Friday 27th November 2015

Year of the Cat

Following our tiger sightings in central India and the jungle cat at Velavadar, our next destination involved a quest to find another of India felines, this time in the Gir Forest, home to the World’s last population of Asiatic Lions, and for Rosemary Fox and myself, a visit to the state of Gujarat would have been impossible to imagine without at least trying for this other big cat in its home range.

We left Velavadar and headed across the centre of the state, eventually arriving at the small town of Sasan Gir, where we checked into the Gir Birding Lodge, and enjoyed an evening walk in the mango orchard that surrounds this quiet accommodation facility. The wall that surrounded this property was broken down in places, leaving a clear way for any stray lions to join us, but none chose to do so.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Gujarat is a ‘dry state’, not only in terms of its low rainfall, but also in terms of lack of alcohol. When we had arrived at Ahmedabad airport a few days previously, our guide Yogi had advised us to hold onto our boarding passes. We did not know why, but the twinkle in his eye as he gave us this advice should have alerted us to the fact that he had a plan up his sleeve!

After dark, Yogi asked us to find our boarding passes, and we then headed, somewhat puzzled as to what was happening, to the back of a disused but still attractive-looking hotel…and there was a government alcohol shop! Apparently non-Gujaratis can obtain permits to consume the demon liquor in the state, but they have to provide evidence of their arrival from outside…hence the need for the boarding passes.

Some Indian customers from Bangalore were in the middle of a heated discussion with the official behind the counter, and we felt (only slightly) guilty as we ordered two half-bottles of vodka and a case of Kingfisher strong premium beer, and the Indians had to watch it all being carefully wrapped in newspaper and placed in a box for us, while they were refused a single drop! And so the dry state of Gujarat has once again become habitable for the Fox/Champion team!

The following morning saw us arriving at the gate of the Gir Forest National Park at 06.30, and our lion quest began in earnest. We were a little nervous, as it was only on our eighth safari in Bandhavgarh that we had finally connected with a tiger, and we only had three safaris scheduled to find a lion, but we need not have worried, for on that very first drive in Gir, we were lucky enough to see two lionesses and five cubs together, an extraordinary privilege.

Our driver had heard from another Gypsy driver that others were watching these lions, and he instructed us to hold on tight as he raced along the twisty and bumpy track towards the point where they had last been seen, and almost immediately after arriving at the location, the first lioness ambled towards us, followed by two largish cubs and three smaller ones, and then the other mother appeared, and we were able to watch the entire group together for a while, until a forest guard who was monitoring the movement of vehicles, himself on foot and armed only with a stout stick, motioned us on so as to minimise the disturbance to the animals, whilst allowing other tourists to have their turn to see.

Our first Asiatic Lioness came ambling towards us, apparently unconcerned by our presence

Four of the five cubs that accompanied her are visible here

The cubs looked healthy and strong

Both lionesses were together briefly

The Asiatic Lion population had been reduced to only 12 individuals by chronic over-hunting and persecution, and these last individuals were finally afforded protection by the Maharaja of Junagadh in the 1880s, since when the numbers have gradually grown, until today there are an estimated 520 lions in the Gir area, and they are spilling out of the park and into surrounding forests. There is a fear that genetic problems could arise from the population having been reduced to so few in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but our seven lions certainly looked healthy and bright.

We in fact re-connected with one of the two lionesses in the afternoon, and then found the cubs just over the next hill, all sitting as though their mother had instructed them to behave themselves in her absence and to stay where they were. It was again an extraordinary experience to watch a significant number of these magnificent beasts, knowing how close they had come as a subspecies to total extinction. We can only hope that their futures are bright and that there will still be wild Asiatic Lions in the long-term future, and that the planned relocation of some individuals to Madhya Pradesh will happen, a move which has not received the universal support of the Gujarati authorities, who may well wish to keep the animal as a uniquely Gujarati possession.

We reconnected with one of the two lionesses in the afternoon

Three of the five cubs awaiting their mothers’ return

The cubs seemed to have been instructed to behave well in their mothers’ absence

And so we added another cat to our list of wild felines…and it was not the last, as my next post will explain. It certainly has been the Year of the Cat as far as feline sightings are concerned.

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Thursday 26th November 2015

Gujarat – a dry state, in more ways than one!

