Creams are any biscuit-lover’s dream!

But a mouse had got at them before me!!

And so our tour of three of central India’s national parks ended, and after spotting my first ever Wolves, two that ran across the road in front of our vehicle while we were still in the forested area, we had to bid our farewells to Manoj, who had a marathon bus and rail journey ahead of him, first to Nagpur, then to Delhi and finally on to Ramnagar, where his wedding awaits him. We wished him every happiness in this next stage of his life. His replacement, Yogi, had arrived the night before, and he, Rosemary and I then continued our journey in a rather swift Suzuki Swift towards the Nagzira/Nagjira Tiger Reserve, which has proved to be more to our liking in many ways than the fully fledged national parks.

Rosemary bidding Manoj farewell in front of a car that seemed to be already decorated for his wedding!

Nagzira was only declared a tiger reserve comparatively recently, and does not attract much international tourism. Consequently, the infrastructure is less sophisticated, and our first Gypsy turned out to be a positive wreck, having clearly rolled over in the past, leaving a dented and broken roof bar and bodywork that was riddled with holes. One advantage of this rattletrap of a vehicle was that it could not charge along the bumpy forest tracks as fast as a more modern Gypsy would have allowed.

Our accommodation in Nagjira has proved to be a complicated saga in itself. We were initially supposed to stay for one night in a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation guesthouse outside the park, and a twin-bedded room had been booked, but a large double bed awaited us. Having shared my bed in Pench with a four-legged mouse with a taste for Dream Creams, I was anxious to regain my independence, and twin beds were a prerequisite if I were to contemplate sharing a room with another mammal, in this case, a Fox! The staff were unwilling to make the necessary adjustments, and consequently our plans were changed, and we left in the hope of finding netter facilities inside the park.

We arrived after dark, and after some champion negotiating by Yogi, we ended up being spirited away from the main tourism complex to a secluded Forest Rest House a couple of kilometres away. We checked in here, and Yogi returned later with some of our normal evening fare, rice, dhal and curried vegetables. The one item that was missing was our daily ration of Kingfisher beer, but we made some effort at finding an alternative, using a bottle of Smirnoff “garam pani” (hot water, i.e. vodka). The main obstacle was the lack of a mixer such as juice or Sprite. Nothing daunted, a substitute concoction was created, using an orange-flavoured Tesco Vitamin C tablet, some juice squeezed out of a very pip-ridden and not very flavoursome green orange, and water, the unpleasantness of which was soon deadened by the vodka.

Rarely has vodka been mixed with a Tesco Vitamin C tablet!

The following morning, our local guide Prakash took us on one of our more successful Gypsy rides to date. Shortly after leaving the rest house, we found ourselves on a track that showed signs of tiger, pugmarks being clearly visible in the dust. And it was not long before a tigress emerged from the roadside vegetation, and we were able to follow her for a short while, photography being limited by the pre-dawn darkness. This sighting lifted our spirits (more than the previous evening’s vodka had), and we found ourselves feeling more and more positive about this attractive park, with its lower-key atmosphere than the more regimented national parks we had previously experienced.

This tigress appeared out of the undergrowth and padded along the track in front of us

However, our glowing feelings were dealt a heavy blow when we returned to the tourism complex for breakfast. The canteen in which we were supposed to enjoy our celebratory “half-fried” eggs (Indian term for sunnyside up!) was a dingier dive than I had endured for many years. The cooking surface was caked with gunge, detritus littered the floor, filthy hands had been smeared across the walls, and cloths that were no doubt used to “clean” the tables had to be seen to be believed. The toilet facilities were worse still; one of the two washbasins was broken open and out of action, and the Indian-style pit toilets resembled a black hole of Calcutta. Yogi came to our rescue, commandeering the kitchen and preparing our breakfasts himself, doing his best to ensure that at least the utensils he used were of a reasonable cleanliness. It is sad indeed that such a potentially attractive park should be unable to provide better catering facilities, and I shall be writing to the authorities to request action.

Surely Nagjira tiger reserve deserves a better restaurant than this

Our disappointments were not over, as after returning to the comparative comfort of our secluded resthouse, and just having settled down to work on our photos, we were suddenly informed that a Forest Department official would be requiring our accommodation for his afternoon siesta, and we were summarily turfed out. We spent the lunchbreak on a bench in the shade of a splendid spreading tree looking out over a lake, enjoying the cooling breeze and nursing our indignation at our ejection. We were later transported to our current, rather less attractive abode close to the offending restaurant, which luckily we have not had to endure again as Yogi has excelled himself in preparing our food himself and delivering it directly to our rooms.

