Wildlife watching in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh
19.11.2011 - 09.12.2011 20 °C
You have no idea how 'geekily' excited I was to be able to use this title! Drove my friends crazy with my excitement. Might have had them a tad worried about my sanity along the way too!
A bit late in posting, but, this blog takes up where I last left off – still in Gujarat, and about to head to the forests… finally. It was the longest period I’d been in India without a forest fix and I was really ready for it. It was fairly long drive to reach Sasan, and a later start to the day, so we broke it up with a stop at a lovely new homestay, just 1-2 hours (depending on traffic) outside Ahmedabad. Happily, Tigu, or Bugs as he is also known, is a big wildlifer and well-connected in the parks.
The old family home is rather like a sprawling southwest hacienda. Tigu and his wife Neelanjali were wonderful hosts who live and work in Ahmedabad during the week, but come down here each weekend to join the rest of the family. Tigu also operates a NGO in Ahmedabad – a hospital to take care of injured wildlife in and around the city.
We took a trek into the surrounding farmland fields as the sun set and finally saw my first blackbucks after many attempts! Beautiful and fast antelopes with elegant spiraling horns and black and white coat on the males. Tigu arranged a guide for us in Sasan Gir, which turned out to be a blessing about which I’ll elaborate later, as well as arranged our stay in the Gujarati-run forest guest house in Velavadar. Such excellent contacts to have as it turns out! Gujarat has many plusses, but tourism infrastructure is not one of them. Without ‘fixers’ or people in the know, or established tour companies/resorts it is rather challenging to visit some of the areas, in particular the National Parks.
After dinner, we sat out in the backyard, exchanging wildlife stories, while bats flew overhead and a couple of spotted owls dashed from tree to tree on the hunt. Such a great spot to stop before heading to Gir.
Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary
Gir is home to the last population of Asiatic Lions in the world. This is fairly problematic, since any disease could wipe this population out -- they are very crowded in a relatively small single area. Over 400 lions, 89 males, are in a 1400-square-kilometre area. There have been attempts to move some lions to other states and parks, in particular by Madhya Pradesh, but the Government of Gujarat has successfully resisted this so far. As far as self-interest goes, it is a good idea. If MP got Asiatic Lions, they would have all the big cats in their state, effectively cornering the safari market. Gujarat is planning to relocate lions to another forest within the state, but these plans have been on the drawing board for some time without solid progress. Something will have to be done soon though, I’ve never seen such scarred lions, nor such few prey in a park.
In recent years, lions have been found roaming outside the park in search of food and territory. There are also an estimated 400 leopards also in the park, which seems a likely number since we had several brief sightings, or near sightings of this normally elusive animal.
Tribal herders are still living inside the park, which was different for me. The local maaldhari herders are a devout, nomadic tribal peoples. The government apparently compensates the herders for cattle lost to lions, unless the cattle is killed in areas of the park they are not allowed. Not sure about Gujarat, but in other similar situation with tiger compensation for cattle killing, the money often arrives months late and substantially reduced by the various forest officials and beaurocrats it passes through the hands of.
We arrived at the government lodge – Sinh Sadan – to find the repeated requests, faxes and phone calls for accommodation by the frustrated, but diligent, local travel agent, were essentially ignored. We knew there was an issue, since the forest lodge refused to ‘guarantee’ the booking, “in case VIPs turned up.” Apparently, even if we’d gained lodging, if a VIP and entourage subsequently turned up, we’d be turfed out! This was my first run-in with the issues the facing Gujarati tourism.
So, with a smile, but no head-wag, the decidedly unhelpful man at the reception desk informed us that maybe he’d be able to give us two rooms for that night, but not for the rest of the 4 nights, since they were completely booked. While Sinh Sadan is not that good a value for foreigners, it is very cheap accommodation for Indians. The big advantage is, you are automatically assigned one of the 30 jeep slots for park entry if you stay there, and it is where all daily permits into the park are issued. There is no on-line booking for jeeps, nor is there any reservation system. Like Tadoba, you must line up early before each drive to try for an entry.
We ended up staying at the Anil Farmhouse, which was also ridiculously overpriced for the value, but, we had lovely balconies overlooking the river from which to have a pre-dinner alcoholic beverage, safely hidden from public view. It was especially good because on one night we were chatting and a rustling noise came from below. Peering over the balcony we spotted a hyena! My first such sighting of these notoriously shy and nocturnal Indian animals. They are solitary, unlike their pack-cousins in Africa. Very exciting!
