Tuesday 22nd December 2015

Bharatpur, a hunting reserve come good

At the end of our Gujarat trip, Rosemary and I had two sad Goodbyes to endure: Yogi Bisht, of Rural Traveller, who had looked after us so well in Nagzira Tiger Reserve (where he had even entered the kitchen of the filthy canteen and cooked our meals himself!) and throughout our Gujarat trip was due to depart by train that afternoon for Delhi and then home to Ramnagar, and our excellent and trusty driver Bhawani Singh, who had driven us all over Gujarat, showing us the best birding sites of the state (he had also driven for Paul Holt, of the UK bird tour company Sunbird, and knew the birding sites of Gujarat like the back of his hand), was due to drop us off at Ahmedabad airport and then Yogi at the station. Our heartfelt thanks go to both of them; we will certainly meet again, hopefully when I have put together my own tour programme (with the elusive Crab Plover as a key target bird!).

Rosemary and I then flew to Jaipur, where we were picked up by our new driver Maharaj Singh, who spirited us to Bharatpur, our home for the coming five nights. We checked into the Birder’s Inn, situated close to the entrance of the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, one of India’s smallest but ornithologically richest protected areas.

Originally set up as a private hunting reserve, Bharatpur hosted some of the largest duck shoots ever recorded, with the maximum daily bag of 4,273 ducks being claimed at a shoot hosted by Lord Linlithgow, then Viceroy of India, in 1938. The Maharaja retained the shooting rights until 1972, when Indira Gandhi’s Wildlife Act outlawed all forms of hunting in India (as far as I know, India is the only country that has placed an outright ban on hunting). It is now a World Heritage Site, and Peter Scott once called it the World’s best birding area.

The plaque commemorating Lord Linlithgow’s bloodbath

For me, too, this wonderful reserve held a nostalgic significance. I had visited the park in 1988 while on a tour with Ornitholidays, led by Simon Boyes. I was living in Japan at the time, so I had flown in from Tokyo and my parents from London; my father had just retired, and that tour was intended to ease his adjustment to a life of leisure. It led to my parents doing at least one major bird tour per year, either with Ornitholidays or with Sunbird, every year from 1988 to 2009.

The most poignant difference I noticed from 1988 was the absence of the most emblematic of Bharatpur’s bird species, the stately Siberian Crane. We had witnessed the last family, two parents and one young, that wintered in this park, or anywhere in India. The western population of the Siberian Crane was decimated by hunting, mainly on migration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now the species winters only at Lake Poyang in China, where virtually the entire World population of around 3,000 can be found, but they are vulnerable to the as yet unquantified effects of the Three Gorges Dam, which will alter the seasonal flood patterns on which the Siberian Crane and other wintering species depend.

A poignant reminder that came too late for the Siberian Crane

The huge change for Rosemary and myself here compared with the rest of our trip was the means of transport used to get around the protected area. On the Central Indian leg of our journey, we had become used to being bounced around in a Maruti Suzuki Gypsy on very rough tracks; here we were each assigned a cycle rickshaw, Rosemary being driven by the dignified Mr Raju Singh, and myself by Harish, “Mr Snake” (I was later to discover why he had this nickname). Our birding guide was Ikrar Bablu, who rode alongside us on his white bicycle, occasionally darting off to check the presence or absence of some particular bird.

Rosemary and Sumantha Ghosh with their rickshaw driver Raju Singh

Entering the park through the main entrance brought the memories flooding back. The main roadway stretches ahead into the mist, after a while leading into a tunnel of tall trees, beyond which the route is lined on either side by wetlands that teem with birds. In recent years the monsoons have brought less rain than in earlier years, and in some winters the park has been completely dry, a disaster not only for the birds but also for the rickshaw drivers, guides and hotels that depend on the tourists that flock here to see the flocks of birds. Now, however, a system of pumps and a pipeline brings water from the Chambal River (what effect this will have on the river has not yet been ascertained, but there will doubtless be some consequence, as there always is), meaning that the park is adequately supplied with fresh water.

