Wajid Ali Shah wrote the words of the famous thumri, Babul mora, in Kolkata, after the British East India Company, then an empire in all but name, exiled him from Awadh. It has been sung by all the luminaries of classical music since. I heard Bhimsen Joshi singing it in the usual Raag Bhairavi when he was considered a future star, but since then I’ve also heard a rare recording of Ustad Faiyaz Khan singing it. The version by Kundan Lal Sehgal is so famous that Google’s AI concludes that the song is due to him. But Kishori Amonkar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Begum Akhtar, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and even Jagjit and Chitra Singh have wonderful versions available on the net. But it is not that song of loss and parting that this post is about.
I wanted to show you a couple of varieties of babool (Acacia) among the many I saw in Bera. Babool is the typical dry land plant: often a short tree, just over three meters tall, sometimes a mere bush. Of the many that I saw, I seem to have taken many photos of the babool (Vachellia nilotica indica). That extremely widespread plant is what you see in the featured photo. The other is the white babool (Vachellia leucophloea, also called white-bark Acacia). There were numerous other plants of the Mimosacaea family, even the Acacias, but I seem to have missed photographing them. Loss and regret, just as in Wajid Ali Shah’s thumri.
The landscape of Bera. This is what tendua (leopard) country looks like. Old and weathered granite, interspersed with spiny bushes of thor, and lots of babool (Acacia). It’s a beautiful subject for photography.
Bera is known for its leopard sightings. I wondered why. The reason turned out to be simple. There are large numbers of leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi) around this small village in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. It doesn’t matter how secretive and stealthy these animals are. They are still visible just because of their numbers. But I was curious about why there are so many of them here. After all, the land is not highly forested. This may be only the edge of the Thar desert, but it is largely scrubland, and well populated by humans.
Our jeep reversed up a steep slope of a granite monolith for a view of the landscape. From a height of about 40 meters, I took the panorama that you see above. At this time, soon after the monsoon, water still pools in hollows in the rocky terrain. In a couple of months they will begin to dry. Storage and irrigation have distributed water through this dry land in the last thirty years, enabling farming. The herders of earlier years also remain. The land was surprisingly green. The largest trees were stunted acacia (babool in Hindi), but thickets of succulents, thor and aak thor, could be seen. Aak (milkweed) was also common. About fifty years ago Prosopsis juliflora, an exotic mesquite, was seeded through large tracts of land. They proliferate. The caves in the ancient rock, and these dryland forests provide enough cover for leopards.
You can see another reason for the surprisingly easy visibility of these animals in the photo above. Much of the flat land between the rocky domes of granite have been plowed into farmland. As a result, the cave dwellings of the leopards are isolated places, and a dedicated watcher can park herself near one and wait for a sighting. A leopard is nocturnal, and most sightings are in the early morning or late night. The increasing popularity of Bera as a weekend tourist destination has resulted in some of the hotels employing “trackers”. During the day these men on motorbikes keep a constant vigil for leopards. They are connected to jeeps by mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and a sighting immediately attracts a few jeeps..
Another thing that puzzled me first was the availability of food. From the loud alarm calls of monkeys and peacocks when they saw a leopard moving, it was clear that leopards hunt them. But a peacock is a small bite for a leopard, and a monkey is not much larger. There are wild boars here (although we didn’t see any) and other small animals, but the terrain does not hold a leopard’s preferred food: deer. The answer is again simple. These leopards feed on livestock.
Elsewhere I’ve heard of cattle being attacked by leopards, even seen such a kill in Kumaon. Here the complaints were of leopards taking goats and sheep. Smaller animals are easier to kill. A leopard is incredibly strong; I’ve seen one take a full grown sambar up a tree after killing it. Making a killing of a cow or buffalo would not be too hard for a leopard, but then it would have to cache the remains after a feed. A goat or sheep would be a complete meal, and easier to catch. A leopard would have to kill one such every two or three days. I suspect it is less often, otherwise the conflict with humans would be uncontrollable.
One morning we’d heard alarm calls tracking a leopard as it walked across a patch of scrub land. It was walking away from rocks on the far side. We waited, because it would probably cross the road. The alarm calls stopped. Clearly the animal had hunkered down to survey the road for danger before crossing. Then, as we waited, a bunch of sheep came along the road. Then a couple from a village on a motor bike, talking loudly on a phone. Then a bunch of goats and another herder came along. A train passed the tracks whistling loudly (here they are required to whistle in order to alert wildlife about its coming). The sun was climbing higher. It was getting hotter. The leopard would not cross the road for a while, and it was time for our breakfast. We left. We asked trackers later about the leopard. It had not been spotted, nor had it made a kill.