Meals came with our package, but were underwhelming. Especially when the lodge filled up with Gujarati vegetarians and we were asked not to have dinner in the dining hall, or to come very early, so as not to offend these guests. Had our dinner, hiding in shame on my balcony, after also consuming our shameful pre-dinner drink. Such heathens are we! Also underwhelming was the lack of tea or coffee or even hot water before our park drives in the morning. They made it two of the mornings, but the other two, nowhere to be seen. We even offered to make our own if they’d give us a kettle, but no kettle. Sigh… wouldn’t really care but at the 4500 INR per night (and that’s with a 10% discount) they need to step it up! The biggest plus about Anil though, was our driver for the safaris – Honia. He was incredibly diligent, reliable and knowledgeable about the park. Getting up early at about 4am to get in line and ensure our entry.
We had 5 drives in the park, and lions each time! On our first sighting, it was a pride of lionesses and cubs at a kill. 7 lions we saw that time, including a prolonged time with two lionesses and three cubs. Beautiful! They are completely unphased by people, in a jeep or on foot. The park rangers show up fairly quickly after a sighting is made, and walk around with only a big stick, moving people in and out of position for a photo op. Good in the sense that it spares the lions the crazed crowding and antics you might see at Bandhavgarh or Ranthambhore, but makes it a bit tame. A little more like seeing lions at African Lion Safari in Toronto, than in the wild.
Our third drive however, saw us alone and coming upon two males. This was for me the best sighting we had, and we were able to stay with them for quite a bit. The poor boys though, they were so beat up! Walking along in the same zone we had seen the lionesses with cubs the previous day, we assumed they had come across this pride and tangled with the protective lionesses.
It was very early in the morning, and at one point, one came up to his brother who was lying on the ground, and rubbed his face against his. The expression was so weary… you could just see him thinking, man, that was one hell of a night. He was the more beat up of the two, and on top of his facial cuts, was limping a bit as well.
We skipped a drive one afternoon and went for a walk actually inside the park. Not sure this was kosher, but there are so many farms and holes in the walls of the park, I think it’s a pretty common occurance. The Teak trees have all started to lose their foilage, so the large dry leaves don’t make for very quiet trekking. We were crunching along and came upon a small group of langurs. One dropped to the ground, and keeping one eye on us, carefreely bounded along the forest floor. Then, he came to an abrupt stop, turned about, and took off at a speed unlike anything I’d seen before. He’d come face-to-face with a leopard lying in the grass! Such a streak of light he was, and not even a warning call. It was every monkey for himself! Rather reminded me of George Costanza at the party when fire broke out and took off, bowling over the children and old people!
We tried to catch up with the leopard, but really, we sounded like a herd of elephants walking through the dry leaves, it was a pretty futile attempt. Still, found the spot he’d been laying and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that ‘moment’ Fast monkey!
Anil Farmhouse only had 4 nights available to us, so we thought we’d see if Sinh Sadan had had a cancellation. We arrived, and the same super-helpful desk man informed us, if only we had booked it when we arrived he could have accommodated us. Huh? You said it was booked the rest of the week! Wouldn’t mind so much, except again, no head wag! Yeesh!!
Velavadar National Park
Decided to head to Velavadar a bit early, which was a bit of a drive, so after the morning safari we popped up to Bhavnagar for the night at Hotel Sun n Shine, so we could get an early start to Velavadar. This hotel is apparently one of the best in Bhavnagar, and wasn’t bad, but nothing to get excited about. At 2000INR per night for each room, including breakfast, was actually a pretty good deal. My room was pretty musty and stale-smoke-smelly; the shower sprayed everywhere in the bathroom except me; and the black mold probably wasn’t so good, but it was sort-of clean, and the sheets looked washed, and the breakfast was fabulous! Redeemed the stay, so would have to say, overall, good value for money.
We were looking forward to the Gujarat forest guest house in Velavadar, mostly for the quiet dark nights you usually get in such places, but were uncertain about the food situation. So, we stopped to get some fruit to tide us over. I was about to get out of the car and join the purchase party, when I was told “you can’t leave the car! The price of bananas will triple!” So for any of you 'foreigners' out there, 12 bananas should cost about 30INR ($0.60) – as long as your face isn’t seen that is!
The forest lodge was very basic, with a bunch of ants for company and musty bedclothes. no biggie cause it is a 'forest' guesthouse, but foreigners are charged US$50 (about 2500INR) while Indians are charged 500INR. Usually don’t mind this type of two-tier system, but it was a pretty big difference, and very overpriced. My room was apparently better than CVs, so guess I should count myself lucky! Then came the meal. Same meal, very basic and not too great – US$7 for me (350INR) 50INR for Indians. Same food! Considering the fabulous 60 rupee thali plate Remy and I got at the basic restaurant in Champaner, this was ridiculous. All in all, I’d say that Gujarat’s government tourism is probably the worst thing about Gujarat tourism. Not great if you're trying to increase tourism beyond hard-core animal lovers... (smile) head-wag!