The entrance road in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park is wonderfully atmospheric in the early morning mist

There were so many species of bird, and so many individuals, that it would be hard to list them all here. Most prominent were the larger wading birds including 11 species of heron, 4 of stork (including loud colonies of Painted Storks, whose young have an eerily childlike cry, and the occasional magnificent Black-necked Stork, which one booklet I saw described as “the daddy of them all), 3 species of ibis plus Spoonbill, 3 of cormorant plus Darter, plus 16 species of duck, 4 gallinule and 2 jacana, and 14 of plover and sandpiper.

Painted Storks are beautiful but quarrelsome birds at the nest

The Black-necked Stork, ‘daddy of them all’

The Darter or Snakebird dries its wings like a cormorant

Owls too were present, although the smaller ones such as Spotted Owlet and Collared Scops Owl usually required a local’s knowledge of their regular roosting sites to find them. Much more impressive, however, was the huge Dusky Eagle Owl, of which we saw three individuals.

The Dusky Eagle Owl is a monstrous bird

Small birds too were not under-represented, with numerous Bluethroats and at least three Siberian Rubythroats hopping out onto the roadways, ten species of warbler seen skulking in the reeds, bushes and trees, three species of shrike perching prominently in search of prey, and three species of kingfisher waiting for their catch of small fish or crickets. It was truly a birdwatcher’s bonanza.

Bluethroats were quite numerous and conspicuous along the tracks

A Long-tailed Shrike provided outstanding views

Our daily routine involved entering the park early(ish) in our two rickshaws with Bablu beside us on his bike, and then spending the days in a leisurely (for us, though not for our drivers) way, checking first the wetlands and then the drier forest and scrubland areas, gradually narrowing our search down as the number of target species dwindled, again the sort of birding I love, where rather than becoming bored, one builds up towards a highly focused quest for a few more difficult species.

Bharatpur is a magical place

Bablu seemed to have an uncanny ability to spot the highly elusive Black Bittern, which hides in the darkest recesses under bushes, but his sharp eyes and a knowledge of how and where to look allowed him to show us at least ten of these cryptic birds, which I had only seen the odd individual of on previous Asian birding trips. He and Harish also made a good team in the hunt for the less numerous but equally elusive Yellow Bittern, of which we eventually saw three, Bablu making a long detour around a deep channel, and Harish waiting to spot the bird if Bablu disturbed it.

An unusually conspicuous Black Bittern

Here the Black Bittern seemed to be observing us rather than vice versa

The Yellow Bittern was even more elusive than the Black

Harish also had extremely sharp eyes, and I came to realise this when my rickshaw suddenly came to a halt, and he pointed out a snake. It took ages for him to explain to me precisely where it was, and in fact it turned out that only a tiny portion of it, its head and a section of its back, were above water. How he spotted it as we were cycling along, I cannot imagine. He informed me that his name, Harish, means snake, which I cannot find any reference to on the internet, but I am willing to believe it given his ability to spot that snake!

Harish spotted this snake while cycling along

The Siberian Cranes may have been long gone, but at least their even larger cousins the Sarus Cranes were still present, and to see and hear the greeting dance, accompanied by that evocative crane bugling call, as the pair came together after a spell spent foraging separately, was touching to observe. We saw at least three pairs with at least two young, so clearly they are still having some breeding success.

Sarus Cranes must be among the most elegant of birds

Birds were not the only interesting creatures to be seen, and in addition to the considerable numbers of Cheetal (Spotted Deer) and Nilgai antelope, Sambar Deer were also present, as were Jackals and Rhesus Macaques, as well as the ubiquitous Palm Squirrels, one of which even ventured onto Rosemary’s lap to feast upon the crumbs she had dropped.

An atmospheric morning shot of a Cheetal in the mist

This male Rhesus Macaque had his eyes on Rosemary!

How many times has a Palm Squirrel been observed being fed by a Fox?!

But more impressive still were the Indian Rock Pythons that we encountered. Our first was unexpected; Bablu and I were on foot in an area unsuitable for rickshaws, and a large stick on the track ahead of us suddenly moved, revealing a large and bulky Python, edging its way slowly towards us. We remained still while it gradually turned towards a sunny patch, where it eventually settled down to bask in the last rays of the afternoon sun. It was amazing to watch its ribs moving in a wave motion under its glistening skin; unlike other snakes, pythons move straight along rather than twisting, making them look purposeful and determined.

