For my post on the last day of the year 403 ME, I decided to look through the photos I took of the past year and pull together all those which still looked interesting to me: water birds scolding, wheat fields ripening, water buffaloes wading into a lake, and other such. Even as you look at them, the earth is speeding towards that special point in its orbit, that place where it is closest to the sun, the perihelion: that unique point from which one can truly count the beginning of a new year. The earth has been falling since July, picking up speed as the year ends. It has been moving faster and faster as it whizzes downhill, towards the new new year. Tomorrow, as it turns past that mark, it will begin to lose speed as it climbs up to July again.
We crossed the last river bed on the way back from Bijrani range in Corbett. This was goodbye. We stopped to see a Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), our last addition to the trip’s list of birds. A family of chital (Axis axis) was grazing between the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. A healthy buck (the featured photo), a doe, and two fawns (photo below) ranged slowly over the stones, picking delicately at small shoots. Strange that they would venture here for such slim picking; they must find these leaves delicious.
Chital lie in a genus of their own, Axis, the last remnants of a five million years old twig on the tree of life. Fossil Axis are found from Iran eastwards to Southeast Asia. They are most closely related to the Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, the swamp deer). Once these were common in the Dhikala range, north of this river. But when its homeland was inundated in the 1960s by the floodwaters gathered behind a dam in the neighbourhood, they went locally extinct. The Chital are now only found in India; a landscape with wild chital tells you definitely that it was taken in India. When they become extinct, a five million year old story will come to an end.
Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.
Sometime the jungle is peaceful and quiet. The trail broke out from thickets into an open meadow. It was early morning. A golden sun. A small herd of chital (Axis axis, also called spotted deer) grazed in front of us. A sambar (Rusa unicolor) walked through the herd. Chital are easily spooked, but this herd did not mind us. Sambars are alert. It looked up at us briefly and went back to breakfast.
The scene before me was a very clear illustration of how these two species of deer manage to live in the same forest without conflict. The chital is largely a grazer, the sambar a browser. The chital is an under-rated ecosystem engineer. Its grazing keeps small plants from growing too high and smothering jungle seedlings before they can reach their full growth. They also keep the spaces under trees clear. A jungle looks very different from a garden gone wild because of these grazers.
This difference between the two kinds of deer is also reflected in their sizes. The small chital cannot possibly reach the lower canopy. I waited for the sambar to flick out its long tongue, as it does when it wants to reach a leaf too high even for its long neck. But this canopy hung low enough that it could just use its lips.
The little group fed peacefully. No smell or sound of a predator bothered them that morning. On a stump nearby I saw a black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). It is as dark as a crow, as intelligent and aggressive, and an incredibly good mimic. It is hard to get a good photo of a drongo because of its colour. I was lucky here. It sat in full sunlight for this portrait before it rushed off to its next appointment.
He thought he saw an Elephant,Lewis Carroll, The Mad Gardener’s Song
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realise,’ he said,
The bitterness of Life!’
Jungle safaris during the weekend is a wonderful idea for Diwali, as long as it remains a pipe dream. Long back I was told that tiger spotting is impossible after the monsoon, when the grass is tall, and the trees are full of leaves. If it wasn’t for the need to use a pre-pandemic booking before it expires, I would have listened to this advise. As it is, I can confirm that this jungle lore is correct.
Tadoba National Park is not one of the larger ones, nor one known to foreign tourists, but it has specialized in producing conditions where tigers can breed. Most tigresses litter every two or three years. The jungle is full of tigers, and in the dry months before the monsoon it is very easy to spot them. The jungle is full of tigers even now. Early in our first outing we heard a Chital’s alarm call just as we passed an open grassland and entered a dense thicket. Definitely a tiger. A herd of the deer bounded across the road. The alarm calls passed from one animal to another, and then stopped. The tiger had hunkered down. We backtracked to a little stream.
The jungle was still. We could hear the whistling of the wind in the leaves. Then a tiny rustle. A splash. Tiger? No. Peering through the trees we saw a Chital (Axis axis, a spotted deer). It crossed the stream. An older male followed it cautiously. They must have been the last lookouts. Only a deer! Beautiful, but not a tiger. The jungle can disappoint. But even in that disappointment it is enchanting.
After all that driving around inside Pench National Park, there were still some major species of mammals that we missed seeing. One of the closest calls was a leopard. We heard a cheetal’s alarm call and then saw the deer. We heard a langur’s alarm call very soon after. Then nothing.
