Kaziranga Chronicles

Woken up at an ungodly hour in the morning by a shrieking alarm clock, I shivered in the icy winter air of Northeast India. My mind entirely focused on the warm bed that stretched out invitingly, I wondered aloud why were we going out into the cold morning in search of the rhinoceros, of all things. And then I remembered – was reminded by the husband actually – that we had travelled across the country, all the way to Kaziranga in Assam, just for a glimpse of these animals in the wild.

The one-horned rhinoceros once thrived across the flat plains of north and northeast India, but uncontrolled poaching has left it endangered, almost at the brink of extinction. Today, the best (and possibly only) place in the country to spot the Indian rhino is the Kaziranga National Park, just a few hours drive from Guwahati.

This forest had been on our travel list for years, but somehow every time we planned a wildlife holiday, it was the siren song of the tiger in the Indian heartlands that prevailed. This holiday, we had set aside sufficient time for this pursuit, after which we were to make our way across other parts of the state. Funnily enough, this forest is also officially known as the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, although the hero here is undoubtedly these thick-skinned mammals that have survived several rounds of evolution that eliminated other weaker species.

A grey mist hung low in the air as we drove up to the Bagori Gate of the Western Range in the semi darkness. There was already a large crowd waiting at the watch tower from where the elephant safari begins; a scene of utter noise and chaos despite everyone holding prior bookings for a specified time. “I hope we don’t end up sharing this safari with people who think it is fun to play music in the forest and yelp at the sight of animals,” I muttered wearily, thinking of the bane of wildlife enthusiasts who go out regularly into the Indian jungles.

Fortunately for us, we had a quiet morning in the forest, with birdsong as the only background noise. Kaziranga is not really a dense forest in the way of those of central India, but almost entirely flat. While the grasslands make it the perfect habitat for the rhino, it also sometimes grows tall enough to hide the entire animal. Luckily, the grass was still short and dry in parts when we visited, making it easy to spot the animal even from a distance. And we were anyway on elephant back, which meant both a vantage point of view as well as access into the grasses and marshes where jeeps cannot go.

Crossing the shallow stretch of water a few minutes into the safari, I turned back to capture a picture postcard moment; half a dozen elephants silhouetted against the golden rising sun. Up ahead, there was a minor commotion, with all the mahouts guiding their elephants towards the cluster of bushes, a sure sign that a rhino had been spotted.

As it turned out, it was not one but three rhinos grazing peacefully, ignoring the admiring crowds with great aplomb. Eager tourists around us were urging their mahouts to get closer and closer, but nothing seemed to faze the trio. There was a tree in full bloom right behind them, and for a moment, framed against the pretty pink flowers, it was almost possible to think of the rhinos as beautiful animals. And then one of them turned around to show his back to us, and the spell was broken.

The rest of the safari was a vain search for more of these mammoths, with the mahout claiming that we had been lucky, since sightings had been low this season. By the end of it, I was lulled into sleep by the gently rocking motion of the elephant. Unlike the thrill of the tiger chase, where every moment holds a possibility, and every animal noise sounds like an alarm call of the deer, this safari was a mellow and slow affair, with enough time to admire the stunning landscape, bounded by the mighty Brahmaputra river.

It was only on the way back to the guesthouse that I noticed how the roads were lined with lush tea estates, from where Assam tea was possibly exported to the world. The sun was up and workers had already begun their tasks for the day, wicker baskets hanging on their backs, into which the tea leaves went steadily. The plan was to head to the village of Panbari, a few kilometres away, for a glimpse into rural life in this part of the country.

On the way, we stopped for a quick look into the CWRC (Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation) campus to see the way injured animals, including elephants and rhinos, are given medical care. Over the last 14 years, CWRC has treated over 3500 cases of animals (over 230 species, they say) in various kinds of distress. The sight of a baby rhino being given milk through a feeding bottle was particularly endearing, one that left me smiling for the rest of the morning.

After lunch at a local home in Panbari, we headed back to the forest for an afternoon safari, this time on a jeep from the Central Gate at Kohora. This ride was an exercise in bounty, where we spotted over 25 rhinos in the course of two hours. “This rarely happens,” our driver Uttam exclaimed, adding, “sometimes tourists have even asked me for a refund because we did not come across any rhinos!”

In our case, we saw them solitary and in small groups all along the route, resting, grazing, taking a dip in the cool water. And right at the end, when the sun was about to set, and I had put away my camera, we had our best sighting for the day; a mother and kid rhino frolicking together in the grass, the adult making mock charges with the horn pointing at the little one. “Madam, this is a lucky day for me also,” Uttam smiled warmly, as he dropped us back at the main gate.