The rest house we were turfed out of

That afternoon turned out to be one of the wildlife highlights of our journey so far. On our way back homewards, Prakash and Yogi simultaneously exclaimed “Leopard!”, and at that moment a leopard appeared to spring out of a ditch right by the front wheel of the Gypsy. It shot through the roadside grass and disappeared into the jungle. However, it did not go far, and we almost immediately relocated it, sitting in the thick undergrowth, scowling at us. It eventually lay down and afforded unbelievable views, and I was able to obtain a number of reasonable photographs, although most are a little fuzzy due to the gathering darkness. I could even see the reflection of my camera’s red-eye reduction lamp glowing in its eyes as I pressed the shutter. Rosemary was tragically unable to spot it once it had lain down, and no amount of explaining could help her to locate it. A cataract operation looms for her, perhaps.

The Leopard was looking straight at us from only 30 feet away

To look into a Leopard’s eyes was quite an experience

The next three Gypsy safaris did not prove to be quite so productive, but overall we were very pleased to have come to this tiger reserve, and it was refreshing to be the only western tourists around. Our driver Bioosh and our excellent local guide Prakash did a fabulous job in looking after us, as did Yogi, and we ended our tour of central Indian parks with a warm feeling of satisfaction. We are now in Nagpur, from where we are due to fly tomorrow to Ahmedabad, where the Gujarati leg of our Great Indian Adventure awaits us.

The Nagjira team: Yogi, Rosemary, Prakash and Bioosh

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Tuesday 10th November 2015

Tiger, Tiger, Gypsy, Gypsy

As I briefly described at the end of my first update of this Great Indian Adventure of 2015, Rosemary Fox and I arrived in the central Indian state of Madya Pradesh by overnight train from Delhi, a journey that went smoothly and without complications.

A driver was waiting for us at Katni station, from where we drove for several hours through rolling and lightly wooded countryside and a few rather shabby villages for much of the day, until we reached the entrance of Bandhavgarh National Park, where we turned off the main road onto a dirt track before finally arriving at Tiger Trails, our home for the coming five nights. The resort was attractively laid out next to a couple of small ponds, one of which played host to a resident Little Cormorant, which remained faithful to its one post throughout our stay.

The following four days saw us building up a routine of early morning and afternoon safaris inside the Park, bumping along the forest tracks in a series of Maruti Suzuki Gypsies, those workhorses of Indian wildlife tourism, in the hope of encountering wildlife. Rosemary and I are not keen on the modern style of tiger tourism, which we had experienced at its worst last year in Corbett National Park, with hordes of vehicles racing along the jungle trails in a desperate frenzy to have their clients get the best views of a tiger, in the hope perhaps of obtaining a larger tip. We instructed our driver and the guides we picked up each time from the park entrance that this kind of tourism was not what we wished to experience, stating also that we were more interested in seeing what other wildlife the park could offer rather than focusing entirely on tigers.

A beautiful morning scene in the jungles of Bandhavgarh

Although it was of course a privilege to enjoy the beauty of these extensive Indian forests, it soon became clear that we had been spoiled by our previous experiences of wildlife watching in the north of the country, mainly in Corbett, Rajaji and Dudhwa National Parks. All three of these seem to host a far wider range of bird species, and even mammals seem more numerous there. The higher diversity and numbers of birds can perhaps be explained by these northern parks’ proximity to the high mountains, offering a greater altitude range and meaning that bird species that come down to escape the winter chill take up their winter quarters here rather than further south. In any case, birds were noticeably few and far between, although I was delighted to encounter a small flock of a species I had sought in southern India last year without success, the impressive Malabar Pied Hornbill.

On our penultimate day, in the afternoon we found ourselves unable to obtain a ticket to enter the main part of the park, so we opted for the buffer zone instead. We also had a different Gypsy driver, a much calmer and more relaxed one, so we were spared the bumping and swerving we had become used to. This improved our experience no end, and we were also treated to a good sighting of six Indian Gazelles, or Chinkara, a species we had not previously encountered. Jackals were also quite numerous, and we spotted one Indian Grey Fox. Our guides were amused when I commented that I had two species of fox on my day list: Indian Grey Fox and Rosemary Fox!