A few days ago, our central Indian sojourn reached an end, and we flew with IndiGo from Nagpur to Ahmedabad via Pune, arriving late in the afternoon. We were picked up by our driver Bhawani Singh, who launched us skillfully into the traffic of the capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Initial impressions of Ahmedabad were not very favourable, the roads being lined with grotty makeshift stalls, and considerable numbers of families were living rough, with poor street children running around, some begging from car drivers at red traffic lights. Rubbish was piled everywhere, and it seemed ironic to me that Prime Minister Modi’s Clean Up India campaign should apparently have had so little impact in his own home state.

It seemed an age before we finally escaped the outskirts of the city, passing polluted ponds, piles of plastic trash lining every water body, with cows and buffaloes nosing through the discarded bags in the hope of finding some tasty morsel. All this led me to mentally rename the state as Gunjarat, so much human gunge does it seem to contain!

Our 200 km route took us to the bustling town of Bhavnagar, where we checked into the Basil Park Hotel, our home for the next two nights. Our customary “garam pani” (literally meaning “hot water”, but in our case this meant a cold Kingfisher beer) was sadly absent in this dry state, where alcohol is officially banned.

The next morning was supposed to be a rest period, but little did I know that Bhawani and Yogi were using the time productively by scouting out some nearby wetlands, which Rosemary and I were then taken to in the afternoon. These extensive pools and saltpans, despite the appalling detritus they contained, turned out to be a birders’ Mecca, and my overall list for this year’s trip surged forward from a paltry 180 species to 239. Perhaps due to the Gujaratis’ predominantly vegetarian tradition, plus the ban on hunting that Indira Gandhi had so farsightedly introduced in 1972, large numbers of waterbirds were to be found, literally right on the city’s doorstep.

Part of the extensive wetlands close to Bhavnagar

Perhaps the most spectacular among the many avian delights were the Flamingoes, both Greater and Lesser, which were here in very large numbers. They do not breed in these marshes, and in fact they are apparently under some threat, as there is a plan to drive a military road through their only known Indian breeding ground, in the Great Rann of Kutch, close to the sensitive Pakistan border, which may cause the birds to abandon that site, and therefore India, altogether as breeding birds.

Just a few of the hundreds of Flamingos in the Bhavnagar wetlands

Other highlights included six endangered Dalmatian Pelicans, which like so many of the larger migratory birds will have had to run the gauntlet of flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries in which guns are owned by large numbers of people, some of whom are eager to practise their aim by blasting at a soaring flock of pelicans, storks or cranes on their long migration routes from Siberia, Kazakhstan or Central Asia.

Dalmatian Pelicans are a rare sight

It was noticeable that birdlife was restricted to the unaltered areas of natural-looking marshy vegetation and pools, the saltpans being clearly too saline to be of any use to the birds. Large areas have already been converted into salt workings, into which salty water is pumped, the water then evaporating off in the mid-day heat, leaving the pure white salt behind. Other sections are being lost to industrial development, one particular factory announcing itself as a toxic waste disposal plant. One wonders where the toxic waste ends up: in the marshes, most probably.

The salty areas did not attract much birdlife

After a final morning spent re-checking these areas and an additional nine species of bird being found, we headed out of Bhavnagar, into a drier area of low acacia-dominated grasslands, eventually arriving at our extremely plush accommodation, at Blackbuck Lodge, where we were pampered in style (even to the extent of being able to indulge in some “garam pani”, in this case gin and tonic).

Sunrise over the Bhavnagar wetlands

One of the great sights we witnessed here was the constant stream of Harriers of three species, predominantly Montagu’s and smaller numbers of Marsh and the ghostly Pallid, sailing past the luxury open tent in which we were enjoying our tea, all heading for the large patches of dry grassland within the adjacent Blackbuck National Park, in which they roost on the ground. Apparently more than 3,000 of these graceful raptors gather here each evening, in what is apparently the largest communal Harrier roost in the World.

A Montagu’s Harrier in the Blackbuck National Park

But it is the Blackbuck, that extraordinarily elegant antelope, that the park was set up to protect. These hugely attractive animals were decimated in the great massacre of Indian wildlife that took place in the 1950s and 60s, when previously closed areas were opened to hunters with high-powered firearms in motor vehicles, and anything went. Indeed, this slaughter had already started in cultivated areas even earlier, and as I admired these wonderful creatures, I felt proud that it was my grandfather, F W Champion OBE IFS, who was one of the first to campaign for their protection, albeit in another part of India. He wrote an article back in 1934, entitled “A Plea for the Indian Blackbuck”, which began:

In the olden days the handsome Indian blackbuck [Antilope cervicapra] was certainly the commonest game animal in India, and vast herds, sometimes running into thousands, were scattered all over the country, except in moist places such as parts of Bengal and Malabar. On railway journeys they could commonly be seen from the train windows, forming a very typical and striking feature of the Indian landscape, and their numbers were so great that they undoubtedly did a good deal of damage to crops and were consequently classed as “vermin” by Government. Blackbuck still occur in fair numbers in more distant places, but every year they seem to be getting fewer and fewer, and it is doubtful if there are now 10 percent of what there were fifty years ago. This destruction of one of the finest antelopes in the world is increasing annually, and one begins to wonder if the unfortunate blackbuck is doomed to follow the fate of the bison of America, and of other creatures, once existing in countless numbers, that have now disappeared from the world.

Blackbuck photographed by F W Champion in UP, probably in 1933

Luckily, thanks to far-sighted conservationists such as my grandfather, that doomsday prediction has not befallen the Indian Blackbuck, and at least here, the animal seems to be flourishing, and it was a pleasure to admire the spectacular males with their extraordinary spiral horns, and the pale beige females and young, some of which were indulging in the jumping behaviour that is so characteristic of several species of antelope, perhaps most famously the Springbok.

Blackbuck must surely be one of the most elegant of the antelopes

The other wonderful mammal sighting we were treated to here was a Jungle Cat, which appeared in the long, dry grass beside one of the tracks on our last safari. I leave the description of this delightful animal to my grandfather, who published an article in the magazine “India” about it in October 1930:

The common jungle-cat is quite a large animal, a little smaller than the average jackal and weighing up to as much as 20 pounds. It is therefore considerably larger than the ordinary domestic cat, with which it undoubtedly sometimes interbreeds. The colour of the body varies from sandy grey to greyish brown but most specimens usually have a brownish tint. In adults there are, in most cases, no markings on the body or limbs, but the tail, which is normally rather short, is nearly always ringed with black near the end and terminates with a black tip. Sometimes there are slight transverse markings in the limbs and occasionally a black variety occurs, an example having been brought in to me only last year. Few sportsmen can have failed to have seen this creature at one time or another, for it is by no means entirely nocturnal in its habits and is not particularly shy of human beings. It feeds on birds and small mammals and is said to be especially destructive to partridges, peafowl, hares and other game. Cases have been recorded of birds shot by sportsmen being snatched away by this cat before they could be picked up, and a reward of Rs. 5 is paid for its destruction in the reserved forests of the United Provinces. The track left by this animal is exceedingly small for the size of the leg, and, in the case of the photograph illustrating this article, which was taken by automatic flashlight, I expected the negative to show a much smaller cat than it actually does. The track is a typical cat’s track, exactly like the spoor left by a tiger or a leopard, but on a miniature scale. Incidentally I would point out that an early morning study of the tracks left on sandy roads in the jungle is one of the very best ways of learning what animals are living in the neighbourhood, for most animals, except the deer tribe, are very fond of walking along the roads and paths made by man, presumably because they form the easiest and most direct way of moving from place to place, but also because hunting animals can move along them extremely silently. Automatic flashlight cameras placed by me along such roads have been fired literally hundreds of times by the various animals, from wild elephants down to hares and small cats, the commonest victims being hyaenas, but the number of times that deer, which in numbers probably exceed all others put together except porcupines, have fallen into my photographic traps, could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

An Indian Jungle Cat photographed using a tripwire by F W Champion

Our sighting was altogether different, with us being to look down on the animal from our elevated vantage point on the vehicle. The Jungle Cat was stalking in the long grass, and at times only its ears were visible. It then ran out across a patch of open ground, and then finally jumped up out of the grass an apparently caught something. Unfortunately I had looked away just at that moment, and therefore missed this sight.

The Jungle Cat stalking through the grass

The Jungle Cat moved out across an open area

It then ran away towards the grass beyond

I end this post with my grandfather’s appeal at the end of his 1934 article, which could apply not only to the Blackbuck, but also to so many other species that were decimated before sport hunting was banned by India’s Wildlife Act of 1972:

There is much more that could be written about these interesting and handsome animals. I will close by appealing once more to all concerned and to those Indians who are proud of their country in particular, to remember that no species of wild animal, no matter how common it may once have been or may even appear to be now, can stand the unfair and destructive methods of slaughter which modern science has placed in the hands of those who have no feeling for wild animals or for sport in the true sense of the word.

F W Champion seemed to be able to ask his animal subjects to pose artistically for his camera

Thankfully the Blackbuck seem safe here at Velavadar thanks to rigorous protection

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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