The cheetal was still alert, looking in the direction where it had just sensed the predator. You can see its tail mid-quiver in the featured photo. One movement from the hidden beast and it would go up, sending out a white flash of an alarm signal as it made an alarm call again. But nothing happened. We waited for more than half an hour, and then lost our patience. We weaved our way past the other waiting jeeps. Later, in the hotel, we heard that a minute after we left, the leopard had been sighted. That’s luck for you.
Dusk had fallen. We drove to a nearby water body, and saw nothing there. Later we heard that we had missed a shy two-year old tiger cub which was lying in the water where we went, and moved off as soon as a jeep came by. This happened as we waited for the leopard!
We did not exactly miss seeing wild boars. I managed to take the blurred photo which you can see above. These were part of a sounder which were crossing the road. They got spooked while crossing, and the rest of the group scuttled back into the undergrowth. In Pench wild board come out in such bad light.
We never saw a sloth bear, although there are many in Pench. The only reasonable view I’ve had of these bad tempered creatures was a few years back in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. One of them was demolishing a termite mound behind a copse of trees. I could see it between the trees. The one time I took photos of a sloth bear and its two cubs, they were running away across a meadow well after sunset. A lot of fiddling with the image could give me a recognizable picture.
Another wide miss was the Indian wolf, which apparently had made a minor comeback in this area. We never heard reports of anyone seeing them in the time that we were in Pench. The deer called the Barasingha is in the official checklist, but none of the guides said they had seen one. One of them was quite categorical that there were none here, “Go to Kanha,” he said.
A close miss was a sighting of wild dogs. We kept running into jeeps whose passengers would say, “We saw a pack just minutes back. I’m sure they’ll be back if you wait here.”. They never came back. The jungle is a chancy thing. You can be sure of seeing trees. Everything else is an extra.
If you spend a day in one of the Project Tiger national parks, you may or may not see a tiger, but the one thing that you will learn about are alarm calls. Tourists like us move along designated tracks on a jeep inside the forest. Tigers seldom cross these paths. So the best way to find out whether a tiger is nearby is to listen to the jungle.
Of the three animals which issue alarm calls, the spotted deer Cheetal (Axis axis) and the gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus) can be seen in the photo above, and the sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) is in the featured photo. The cheetal thrive in Pench National Park. They are easily spooked. Sometimes you see a herd grazing near a track, looking up at you warily as you pass. But very often you see them already running. A naturalist once told me that this is a good sign, because it shows that they are not habituated to humans. Cheetal alarm calls are the first thing you hear when a leopard or tiger is sighted. They may soon be followed by the alarm call of langurs. Usually, when you hear this, your guide will drop everything else and rush towards the sound. Since the calls carry easily in the jungle, you will find that there are several jeeps which arrive at the source of the calls.
Tiger spotting requires patience and persistence. Sometimes the calls stop, and you do not know whether that is because the predator has stopped moving, or because it was a false alarm. The lore amongst guides is that cheetal calls could be false alarms sometimes, but the alarm call sounded by sambar deer is always correct. I saw sambar approaching water holes on two occasions. Both times they were so cautious that it was a wonder. The featured photo shows a lone sambar moving between trees at the edge of a clearing around a waterhole. It spent almost twenty minutes walking a distance of about a hundred meters. The second time I saw a group coming to a large pond. There were wary groups of monkeys drinking water, taking turns to keep watch as the rest of the group drank. A couple of spotted deer were also drinking water (see photo above). They were quiveringly tense as they drank, but they walked to the water very quickly, drank, and walked away again.
The sambar are different, they took a long time to approach the water. Then after drinking, they waded into the water (photo above). Even inside the water they were extremely cautious: scanning their surroundings with every step they took. The two scouts were soon joined by others, including young. Their coats were matted, as if they were already wet. Sambar like to wade, but they were so wary that they stood in knee-deep water until the light began to fade and we were forced to leave.
From the difference in behaviour that I saw, I could believe our guide when he said that a sambar’s alarm call is always correct.
One of the most striking things about wild animals is how easily they adapt to circumstances; a fancy term for this is behavioural plasticity. When I saw a group of Cheetal, apparently grazing in the mud next to the tidal creek, I was a little surprised. These animals are grazers, mostly dependent on grass. But the individuals I saw were eating fallen mangrove leaves. You can see them feeding in the photo alongside. In the featured photo you can see its whole body aligned along the tide line where fallen leaves have gathered. The strong reliance on a leafy diet struck me as an adaptation.
