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.

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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

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Monday 14th December 2015

A driverless drive on the Little Rann of Kutch!

Following our highly successful (but Crab Plover-less) time in the Great Rann of Kutch, during which we had connected with virtually all of my target species and established an excellent rapport with our hosts Jugal Tiwari and Veer, our tireless driver Bhawani Singh transported us safely and comfortably to the other great flat former seabed area in Gujarat, the Little Rann of Kutch.

First impressions of the Little Rann area were far from favourable, the villages being strewn with rubbish and desperately poor people living in makeshift encampments along the roadsides. Even the entrance road to our home for the coming few days was lined with discarded plastic…but once we were in our encampment, Desert Coursers, the warm welcome we received from our hosts Dhanraj and Sylvie set our minds a little more at ease.

Desert Coursers is the longest-running of the accommodation facilities close to the Little Rann, and Rosemary and I found ourselves in small round mud-walled cottages with thatched roofs and attached bathrooms. Meals were taken in a charming open restaurant area, and the whole campus was shaded with trees, giving a pleasant, relaxed impression.

Our first excursion took us to the nearby Nawa Talab lake, which was covered with flamingoes of both species, both Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, herons and egrets of several species, Avocets, duck of numerous varieties, with two Imperial Eagles eyeing this potential feast from nearby treetops.

Flamingoes and Pelicans were just a few of the countless birds on the Nawa Talab lake

Common Cranes are a wonderful feature of the Little Rann

Pelicans resting on a sandbank in the Nawa Talab

Most interesting of all to me were the two delightful Red-necked Falcons that put on a splendid show, perching on telegraph poles and flying on with a dashing flight as we approached. I had seen this scarce species before, but it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with it here. Other birds on the open grasslands included both Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, Short-toed and Crested Larks, Greylag Geese, and most impressive of all, numerous Common Cranes, whose bugling cries could be heard wherever we went.

Isabelline Wheatears have a characteristic upright posture

Red-necked Falcons perched on a telegraph pole near Nawa Talab

But it was the extraordinary open areas of dried out salty mud that really made this desolate place so impressive and unusual. Stretching over nearly 5,000 square kilometres, this formerly flooded area now dries out completely during the dry season, although apparently it becomes a sea again during wet monsoon years, when it hosts virtually all of India’s breeding Lesser Flamingoes.

Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of the Little Rann is the Asiatic Wild Ass, a species that has increased from a low of 362 individuals in 1960 to around 5,000 today. We were treated to several sightings of this attractive animal, and it was cheering to hear of a conservation success story when one normally only hears bad news.

An Asiatic Wild Ass with a Common Crane behind

The Asiatic Wild Ass is thriving these days on the Little Rann of Kutch

That evening, we ventured along the northern edge of the Rann, managing to see four MacQueen’s Bustards to add to the one we had been lucky enough to spot on the Naliya grasslands a few days earlier, and after dark we spotted several more Sykes’s Nightjars.

A Sykes’s Nightjar on the Little Rann of Kutch

On our second day, we were invited by our host to join him on what was to be perhaps one of the most extraordinary driving experiences I have ever had. He had asked me to provide a list of the bird species I most wanted to see in the area, and high on that list was the Greater Hoopoe Lark (I do not know why the Greater is necessary as there is no Lesser Hoopoe Lark – another of those inexplicable bird names like Common Hoopoe; there is only one Hoopoe!). This species, which is distributed from the Cape Verde Islands, right across the desert regions of North Africa and the Middle East and Pakistan, just reaches India here in the Little Rann. I had only ever had one opportunity to see it, in Morocco, but I did not really venture far enough into the Sahara there and therefore missed it, so it was high on my wish list. When I had mentioned this, Dhanraj’s eyes had twinkled and he proposed that we should head out on an all-day expedition to search for it.

Unlike most other larks, the Hoopoe Lark has a long, down-curved bill, and it inhabits the most desolate, arid areas of the Little Rann, occurring usually alone or in pairs, and its sandy plumage makes it hard to see against the sandy colour of its desert habitat. When approached, it usually runs away, but when it does fly, its wings are boldly patterned with black and white, rather like a Hoopoe, perhaps explaining its name (although the down-curved bill may also have contributed to that).

And so, early the next morning, Rosemary, Yogi and Bhawani climbed onto the back of Dhanraj’s Mahendra Bolero vehicle, myself joining him in the cab. The first part of our journey was on metalled roads, but shortly afterwards we found ourselves heading out onto the dried-up flats, eventually losing sight of any features in the surrounding landscape at all. I was amazed to be in a place where I was completely surrounded for as far as the eye could see, in all directions, by a totally flat and entirely featureless landscape. I had never seen anything similar anywhere else.