Our first view of the Rock Python as it started to cross the track

The Python then settled down to enjoy the last afternoon rays of sunshine

How snakes manage with no eyelids is hard to imagine

Once we had edged our way past the snake, which was fully aware of our presence but did not seem concerned, we were able to admire the perfect tracks it had left in the sand, its weight having created what looked like highways in the dirt. Its hole was just by the track too, and we could see precisely which routes it had taken on its recent excursions.

The Python’s trail could clearly be seen

Although pythons do not seem to be directly persecuted in the park, they are nonetheless sensitive to undue disturbance, and the following day when we returned to try to show the snake to Rosemary we were again to witness some inconsiderate behaviour by photographers. We relocated the python and observed it quietly through my telescope, but it was not long before a group of loud and brash photographers arrived, crashing their way down the side of the roadway and approaching the basking snake extremely closely from the other side. Not wishing to witness another case of animal harassment for the sake of a better photograph, we left the area.

One evening, Rosemary, Bablu and I took a short boat trip, which allowed us to view one section of the park from a different perspective, as we quietly drifted along a channel before heading into the flooded forest, at times literally gliding over the submerged aquatic vegetation. The highlight of this tour was a beautifully camouflaged Indian Nightjar, which we would never have seen if our boatman had not known precisely on which branch it regularly roosted. Knowing the roosting sites of nightjars and owls is one of the key advantages that local guides can bring.

The Indian Nightjar was peacefully roosting on its branch

However, despite having astonishing local knowledge, Bablu’s efforts to find one of my main targets, the Spotted Creeper, came to nothing. I had long wanted to see this strange-looking bird, which is restricted to the drier forest areas of Central India, and which used to be relatively easy to locate in the acacia woodland of certain areas of the park. But try as we might, the Creeper was nowhere to be seen. Bablu suggested that the recent increase in numbers of Rhesus Macaques could be responsible, as another hole-nesting bird, the Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, has also recently disappeared. It could be that the monkeys are raiding the nests of these birds.

Former Creeper habitat – where have they gone?

A Spotted Creeper photographed at Thal Chappar by a friend of Sumantha Ghosh

Even without the Creeper, however, and minus its Siberian Cranes, Bharatpur is a magical place, and one to which I shall certainly return. Our thanks go to Bablu for his excellent guiding, to Harish and Mr Singh for pedalling us around the park so valiantly, and to Sumantha Ghosh of Rural Traveller for organising the logistics behind our stay. We did venture out of the park on one of the days, to the Chambal River, but that was so exciting that it warrants its own blog post, which will appear soon.

Our entire Bharatpur team: Harish, Bablu, Rosemary, Sumantha, Raju Singh and self


Saturday 19th December 2015

A macabre but somehow cheering sight

Following the disappointing story of the hyaena search, our time in Gujarat drew to a close. On our final morning, we were taken to what can only be described as a vision of Hell, a carcass dump where hundreds of dead cows, devoid of their skins, are dumped to rot in the Gujarat sunshine. Well, rot if they get to that stage; the remains provide a ghoulish feast for scavengers, and it was for that reason that this horrifying sight/site had been included in our itinerary. Ironically, during our visit the only vultures present were a few Egyptian, plus numerous Black-headed Ibises, Cattle Egrets and Black Kites. The larger vultures apparently fly in from their roosting sites later in the day.

Photography was not officially permitted at the horrifying carcass dump

Many people are unaware of the horrific plight of vultures in India. In the 1980s, there were an estimated 80 million White-rumped Vultures in India; today, only a few thousand remain. This has been the fastest recorded decline of any species in history. Other vulture species, especially the Indian Griffon and the Long-billed, have been only slightly less severely affected.

A flock of vultures photographed by my grandfather F W Champion in the 1920s

The cause of these catastrophic declines has been traced to the veterinary drug Diclofenac, which was widely used to treat inflammation in cattle in the early 1990s. When a cow dies and a vulture consumes its meat, the vulture dies of acute kidney failure. Vultures performed a vital task in cleaning up carcasses in India, and now that they have virtually gone, there has been a huge increase in scavenging dogs, and rabies has spread, until currently 20,000 to 30,000 people die of the disease each year, many of them children. Other diseases have also increased,including anthrax and bubonic plague.