Kaziranga has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1985, one of the seven natural sites in India, the continued status of which is dependent on the conservation activity in the park. This forest has an interesting history, from the time Mary Curzon, wife of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, returned disappointed from the Kaziranga area without sighting a single rhino in 1904. As a result, she urged her husband towards rhino conservation, thus leading to the formal creation of this forest spread over 232 square kilometres in 1905.

It was only seven decades later, in 1974 that it was extended to cover 430 square kilometers, and given protected National Park status. It somehow feels fitting that over a century after Lady Curzon’s visit, British Royalty, in the form of Prince William and Princess Kate chose to visit the far-flung forest of Kaziranga, listening to stories of wildlife conservation efforts in the area.

Whenever we head to the forests, the husband and I keep our eyes peeled for not just the big fauna but also the smaller ones that form a significant part of the ecosystem, and the birds. This time, however, the attention was all on the one-horned rhino, which graced us with its presence several times in the day. May its tribe increase!

***
Published in the Weekend supplement of Khaleej Times in May as ‘In search of the one-horned rhinoceros’

My top 10 wildlife experiences in 2016

Continuing from my nostalgia trip about travels in 2016, here is a photo summary of my close encounters with wildlife across the world. The husband and I are both wildlife enthusiasts (with a recently discovered interest in birding), and try to head to the forest whenever we get a chance. But as it happened, I got many unexpected chances to see animals and birds, all the way from Canada to Australia, of course, via the Indian jungles…

One of the wildlife highlights of the year – a long and leisurely sighting of Maya and her three cubs at Tadoba

Competing closely for first spot, the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island in Australia – the sight of hundreds of Little Penguins waddling on to the beach from the sea.

And as a bonus, fabulous sightings of koalas, this one giving us an audience during those precious moments between naps…

This shark safari at The Atlantis in Dubai was particularly special, not just because I got so close to the fish, but because it was a major step in overcoming ignoring my fear of water to do this

On a recent trip to Ahmedabad, I went on a freezing December morning to Nalsarovar Lake to see the flamingos

After planning for several years, we finally managed to head to Kaziranga to see the one-horned rhino in November

While Bandipur gave absolutely no joy, Kabini, also in the beginning of the year gave us excellent birding opportunities

Apart from these planned trips, the most delightful experiences were in placed where I had no expectations of any wildlife sightings…

The Ballestas Islands in Peru, where thousands of pelicans, cormorants, seals (and luckily for me, a dozen HUmboldt penguins) stay – who knew anything beyond Machu Picchu?

Coming face to face with the ancient Aldabra turtle in Seychelles, where I had gone for the Victoria Carnaval

Bison sighting at the Elk Island National Park in Edmonton, Canada

And finally, going in search of the endangered Green Turtle at the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve in Oman – and seeing this newborn turtle stumbling towards the sea

My stay at Jungle Lodges, Bandipur

When we reached the Bandipur Safari Lodge, run by Jungle Lodges, it was only 11 am. We had left Bangalore early in the morning, and even with multiple breakfast and rest stops, we made it to Bandipur sooner than anticipated. The folks at the check in counter were kind enough to give us a room right away, so managed to get some rest before lunchtime. The resort is set in a thickly wooded area, filled with trees and plants, giving us the feel of being close to the forest as soon as we entered.

path

Lunch was a pleasant affair at the gol ghar, with a good choice of south Indian and north Indian food, with vegetarians well catered for. The service everywhere in the resort is excellent, with the staff taking care of guest needs promptly.

After lunch, the manager Mr. Nadaf took me on a quick tour of the property, showing the special rooms, which are slightly larger sized standalone cottages that come with an extra verandah.

cottage

verandah

I was staying in a normal cottage, each of which is named after a different animal found in the forest, and has a wall painting of the same behind the beds. I was staying in the sambar room (none of the rooms are air-conditioned but stay cool with the windows open).

room

The resort is also dotted with hammocks here and there, which make the perfect spot for a quick afternoon siesta before the safari. I made myself comfortable on one of those, with a book in hand, although I did not read much, distracted constantly by the various bird calls.

hammock

My experience at Bandipur Safari Lodge had so far been very good – room, food, service – but then it was time for the main reason I was there. Unlike other luxury weekend getaways, people head to Bandipur not to chill out at the resort but for the wildlife safari. And it is in this that the lodge fell seriously short of my expectations.