Another time, this man came along with a bunch of goats. One had just birthed while grazing. He was carrying the kid in a sling around his neck. It was not completely free of blood. But the blood did not attract a leopard. Perhaps food is so plentiful here that the predators abhor the risk involved in confronting humans.
Evening. Once it was too dark for the camera to capture any wildlife, we drove up a rock. This granite is ancient, perhaps 750 million years old. It was laid down as the ancient super-continent of Rodinia broke up. As the colour faded from the sky we watched the stars appear. It was new moon, the beginning of Navaratri. Venus appeared close to the moon. Overhead Jupiter and Saturn appeared. I looked out at the land as lights appeared across the vast plain. This region of full of villages and hamlets. In the caves and crannies of this ancient granite, older than the first animals, one of the most recently evolved predators have found a home. I took a panorama of this strange land at the edge of the desert as the last light faded from the sky.
A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.
Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.
Anthony brought our car to a halt. This was my favourite way to view Amboseli National Park: standing up in a parked car, with my head poking up out of the roof line, but still shaded by the raised canopy. On my left was a scene out of a thousand movies and TV shows. I’m often lazy about images. So the sight of a perfectly flat and dusty plain stretching to the horizon, a few zebras standing in the shade of an Acacia tree, brought out the competitive copy cat in me. “Quintessential Africa,” I thought. The Family looked totally bored, and started looking around.
On our right was jumbled bush. On top of it was a shrike. Anthony was pretty good at birds, but not accurate down to the species. He agreed with me and added “Butcher bird.” Many species of shrikes create a larder of insects they catch by impaling the carcass on thorns, so this phrase is sometimes used to denote all shrikes. Mother of Niece Tatu was a budding birder, so I thought it was nice that Anthony gave this explanation. Later, when I got a copy of the field guide to the birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, I found that the photo catches a lifer, the Lesser Grey Shrike (Lamius minor), in full breeding plumage. The field guide shows this as being spread across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Strangely, the IUCN red list excludes this part of Africa from its recorded range. A cross check on the HBW site shows reports of sightings from across Europe, East Africa, and down to southern Africa. That makes me fairly confident about this identification.
I saw this stretch of sand and did a double take. The pattern of light on it made it look like the bottom of a shallow sea It was not hard to imagine that the light refracted through ripples in water could make the caustics and dark patches that I saw. But the patterns were static. Things had walked across the desert, and then the wind has worked over their tracks to make the gentle ripples in the sand that you see in the featured photo. I looked around to check whether I could recognize from a new spoor what had made these patterns. The obvious guess was right: they were the footprints of camels.
Looking up from the sand it was clear what attracted the camels here: the acacia trees which were all around me. The Acacia jacquemontii is a common second wave of growth over sandy areas which have been stabilized by plants such as the khimp and phog. While writing this now, I had a moment of doubt about the identification. Was it really the local babool tree, A. jacquemontii? The shape of the canopy looked like that of the babool. But still, could it be the imported Israeli babool, Acacia tortilis, which the state government is partial to, since it grows faster? I looked at a photo I had taken of the leaves, and found that it was indeed the native babool.
I’m a city person. I seldom see the horizon. What I probably share with you, whether you are a city person or not, is the habit of looking at tall things. Trees, poles for street lights, even buildings, set a scale for my judgment of distance. I found myself completely lost in the desert. In the flat landscape which extends all the way to the horizon, I could not gauge distances. I saw a man striding towards me, and took the featured photo. I thought it might take him a quarter of an hour to get near us. It was more like five minutes.
Later I saw this cow sitting in the distance, chewing its cud. Far far away, I thought. It got up, ambled past us and was lost in the distance; all in the space of ten minutes. My eyes could not adjust to this completely flat landscape. If there was a line of electricity pole marching from horizon to horizon, I might have been able to use that to estimate distances. But without any vertical cues, I completely failed.
A little walk later I saw this tree sandwiched between two hills. Later I looked at the photo and thought, “Just a minute. Hills?” No, in this desert there are no hills. The tree is the usual stunted acacia tree. It gives us a scale for how large things are. The bumps around the tree are just two heaps of sand, not very high. Looking again at it, I realized that the picture also has two electricity poles which are higher than the “hills”. The poles here are not very high, so that limits how high these piles of sand and dust are.
I didn’t stay in the desert long enough to get used to gauging distances. Wherever I looked I was deceived.