Another odd fact was that there were so many Cheetal near brackish water. These deer drink a lot of water, and I could not imagine them drinking sea water. It gradually dawned on me that there must be fresh water inland. Amar, our boatman, and Bijaya, our guide for the day, told us about ponds and wells which give sweet water. Around these there are also grassy meadows where we saw some deer.
We also saw small bands of rhesus monkeys on the muddy banks of creeks. Strangely, they seemed to be grazing in the mud. Bijaya said they were eating grass. Possibly, because they were certainly not picking up fallen leaves. I never came across them inside the forest, so I don’t know what fruits they eat. Mangrove fruits are unlikely fare for monkeys, but maybe they have adapted. Animal behaviour is so plastic that every niche yields delightful surprises.
As we drove to the airport on our way to an extended weekend in Ranthambore national park, The Family said “We probably won’t see tigers. Let’s think of it as a nice break”. She’s been to Ranthambore several times, seen many of the tigers there, and returned with fantastic pictures taken on a dinky little camera. On my only previous trip to Ranthambore I returned with a photo showing the rump of a tiger in bushes by the road: I’d never known it was there. Spotting a tiger is a matter of luck. By going in the wrong season, we knew that luck was against us.
The wildlife sanctuary is one of the oldest in India: the erstwhile Maharaja of Jaipur donated his hunting park to the nation, and it was made into a sanctuary in 1955. It gets its name from the Ranthambore hill fort inside its current boundary. The fort is about a thousand years old (although its origins are disputed), and currently on the UNESCO world heritage list. The park is now 392 square km in area, and tourism is allowed in only a small fraction of this. The parts of a sanctuary where tourists are not allowed is called the core area. Among the large national parks, Ranthambore has a fairly small core area.
In spite of this, the effort has been fairly successful. When we talked to drivers, guards or shopkeepers, we were told of new tiger cubs, three year olds, and the death of the iconic tiger Machli. On my first visit to Ranthambore, I’d met the legendary conservation worker, Fateh Singh Rathore. At that time I heard from him the idea that the stakeholders in wildlife conservation are the local people as well as the wider public, and that only a partnership of the two can succeed. The organization he was part of, Tiger Watch, has clearly been successful in the effort to involve the community in conservation. The locality seems to be fully invested in this effort now, and earns good money though tourism. Tiger conservation is a rallying cry: because a tiger is an apex predator, you cannot preserve it in the wild without preserving its environment.
Contact with humans changes animal behaviour. I saw one example of this in the Mizo hills, where unchecked hunting has depleted the hills of birds, and made them extremely wary of humans. I saw the opposite here, where treepies land on humans to beg for food. Neither of these is natural behaviour. The problem of plastic trash is strong: the photo of the peacock which you see above was taken inside the park. Conservation workers are aware of this problem, which is why tourism is not allowed inside the relatively large core area of these sanctuaries.
The Family was right. We travelled in the large cantors, which take about twenty people. Tourists are becoming very responsible now: people talked in undertones, keeping absolutely quiet when the guide called for silence, there were no attempts to feed animals, and there was no littering. We saw no tigers or leopards, although there was at least one sighting every day while we were in the park. We sat at firesides every evening, and listened, enchanted, to the stories of the people who had seen tigers that day. We enjoyed ourselves, and returned with a reasonable bird list.
Chital is always associated with the following bad joke in my mind: “When is a spotted deer spotted? Only after you spot it, of course.” In fact it is born spotted, as you can see from the photo of the very young fawn below.
The jungles of Ranthambore resonated with the agonized call of Chital that we came to recognize as the male’s rutting call. All the adult and adolescent males sported full grown antlers. Interestingly, these fall off and are regrown every year. There were also a number of young and year-old fawns in all the herds that we saw. The chital can mate all through the year, so the spread in ages was not unusual.
We had a grand view of two adolescent male Chital sparring while the dominant male of the herd calmly browsed in the background. The fight did not look serious; the two pushed at each other, and then broke away to continue to browse. I’ve never seen Chital badly damaged in a fight, and this is the usual end to a bout.
The previous day we had seen a Chital carcass. It had been brought down by a leopard, which came back several times to feed. The park is full of Chital, so it is not surprising that here this is the main prey for both leopards and tigers.