A rather fuzzy picture of an Indian Gazelle, or Chinkara

Despite our high-minded intentions, it was not long before we found ourselves dragged into that seemingly unavoidable desperation to encounter the king of the jungle, although when we did finally connect, on our eighth and final safari, it was not with a king but rather two queens, two tigresses from neighboring territories, who were none too pleased to see each other. The first one came in from our left, scowling and looking uneasy. She stalked onto the road, and then scent-marked a tree, before wandering along the track away from us and towards her rival.

The tigress spraying a tree and a Gypsy behind

The tigress was uneasy at the presence of a rival female

Now she turned back to face her rival

At this point, Rosemary appealed to our driver to stop the vehicle to allow us to observe and photograph this magnificent beast, which by this time was looking none to pleased at the presence of the other tigress, who had appeared to our right. ‘Mam, I cannot stop!’, came our driver’s response, as he slammed the Gypsy into gear and raced towards the tigresses, almost exactly neck and neck with two other Gypsies, the three of us completely blocking occupants of other vehicles behind from seeing. By now sadly my attention had shifted from the interaction between the two tigresses, who seemed unconcerned by the human frenzy that they had unwittingly unleashed, to the human behaviour I was witnessing. It was as if the very worst aspect of human nature had been released, with drivers jostling their vehicles into the melée, and drivers cursing each other. Suddenly a rending crash indicated that two Gypsies behind us had collided, luckily not seriously, but we were appalled by all this desperate competition that was going on around us.

The second tigress then gave us an excellent viewing as she loped through the vegetation to our right, luckily for us away from the track where all the other vehicles were still jockeying for position.

The tigress walked past us despite the frenzy of Gypsies nearby

Rosemary and I both thought how shocked my grandparents would be to see such base behaviour, when surely the aim should be to enjoy the quiet experience of observing the tigers’ natural behaviour, and to marvel at the majesty of these noble cats. So what is the solution? I have no answer. Perhaps the majority of tourists are quite happy with this form of wildlife tourism. Perhaps Rosemary and I are biased, knowing how my grandparents would have encountered tigers, either meeting them on foot, observing them quietly from the back of their well-trained elephant Balmati, or from a machan up a tree. And it is surely better that the tourists are limited to small areas of national parks, leaving the larger core areas to the wildlife, where animals can remain undisturbed by the human hordes.

Following our time at Bandhavgarh, we spent a day driving to another renowned Tiger Reserve, Kanha. Here we also had eight Gypsy safaris, and rather similar to our experience in Bandhavgarh, we were struck by the relative paucity of wildlife sightings. In addition to the usual Spotted, Sambhar and Barking Deer, plus Nilgai and Wild Boar, the mammalian highlights of Kanha were Barasingha, or Swamp Deer. Although we had observed numerous Barasingha at Dudhwa last year, apparently the animals here belong to a different (sub-)species, the Dry Ground Barasingha (although we saw them standing in ponds), a highly endangered animal that occurs only in this area. From a low of about 50 individuals in the 1970s, their numbers have now picked up and are now standing at over 400.

Two Dry Ground Swamp Deer on far from dry ground

The other really impressive animal we encountered in Kanha was the Gaur, or Indian Bison. This enormous bovine was not new to me as I had the dubious pleasure of meeting it while on foot last year in Periyar National Park, and I can vouch for the size and muscular appearance of a full-grown Gaur bull, but from the safety of the Gypsy I was able to marvel at these extraordinary animals at a more leisurely pace. I wondered how they had avoided being exterminated by man, but as a form of cattle they are classed as holy by Hindus and are therefore less likely to be hunted for their meat. We saw perhaps 30 individuals in two herds.

A bull Gaur is an impressive beast

We did not connect with either tigers or leopards during our eight safari drives in Kanha, although signs of both were evident, and we heard the roar of tigers on several occasions. We did have one very fleeting viewing of a Sloth Bear, but it was gone before we really had time to register its presence.

And so our stay near our second central Indian tiger reserve draws towards its close, and tomorrow we are off to Pench, our third. Let us see how we got on there, and whether we will be treated to a tiger or a leopard sighting when we are alone, and not surrounded by jostling Gypsies all vying to obtain the best view.