Then the VIP showed up! All the lights went on, the staff were running around kow-towing to the minister, the TV went on (full volume), and our peaceful stargazing forest night went out the window. However, there's usually always a way to salvage a situation -- I snuck up to the roof after midnight, and had a blissful 40-odd minutes stargazing and dreaming in peace after the lights (and TV) went out. We did have a bit of a chuckle, having our covert drink on the roof and watching said gov’t official talking loudly on his cell phone below. A Nilgai ambled from the grass nearby him. He was so startled he went running (and I mean running) for his room. Quite funny -- this man is the chief representative of the wildlife parks in Gujarat.
But, moving on from the accomodation review, the highlight and overwhelming wonderful focus of this part of the trip, was Velavadar National Park. This small, 34 square-kilometer untravelled park was beyond wonderful. Beautiful grasslands of red and gold and green teaming with life. The majestic Nilgai, in large herds; the elegant blackbuck, keen to show off their graceful leaps; crazy numbers of harriers – the largest nesting ground of harriers – nicely landing, hunting and flying for us; then there were marshy wetlands filled with birds of all sort, including beautiful eagles, pelicans, ducks...
Our cameras seemed never to stop, as we kept trying to capture the perfect flight photo of the pallid, marsh and montague harriers. Not to mention the mid-leap beauty of the blackbuck antelope. The mature males have incredible spiraling horns, that can reach 65cm. Wonderful stop on the trip.
The Little Rann of Kutch
Leaving these wonderful plains, we head off to our final park. And yet another completely different environment. The Little Rann of Kutch. On the way we passed a dead cow, with long-billed vultures, at least 20 white-backed vultures (endangered so good to see so many) and Eurasion Griffons. Demoiselle cranes were flying noisily overhead as well, heading to the Little Rann.
I’ve often talked about the fun signs you see while driving through India. Well, turns out the written signage in Hindi is also often amusing. Hindi is a phonetic script, each character having a very specific sound. Apparently, many of the Hindi signs spell out English words. We passed one freight truck that announced to the world it was a ferret carrier! Interesting freight! Think I better concentrate more on learning the Hindi script!
We arrived in the Little Rann to a wonderful lodge – Rann Riders. There’s not much accommodation in the area, so is good that this lodge doesn’t rely on competition to keep up a wonderful property. The huts are spread out among the garden and are designed like the local tribal mud huts. Very comfortable, with the ubiquitous Gujarati swing outside my door. The dining hall too was a wonderful relaxing place. Low cushioned benches, trestle tables, and mirror-work studded clay walls made the place very atmospheric and comfortable.
We did 3 safaris into the 4953-square-kilometer Little Rann Sanctuary, which is a time-losing, vast, dry, flat and barren landscape with an incredible beauty all of its own. Cracked earth is alternately gold or white, depending on the angle of the sun, and punctuated by succulent cacti and acacia scrub. During the monsoon, the desert apparently turns into a sea of mud. You really do lose time here. There is often no visible landmark as you race across the dusty flats in search of life.
The Rann is home to India’s last wild population of the khur or Asiatic wild ass as well as a host of birds, including a natural breeding ground for flamingoes and other desert animals. The area is also a source of salt, which is farmed by pumping up ground water.
We lucky enough to see a hoopoe lark couple. Incredibly difficult to see or find, in no small part because of the natural camouflage it has blending into the cracked earth. The male was in full mating pursuit of the seemingly ambivalent female. He was strutting along, tail high, and then he’d make a piercing whistle, and jump straight up into the air, wings splayed in a beautiful arc back to the ground. CV and our driver were so patient with me, as I tried to capture this event, which occurred far in the distance, with a nebulous focal-point. When I finally compiled the photos of one, almost fully captured arc, I noticed he landed behind his starting point. Watching him do the display, it didn’t seem like that. It seemed more like a full arc. Wonderful!
On our last outing we were searching for the desert fox, and found the poor little guy, and his mate. She very smartly disappeared into the scrub and laid low. He unfortunately took off, with us in hot pursuit, screeching to a halt near him and snapping pictures as he darted away. Didn’t do that for long though. Could imagine the energy he expended trying to escape us, so took pity on the panting little guy and stayed put. He was so beautiful! Just how you’d imagine a fox should look. Sleek and red, with a large and luxurious bushy tail. Not at all like the ones we see in the urban landscape of Toronto.
Gujarati holiday done, it was back to Delhi for a quick turn around, laundering the clothes and then out to Panna and Ken River Lodge in Madhya Pradesh. Met up with my friends -- Jennifer from the UK, and Trigun, Shukra, Bhavna and Vini for a wonderful week.