Culturally too the disappearance of the vultures has affected the Parsi/Parsee community, who used traditionally to leave their dead on so-called Towers of Silence, where the vultures would consume the corpses, thereby liberating the souls of the dead. This has now had to stop as there are no vultures to perform the task.

A rare sight nowadays, a pair of White-rumped Vultures on the nest, photographed in Kanha National Park

Diclofenac is now officially banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan, but enforcement of the ban is hard, and the populations are now so low that recovery is by no means assured. Vultures breed slowly, and the birds are vulnerable to other forms of poisoning too. Farmers may lay out poisoned carcasses in order to kill jackals, wolves, hyaenas, wild boar or even leopards, and vultures are the unintended by-catch. In Africa, they have become victims of ivory poachers, who kill elephants with poison in order to obtain their tusks, and vultures then consume the carcasses, later dying an agonising death. In some cases, the vultures have been deliberately poisoned by the poachers, as their circling in the skies is likely to alert the authorities to the presence of poisoned elephant carcasses.

The White-rumped Vulture’s white rump is clearly visible in this shot by F W Champion in the 1920s

My grandfather, F W Champion, published an article about Indian vultures in the magazine India, in May 1931, an extract of which follows, showing firstly the admiration he had for the vultures’ power of flight, and secondly the lengths he was willing to go to in order to test their eyesight:

The powers of soaring possessed by vultures are one of the marvels of creation. One has only to watch one of these great birds cruising along through the air for minutes at a stretch, without any visible movement of its wings, to form some idea of the marvellous powers of flight possessed by these heavy birds, which can and do drop like plummets when arriving at feasts of carrion. The modern engineless gliding machines are man’s feeble imitation of the vulture and other soaring birds, but, wonderful though it seems to us, what a poor thing is man’s glider compared with the majestic and effortless soaring of an eagle or vulture!

Vultures may seem ungainly on the ground, by they are masters of the air

If the flight of vultures fills us with wonder, what can be said of their powers of sight, which are quite beyond human comprehension! A wretched cow or other creature staggers and falls in some open place, never to rise again and perhaps no single vulture will be anywhere visible to the eyes of man. But, after a few minutes, first one and then another will appear from the blue sky, until perhaps a hundred or more have collected, all eagerly dropping down to the feast before it is too late. For many years there were great arguments among naturalists as to how vultures found their food, some asserting that it was by their sense of smell, others by their wonderful eyesight, and yet others would have endowed them with some sixth sense totally unknown to mankind. It is now, however, well known that it is purely a matter of eyesight, although it still seems marvellous that a bird can see a dead body from a height of a mile or more. Bodies lying in thick jungle are very rarely found by vultures, and in the open they are undoubtedly often helped by crows, which, being tree-dwellers, are usually the first to arrive at the scene of death. One vulture sees the excitement among the crows and swoops down to find out what the crows are after. Another vulture sees the first one swoop and follows and so on until, in the words of Longfellow, “The air is thick with pinions”.

F W Champion seemed to have an ability to ask his subjects to pose artistically

Anyone who does not believe that vultures work purely by eyesight can easily make a little test for himself. Let him choose some open spot, preferably with vultures visible in the sky above him. Then let him stagger about for a bit and finally collapse, lying absolutely still in view of some soaring vulture. In a very short time the vulture will have come down to investigate and will be followed by others, and if the experimenter lies still enough, he can draw a ring of these birds of death round him, each one waiting for another to make the first move as the sign for the feast to begin. It is a most uncanny sensation to lie with a crowd of birds sitting round awaiting to eat one’s supposedly dead body and one can almost see their disgust when one suddenly gets up, and, in imagination at least, flings the old question at them “Have you ever been had?”

A vulture looks straight into the camera from its tree in Pench National Park

Luckily, a few people are campaigning for a recovery of the vulture populations, among them Aditya Roy, who works with local people to help save those vultures that still survive. His project was filmed last year by my friend David Stanton, and I had the honour of being asked to narrate the film, a true collaborative venture! Please enjoy this gruesome, yet somehow wholesome, film to understand just what is being done to save Gujarat’s highly endangered vultures.