Hanuman Langoor monkeys may be mischievous but they are also elegant

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Friday 6th November 2015

Tripwire for a Fox

Following our Great Indian Adventure in 2014, the now 85-year-old Rosemary Fox and I are again in India. The main purpose as far as I am concerned is to scout certain areas that I have not yet visited, with a view to running wildlife tours here in the future. As neither Rosemary nor I have ever visited the western state of Gujarat, we decided to concentrate on familiarising ourselves with its apparently conspicuous wildlife, and in my case, to get to know the parks and protected areas of that state from a tourism perspective.

Shortly after having bought our flight tickets to India, we received an unexpected invitation to attend the first ever Kumaon Literary Festival (KLF), which I jumped at as it would provide me with an ideal location and an excellent forum for a formal Indian launch of my 2013 volume, “Tripwire for a Tiger”.

Our adventures began at Manchester airport, where we met up, Rosemary having already flown over from western Canada to celebrate her sister Sheila’s 90th birthday in Shropshire. All went well on the first leg of our Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi, but here we found to our surprise that we were booked onto different onward flights to Delhi.

Our troubles were not over then either, as once we had relocated each other at Delhi airport, the car that was supposed to meet us was not there, and once we had managed to reach our hotel under our own steam, there was no booking either! However, these obstacles did not prove unsolvable, and we were soon checked in, and in my case it was not long before I was immersing myself into Indian birding again in the delightful Lodi Gardens, originally set up by Lady Willingdon, wife of the then Viceroy, in 1936.

A Ground Squirrel in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

Rosemary trying on a new set of clothes in Delhi

Two days later, at 05.00 AM, we found ourselves heading to the station to catch the Shatabdi express to Kathgodam, following the very same route that my grandparents and my father used to take back in the 1920s and 30s. Several other participants of the festival were also on board, and we spent a pleasant five hours or so trundling across the flat Indian plains, spotting the Himalayan foothills through the haze only just before we reached the railhead at Kathgodam.

Here there was some panic, as a consignment of sixty copies of “Tripwire” had been sent there by taxi, and I was supposed to meet the driver, transfer the books to another vehicle in which I would be travelling, and then head up to the venue of the KLF at Dhanachuli. However, there was no sign of that vehicle, and it was only after a lot of telephoning and detective work that it became clear that the driver who was supposed to pick Rosemary and me up did indeed have the books, but he had gone off with other passengers to another hotel. A book launch with no books was not a prospect I relished, but eventually I connected with them two days later.

The festival was a wonderful opportunity to meet and network with like-minded people, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The first three days were held high in the Himalayan foothills, at Dhanachuli, and a more precipitous location could hardly have been chosen, with more steps than years Rosemary has lived!

A distant view of the high Himalayas from our accommodation

On the third morning, we transferred to the hill station of Nainital, which has long and evocative links with my family, so it felt somewhat like a home-coming. The venue here was the delightful Abbotsford, an old colonial property set among towering trees above the bustling town and lake.

The old colonial property Abbotsford, where the festival took place

Whereas at Dhanachuli, Rosemary and I had been merely observers, here in Nainital we came into our own, and in the afternoon of the 26th October, I was honoured to share the stage for the formal Indian launch of “Tripwire for a Tiger” and a discussion on contemporary conservation issues with the Director of the Corbett National Park with Mr Sameer Sinha IFS, as well as with Rosemary.

As it was a late show, and the venue was outdoors, the chill air of this Himalayan hill-station and the darkness, plus the fact that I was immediately followed by another event, meant that I was not able to sell any books or do a signing, but the following morning, the rush began, and I found myself in the enviable position of signing copy after copy, and the books sold, as one observer jokingly put it to me, like hot curries!

Signing yet another copy of Tripwire at Abbotsford

The afternoon saw Rosemary again on stage, as part of a panel discussion on preserving wildlife, culture and heritage through literature. Interesting though this was, I had to leave shortly after it had started, as I was scheduled to perform a reading in Gurney House, former home of legendary hunter Jim Corbett.

This proved to be a highlight of the festival as far as I was concerned, and the opportunity to read two of my grandfather’s evocative articles to a highly appreciative audience was a pleasure indeed….and more books were sold!

After a final ceremonial close on the lawn of Abbotsford, the festival closed that evening, after a highly enjoyable and stimulating few days. Congratulations to Sumant Batra for having the initiative to stage such an ambitious programme in such a picturesque but logistically challenging area.