Panna Tiger Reserve
It was so cold in Panna, I was not quite prepared for it. Haven’t stayed this long in India before, but still, hasn’t been much later last year. In the morning, I had 4 tops layered on, and then my pashmina and gumsha. Plus a blanket over the legs. Frickin cold! Needed my Canadian gear! Had to get the quilt off the second bed in my room to double up at night! Wussie Canadian girl!!
Panna has seen a resurgence of tigers of late – cubs from the two relocated females, as well a few more transplants, so the park was quite different. Much busier and more of a focus on tracking tigers. I arrived late and met Trigun, Shukra and Jen as they were heading in for a safari, so I hopped out of my car and into the jeep mid-road. Was a good thing I did too! As we were sitting quietly, a mother balou (sloth bear) and her two almost-grown cubs ambled across the road and quickly hid in the forest! As we approached closer, the mum popped her head up to take a look at us, then one cub appeared over her left shoulder and the other over her right. Was quite fun to see.
We spent so much time fruitlessly tracking the tigers, only to have them appear around the corner to another jeep, that we decided to head up to the vulture gorge and forgo the tiger tracking. As we were driving along the river, the alarm calls sounded. Chital, Nilgai, peacock, sambar and Langur on both sides of the river. The langur calls were quite frantic, so we thought leopard, and yep. A beautiful and large male appeared out of the bush, across the river from us. Quite far, but very clear. He meandered in and out of the scrub, following the river. Stopping to stare at a couple of peacocks.
Looking ahead, we could see a wildboar haplessly going about his business, when the leopard cleared the bush in front of him and climbed a log. They stared at each other for a few tense moments, while the baby wildboar disappeared into the bush. Once they were the clear, the boar turned and followed.
Deciding the meal wasn’t really within his grasp, he stretched out on the log and enjoyed the sunshine. He stayed with us for 20 minutes before disappearing into the trees.
Our second last drive, was also not a tracking expedition, and as we were leaving the old village meadow, the sun was disappearing and we were heading for the gate, we came across the two twenty-month old cubs of Bithri, or T1 as she’s now known. She was the first tiger I saw in the wild, so this was personally pretty special for me. Both handsome boys were lying in the grass and we stretched out our time with them as far as we could, going well past dark. Lions n tigers n bears! Oh My!
Bandhavgarh National Park
After 14 drives in Panna, it was off for a few drives in Bandhavgarh. I had left last May very excited about the park, but in actuality nothing has changed that much. You still have a ridiculously long route to complete. Last May, since it was the off-season, we were able to just do part of the route, but not at this time. Still, on our second drive, as we were finishing our route at the Sukie dam, we came across a tiger on the road. It was the young 2-year-old Sukiepatir male cub, who has been making moves into the Tala zone we were in.
Was a typical Bandhavgarh start to the sighting though. He was walking on the road and two jeeps were trailing him, with another in front. One of the jeeps trailing him started revving his engine to get him to turn his head. Idiot! Jen and I got so mad at the insensitivity of this. The tiger just left the road, moving into the bush. While the ‘Idiot’ was scanning the bush, we moved ahead and saw him cross a meadow, so positioned ourselves where the guides thought he’d emerge. The ‘Idiot’ started up on us, so we pretended we were scanning the sky for wire-tailed swallows, not letting what we'd noticed. Can’t be good karma, but felt good!!
Then he came out! So close to us he was, marking a bush, and then inhaling the scent with a snarly expression from the flehmans reaction, just like our house cats. They also use the extra scent organ at the back of the tongue and looks like they’re snarling, but not really. He then ambled across the road, calm as could be, and wandered off into the meadow against the setting sun. Lovely!
Nice short visit to Bandhavgarh this trip and was excited to find all of the photography books I’d printed to help raise money for the tiger protection iniatives of my friends at Pugdundee Safaris had sold! Next step will be to look for a publisher/printer who will create them at a more affordable rate so it can be a sustainable endeavour.
Wonderful last month of wildlife, and just like that it was back in TO and working on the next trip. April/May/June is the best time for photographing wildlife in many of the parks in India, and I’ll be heading back to take advantage of this in mid-March. The intense heat drives wildlife to water, which dramatically increases your sighting chances. It allows you to see farther into the jungles and forests than you do in the cooler months, when the vegetation is dense and full. However, luck is king and the wonderful adventures described in this blog entry took place in the cooler months, which offers its own unique and wonderful attractions. All that being said, I will be starting to formally arrange to bring people to India with me, and to these wonderful parks. The focus will be on small groups, always accompanied by excellent naturalists, which I’ve found is crucial to getting the most out of your experience and dollar, as well as being the most hit-n-miss aspect of safaris.
My business partner, Sandra and I have been hard at work setting up our new company. A website and more information will be coming before we hit the road again.
Wishing everyone glorious and adventure-filled travel!! arm-chair, or otherwise!