From the way guests were allocated to different jeeps, to the attitude of the jeep driver, everything was unfortunately below par. There was no naturalist accompanying our jeep, and the driver was just not interested in stopping anywhere to take in the forest, even for photographs. He was not a keen tracker – in my previous several experiences in our forests, I have only seen drivers who keep their eyes and ears trained for any sign of the tiger, and along with that, also point out other animal and bird species. But none of that here.

We just drove on listlessly, without any purpose or interest in seeing anything. By the end of it, even the guests in the jeep had lost interest in the forest and we were glad to be back at the resort – which is another story, because we reached Bandipur Safari Lodge ten minutes before the safari closing time.

In two safaris, forget tigers, we ended up not spotting even many bird species – a major disappointment. I was invited by the folks at thekarnatakatourism.com to this weekend stay at the Bandipur Safari Lodge and I have given my frank feedback here, because it is imperative for any wildlife resort to have good drivers / guides to make the forest come alive to guests.

Note: Karnataka Tourism is a private website that manages bookings for several nature resorts in the state, most of them from Jungle Lodges. You can visit the website or write to them at book@thekarnatakatourism.com for more information.

6 best Indian forests for tiger spotting

Tiger spotters in India have cause for jubilation this year.

After years of depressing reports about poaching, shrinking habitats and overall alarming reduction in the number of tigers in India, there is finally good news. The latest tiger census, completed towards the end of 2014, shows a 30% increase in numbers from the last census in 2011; up to 2226 from a rock bottom figure of 1706.

October is the beginning of wildlife season in India, going on till June. Most National Parks have just reopened after the torrid monsoon months, making it the perfect time to go in search of this magnificent, elusive beast.

Although spotting a tiger in the wild is a matter of luck, here are a few dedicated tiger reserves that offer the best chances to get up close and personal with them. Apart from tigers, these forests are home to other animals, including the langur (monkey), chital and sambar (deer), wild boar, wild dog, gaur (Indian bison), blue bull, fox and sloth bear.

Ranthambhore
rajasthanwildlife.in/wild-life/Ranthambhor-National-Park.htm

This is one of India’s largest national parks, and thanks to its easy accessibility from both Delhi and Mumbai, also one of the most popular. The landscape here is usually dry and brown, bounded by the Aravalli and Vindhya hill ranges. Sightings in this forest are made easier by the presence of three lakes, which tigers frequent regularly to drink water. Once you have had your fill of the wildlife experience, head to the 10th century hilltop fort close to the entrance.

How to get there: The Rajdhani Express train connects Mumbai and Delhi with the station of Sawai Madhopur, 20 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Enjoy the pleasures of glamping at one of the plush air-conditioned tents at Aman-i-Khas

Bandhavgarh
mpforest.org/bandhavgarh.html

Once the hunting ground of the Maharajahs of the region, Bandhavgarh is today counted among those reserves with the highest density of tigers. It gets its name from a hillock in the park, which is also home to the Bandhavgarh fort, believed to be over 2000 years old. This central Indian park, spread over 100 square kilometres, is also dotted with small temples and shrines. Go on a conventional jeep safari or climb onto an elephant for an exciting forest foray lasting 1-2 hours.

Bandhavgarh
(image courtesy: Samode Safari Lodge)

How to get there: The nearest airport is Jabalpur, a four-hour drive of less than 200 kilometres. Or take an overnight train from Delhi to Umaria, just 35 kilometres away.

Where to stay: Samode Safari Lodge comes with 12 private villas and a spa to unwind at after a hard day of tiger tracking.

Kanha
kanhatigerreserve.com/

This forest is where Shere Khan’s descendants from the well-loved classic The Jungle Book roam. With its splendid diversity of landscapes, especially the large open meadows, Kanha is considered one of the most beautiful forests in the country. While this forest is known primarily for tigers, the other significant animal is the hard ground swamp deer known as barasingha. In one of India’s most successful conservation efforts, this species was revived from the brink of extinction.

Kanha1
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Jabalpur from Delhi and hire a cab for the 3 hours / 170 kilometres drive to Kanha.

Where to stay: Kanha Earth Lodge has won awards for its sustainable architecture, and combines the best of rustic charm and city comforts.

Kanha2
(image courtesy: Kanha Earth Lodge)

Corbett
uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/utdb/corbett-national-park

Jim Corbett National Park, established in 1936, is India’s first and named after the legendary British hunter (of man-eaters) turned conservationist. Corbett has a stunning location, at the foothills of the Himalayas and right by the Ramganga river in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. Corbett is a favourite among bird watchers, sheltering nearly half of all the bird species found in India. Early morning safaris are also a great time for sighting large herds of elephants by the river.