A Wild Ass breaks the monotony of the total flatness of the Little Rann

The featureless landscape seemed to stretch on forever

So impressed was I that I decided to make a video of this extraordinary landscape as we drove. Suddenly, Dhanraj said, “Shall I make your film a bit more interesting, James?” Thinking he was suggesting doing some wild skidding movements and handbrake turns (not my scene at all), I said I didn’t think that would be necessary as driving across the totally featureless landscape with no landmarks around us would be unusual enough, but then to my total astonishment, he said, “I think I’ll just go and have a chat with Rosemary”, and he climbed out of the window of the vehicle, leaving me alone in the cab, seated in the passenger seat, with the driver’s seat vacant and the car powering on across the open desert!

I was so taken aback that I did not really know what to think at all! Eventually, the car began to slow slightly, and Dhanraj shouted down to me, “Put your foot on the gas!” Well, that was none too easy from the passenger seat, and so I climbed over into the driver’s seat and took the controls. It was indeed an extraordinary feeling to know that I could drive in any direction I liked, and nothing would hinder me until I reached the edge of the Rann. It gave an unusual sense of liberty and unfettered freedom. I was rather disappointed when Dhanraj eventually descended and retook control of his own vehicle!

One of the disconcerting things about driving in a featureless landscape is that one loses all sense of how far one has driven. I was astonished when Dhanraj pointed out on the milometer that we had covered nearly 100 kms! By now we were nearing a raised ‘island’ of rock, with a sparse covering of trees, and it was here that we were to commence seriously searching for the Hoopoe Lark. Dhanraj had seen two here a few days previously, and we drove slowly across the dusty landscape close to the ‘island’, but there seemed to be no sign of the Lark…or any other birds at all.

The utterly empty landscape of the middle of the Little Rann

Rather as with the Crab Plover, I love this kind of quest for a rare bird, and we searched and searched, eventually almost giving up…until suddenly a slight movement on the ground ahead of us turned out to be our quarry, a Greater Hoopoe Lark running at top speed, heading rapidly away to our right. I desperately tried to get both telescope and camera ready, but I was only able to snap two unsatisfactory, blurry images before it was out of range, and a further search from the vehicle (this time with driver) failed to reconnect with it.

A poor shot of the Greater Hoopoe Lark as it ran past

The Hoopoe Lark was not keen to be photographed

One of the reasons why I find this kind of search for rare species of bird so thrilling, obsessional though it is, is because of what it leads to. If I had not been so keen to see the Greater Hoopoe Lark, which is restricted to such inaccessible and distant localities, we would never have experienced that extraordinary 200 km drive across the remotest parts of the Little Rann of Kutch. We would of course have visited the parts closer to civilisation in order to see the Wild Ass, but we would not have gained such an impression of the vastness of that empty landscape…and we would not have experienced a journey in a driverless vehicle!

The ‘island’ in a dry sea close to which the Hoopoe Lark was found

Yogi and Bhawani on the desert island in the dried out sea

Rosemary recounting her life story to Dhanraj, not realising that he had fallen asleep

Another safari brought us into an area that was known by our driver of that day to hold a daytime roost of Short-eared Owls. He drove us around, seemingly aimlessly weaving between the acacia trees, until eventually Yogi and I had become tired and we asked him to call off the search. “Just ten more minutes!”, came the driver’s reply, and sure enough, to my total surprise, a few minutes later we were gazing at a splendid Short-eared Owl that was sheltering from the sun under a tree. We were able to admire him for quite a while before he flew a short distance and then landed again, affording us even better views.

A Short-eared Owl was found roosting in the shade of an Acacia tree

The Short-eared Owl flew a short distance and then landed, giving excellent views

Short-eared was not the only owl we connected with on the Little Rann. Dhanraj had tested my bird knowledge on the very first day by showing me a photograph of a particular species of Scops Owl that he told me he was keen to show me. To my shame, I must confess I was unable to identify it, and it turned out to be a species that was not even on my wanted list, so unlikely did I consider it that we would see one, the Pallid (or Bruce’s) Scops Owl.

One or two of these scarce birds, which range from the Middle East to Central Asia, had been wintering in trees around the encampment, and Dhanraj set his staff to work to seek them out, and it was not long before one was located, concealed deep within a cactus-like bush. How it had wriggled in there was hard to imagine, and photography was impossible in such a dark place, but a few days later another was found in a tree behind one of the cottages. This again was hard to photograph due to the intervening branches, but I was pleased to be able to obtain one poor record shot anyway.

The Pallid Scops Owl was almost impossible to photograph

I shall end this blog post on the positive note brought by the sightings of the Greater Hoopoe Lark and the Short-eared and Pallid Scops Owls. This will be the last post from India as Rosemary and I are due to fly out of Delhi at 04.30 tomorrow morning, but I shall continue with the saga over the coming days until I have completed the entire story of our Great Indian Adventure of 2015. And quite an Adventure it has been!

Rosemary Fox taking advantage of the elevation the vehicle gave her in order to look through the telescope

The adventurous Rosemary Fox, thriving at 85 in the Little Rann of Kutch

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