The following morning saw Rosemary and myself being picked up from our hotel for a breakfast at the home of the eminent Dr Ranjit Bhargava, former Director of WWF Uttarakhand, and one of the last few Indians who are able to recount personal memories of having met either my grandfather, or in this case my great uncle Prof. H G Champion CIE IFS. We were also honoured by the presence of Anup Sah, one of India’s top wildlife and landscape photographers and an accomplished mountaineer. Sharing the morning with these two gentlemen and their wives was a fitting end to our all-too-brief stay in Nainital, but we were due to be picked up at 12.00 noon, and I needed to squeeze in a visit to the Consul Book Depot in the Bara Market part of town, where I sold the last remaining copies of “Tripwire” before we headed off on the next stage of our Great Indian Adventure, descending the switchback road to our old haunt of Corbett Tiger Camp, near Ramnagar, where in the evening we were reunited with our great friend and “fixer”, Mr Sumantha Ghosh, with whom I hope to be running tours in the coming years. It was a pleasure to see him again, and to share some “garam pani” (literally hot water, but in our case, vodka!) around the campfire together.

Our wonderful breakfast group in Nainital

The following morning Rosemary was not feeling at her best, but I was off before dawn on a safari into the Corbett National Park, which somehow always feels like a sort of home-coming to me as my grandfather was at least partially responsible for the protection of this wonderful area, serving as he did with Jim Corbett and others on the Steering Committee for its founding in 1936.

Great Hornbills were particularly conspicuous that morning, affording close views as they fed on ripe figs and occasionally flapped majestically from tree to tree, their enormous wings making a rasping, swishing sound as the wind passed through their feathers. Tigers were not on show, but there was plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of pugmarks, fresh scat and scratch marks on trees.

A Great Hornbill in Corbett National Park

The following day was, according to our itinerary, supposed to be a “rest day” – well, it certainly proved to be far from that! Our first destination was the Janet Sheed Roberts School, where we were moved by our meetings with many of the disabled pupils in this inspirational institution.

The Janet Sheed Roberts School is an inspirational place

I was asked to do a short slideshow to the children, which I turned into an educational activity using my grandfather’s iconic animal photographs from the 1920s and 30s as a means of testing the students’ identification skills and adding to their knowledge of wildlife. It went down extremely well, and many of the pupils were positively desperate to identify the animals, waving their hands in the air and squirming with enthusiasm! The child who was able to answer the most questions was a girl who had lost both of her hands while working with her family in the fields nearby. Apparently improvised explosive devices are frequently placed among the crops to blow off the jaws of wild boar; this girl had taken the full blast, and to see her raising her stump in place of her hand was a poignant sight indeed. Our congratulations go to the teachers and sponsors of this extraordinary place.

Just before the presentation in a remarkable school

Running late, we rushing into Ramnagar, where we were granted an audience by the lady Divisional Forest Officer in her brand new, self-designed and constructed, office, which she has built in the old British style, with wooden ceiling and stone back wall. She is, among many other worthwhile projects, running a survey of the butterflies of the Ramnagar Forest Division, so we were able to share observations on that. I wish her all success in what is very much still a man’s world.

That afternoon, despite my rather shaky stomach condition, I gave a presentation on my grandfather’s life and work to the Ramnagar Hotels Association. Unfortunately the laptop gave up the ghost halfway through, but I was able to finish by reading out my grandfather’s article from 1941 on the founding of the Hailey (later Corbett) National Park in 1936. This the participants clearly found most interesting, and it was fascinating to hear the recommendations my grandfather made on how to handle the potentially large numbers of tourists back in the 1940s, in the company of some of those who accommodate those tourists today. I was asked to become a sort of titular ambassador of the Association, but I do not see myself in this role, as my real loyalty is to those who strive to protect the animals and their habitats, and I could find myself with a conflict of interest by siding too actively with the Hotels Association.

Receiving a gift of a beautiful photo of an Ibisbill after the Hotel Association do

And so ended a highly successful couple of weeks in Kumaon. From here, we endured a marathon drive to Delhi, followed by an overnight train journey to Katni, and then a drive to Bandhavgarh National Park, in central India, where we now are.

Will Champion and Fox try the red hot chilli peppers?