Corbett

How to get there: The best option is an overnight train from Delhi to Ramnagar, less than 15 kilometres from the park.

Where to stay: Jim’s Jungle Retreat is committed to ecotourism and is situated right by the edge of the forest.

Corbett1
(image courtesy: Jim’s Jungle Retreat)

Tadoba
mahatadobatiger.com/

It is said that in Tadoba, the question is not if you have seen a tiger during the safari, but how many. Tadoba stayed off the popular tourist trail until a few years ago, when it came to the attention of wildlife lovers, with its excellent sightings of entire tiger families. This is one of the few forests in India to stay open through the year, even during the monsoon months.

Tadoba2
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

How to get there: Fly to Nagpur from Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore, from where the park is 100 kilometres away by taxi.

Where to stay: With only 12 guest cottages, Svasara Jungle Lodge comes with warm hospitality and personalised service.

Tadoba
(image courtesy: Svasara Jungle Lodge)

Nagarhole
karnatakatourism.org

In the latest tiger census, the south Indian state of Karnataka – where Nagarhole is located – has come up tops in the number of tigers. Nagarhole (official, but unused, name Rajiv Gandhi National Park) also has the largest concentration of Asian elephants in the world and is an excellent habitat for Indian leopards. Keep your neck craned up to spot them perched on tree branches. Head into the jungles on a jeep or explore its fringes with a unique boat safari on the Kabini river.

Nagarhole
(image courtesy: Orange County)

How to get there: Nagarhole is an easy six hour drive (225 kilometres) from Bengaluru. The closest railway station is Mysore, less than two hours away.

Where to stay: Right by the Kabini, the décor at Orange County is inspired by the tribal villages around the forest.

Nagarhole2
(image courtesy: Orange County)

Quick tips for tiger tracking

~ The official forest guides who accompany every safari jeep are experienced and astute. Follow their lead and stay patient through their many starts and stops inside the jungle.
~ Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of the tiger, like pugmarks, alarm calls and territorial markings.
~ And finally, go for as many safaris as possible during your time at the destination to increase your chances of sighting a tiger.

***
This story was published in the 48 Hours magazine of South China Morning Post in November 2015.

One winter weekend in Bharatpur

I have never taken any interest in birds, thinking of it as too much effort for too little reward (yeah go ahead, sue me). The first time I started to notice them was during the trip to Corbett this January, when I stayed with the enthusiastic naturalist Imran Khan at his home The Ranger’s Lodge. Imran accompanied us on every safari and pointed out every single animal and bird – and Corbett was so rich in birdlife that I was hooked.

A few weeks later, the husband and I headed to Bharatpur – also known as Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary – towards the end of winter. It was also the end of the migratory birds season, but there was enough and more activity on that front to keep us happy, especially since it was our first time at a birder’s paradise.

We were staying at The Birder’s Inn and the minute we stepped out, we were approached by a cyclerickshaw-wala. Although there were a dozen waiting outside the hotel, it was his turn and there was no pushing and shoving. At Bharatpur, only the very serious birders hire guides; for the rest, the rickshaw-walas double up as guides, since they have been going into the forest for decades.

Some of the more adventurous – and fit (read foreigners) – travellers do the rounds on cycles, which in a way allows them the flexibility to go into the smaller mud tracks and marshy lanes.

cycle

As we entered the sanctuary, the sun was just coming up and we were all excited by our first sight of peacocks silhouetted against the golden light of dawn.

sunrise

That is when I realised how addictive birding can be – we ended up spending the entire day at the sanctuary, just to zip in and out of Birder’s Inn for lunch.

These are a few images from my first proper outing as a birder, accompanied by a gruff, but informative rickshaw-guide. Feast your eyes on this rose-ringed parakeet couple, a largish spotted owlet (I think), green bee-eaters (in the process of eating bees), plump magpie robin, that gorgeous purple sunbird and a magnificent flying peacock.

parrots

owl

bee-eater

robin

sunbird

peacock

And now, an image I am particularly proud of – the flameback woodpecker. I caught this beautiful bird from a great distance, and at a second’s notice before it flew away.

woodpecker

The stars were the winter birds – and there were dozens and dozens of them – painted storks, ibis, ruddy shelducks, snakebirds, northern shovelers and many more. One of the highlights was this pair of saras cranes – the world’s tallest flying birds – flapping its wings and performing an elegant dance of sorts for a long time.

saras

Now that I have got a small taste of the birding life, I hope for more of it soon…

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