Thursday 17th December 2015

Heinous hyaena harassment

Although our experience of wildlife watching on the Little Rann of Kutch was generally positive, with excellent sightings made of animals and birds going about their business peacefully, and us observing them from a suitable distance and not disturbing them, a case concerning Indian Striped Hyaenas came to our attention that I found deeply distressing and distasteful.

It is perhaps hard for many people to feel sympathy for hyaenas, animals which are seen as leering scavengers that show no mercy towards their victims. However, these preconceived negative impressions refer mostly to the African Spotted Hyaena, which epitomises many people’s most horrifying animal nightmare.

Few naturalists are even aware that hyaenas occur not only in Africa, but also in India, where the much more discreet, almost gentle, Striped Hyaena can be found sparingly across the north of the subcontinent, nowhere conspicuous and mostly nocturnal. It is usual solitary or occurring in small family groups, and is not often seen.

My grandfather F W Champion managed to obtain tripwire photographs of Striped Hyaenas several times in the 1920s and 30s, mostly in the Lansdowne Forest Division, where they have now virtually disappeared, but I have never yet managed to connect with this secretive animal. Rosemary and I came close at the Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, where a German guest observed a hyaena in broad daylight sheltering from the bright sunlight under a tree…but he was berating his guide for showing him a mere hyaena, when as he put it, “I came here only for ze vulf (the wolf)”!

A Striped Hyaena photographed by F W Champion in the 1920s

On one of our morning safaris from Desert Coursers camp, we were offered the possibility to observe a hyaenas’ den, and as I knew that the animals would almost certainly be safely tucked up underground at that time of the day and so would be unlikely to be disturbed by our presence, I accepted.

Visiting this den was an eerie experience. The den itself was in an area of slightly raised ground made up of compacted sand, and there were several holes into which the hyaenas retreat during the daytime. They had a specific area as their toilet, in a collapsed tunnel entrance, showing that they are hygiene-conscious animals. Fresh urine could be seen in the sand in one of the entrances, indicating that a hyaena had fairly recently been in or out.

The hyaenas had one specific toilet area

The den had several entrances

The entire den area was completely encircled with bones including nilgai and dog skulls, all absolutely white. Some pieces of dried hide were also to be seen, but apart from one area where I did catch the scent of rotted flesh, the whole area was remarkably clean. My feelings were only positive towards these hyaenas, who were going about their task of clearing the surrounding area of carcasses, transporting bits of them here to consume them in peace and feed their young. I found the whole scene surprisingly moving, in a macabre sort of way.

The area was littered with clean bones and skulls

I should have been alerted to what was coming by the presence of large numbers of human shoe prints (to which we added) in addition to the hyaenas’ own paw marks. This place was far from being an unmolested site, although the Forest Department had dug a ditch that would be impassable to vehicles some distance away.

More of the bones left by the hyaenas around their den

That night, our hosts sent one of their drivers to check the den area at dusk, with strict instructions not to approach or to disturb the animals in any way but just to see if they came out of the trees and onto the open sand, in which case we might be able to see them the following night. What he found was deeply disturbing. Four vehicles were apparently present, with loud chatter and obtrusive noise being made, and the occupants leaving the vehicles and approaching the den on foot.

But what was far worse was the report that he received from one of the other drivers of an unscrupulous resort owner throwing a firecracker into one of the den entrances in order to force the hyaena family out so that his clients might obtain photographs of the startled animals.

I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story, but if it is true, then I see that as the most despicable, grotesque form of wildlife tourism I have perhaps ever heard of. Striped Hyaenas are unobtrusive members of India’s mammalian fauna, and they are already hard-pressed enough as it is, suffering as they do from habitat destruction and persecution, and it is difficult enough for them to find a quiet home where they can go about their daily lives in peace. And then when they do find a place, in a protected area, they suffer the abuse of being forced out of their underground home by unscrupulous resort owners throwing firecrackers into their dens.

The Forest Department authorities must be aware of such activities taking place in this protected zone, with vehicles involved, but they do not seem to be taking sufficient action to prevent such behaviour (although the digging of the ditch had impeded the vehicles from driving any closer). Perhaps money had been passed in order that they might look the other way. Whatever the explanation, such actions have no place in wildlife tourism, and will only result in there being no hyaenas for anyone to photograph.

Another hyaena caught by my grandfather F W Champion’s tripwire camera trap in the 1920s