Otter surprise

It was a gloomy morning. The sky was completely overcast but it refused to rain. In the bad light we stood in the open jeep next to a stream and watched birds. There was something not quite right about the birds I was seeing. I don’t have a pair of binoculars, so I borrowed The Family’s to look at the pair of dark shapes I was seeing at the far bank of the stream. I focussed and scanned to find them, and nearly fell off the jeep. They weren’t ducks, they were otters. They dived and one of them came back up with a fish. When I babbled about all this, The Family reclaimed her binocs. The jeep driver, Hemant, also pulled out his own pair. With my 1200 mm zoom at extreme range, the otters were a splotch in the photo.

This must be the smooth-coated otter, Lutrogale perspicillata. It survives in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra largely because it is the last undammed river in this region. As long as India and China don’t agree on river water sharing, and neither party builds a dam pre-emptively, L. perspicillata are safe inside this protected area. In the rest of its range throughout Southeast Asia, this otter is classed as vulnerable because of habitat loss and indiscriminate slaughter by fishing folk who see it as a rival for its fish.

A bit further on was another pleasant surprise. On a sand bank a small family of otters was basking in the sun. There is probably an underwater entrance which leads to the hollow partly obscured by the several otters sleeping near it. These individuals were probably resting after a morning’s feeding, but they were not asleep. They would often raise their necks, look around, before slumping on the ground again. Fishing is hard work, after all.

Herds of Elephants

Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus)are the most common wild animals in captivity: instantly recognizable, loved for their generally benign behaviour. There are perhaps less than 30,000 animals in the wild in India, with the largest population being in the Eastern Himalayas and the Brahmaputra basin. They are slowly disappearing as their habitat is encroached upon, and there are direct conflicts between humans and elephants. Just as I was writing this post I read news about four elephants being killed by a speeding train. So it was lovely to see large herds of these animals in the wild in Kaziranga National Forest.

Our first close view was of the trio in the featured photo, at a stream. Elephants love water, and the young splash in mud and throw it around just like a human child. As soon as the mother saw us, she kept turning to face us. The young one kept playing for a while, but was pushed into hiding in the tall grass behind the mother. Then the two adult females also disappeared into the grass. We caught up with the rest of the herd soon. There must have been about forty elephants spread out through the tall grass, browsing and grazing in the forest. Elephants are voracious eaters, and can chmomp their way to ecological catastrophe when forests are diminishing irrespective of them. Fortunately, in managed forests like Kaziranga this is not very likely. It is wonderful to stand at a distance and watch these gentle giants, as long as one remembers that close approach is very dangerous.

The next day we had a much closer approach to a lone tusker which had just emerged from a stream. It walked determinedly up to the road we were on and crossed it near our jeep. Three or four jeeps had come to a halt to allow the male to cross undisturbed. The Family was very envious of the first jeep. “It had such a clear view,” she said. I thought we had a clear view too. The elephant loomed over the jeep as it crossed, and I must admit that it would have been marvelous to see it from close by. That’s the luck of the jungle; you can never predict what you will get to see.

Great Hornbills

You can’t walk inside Kaziranga, you have to take a jeep. What you manage to see depends quite strongly on the driver. You are unlikely to ever miss a rhino or elephant, because they are so visible. But you can easily miss smaller animals. We had a fantastic driver on our first sortie. He first spotted the Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) which you see in the featured photo. The sun hadn’t yet risen, so the conspicuous red eyes of this spectacular bird are not yet visible.

The bird waited in the top branch for a long while, examining its surroundings with care. It normally eats fruits, but it is not averse to making a meal of a mouse or even a small owl. Perhaps it was looking for big game. After all, it was getting towards the end of the nesting season, and its fledglings were perhaps nearly ready to hop out of the nest.

Later in the day we did see a nest. This is always a hole in a tree into which the female seals herself into after laying eggs. I wonder which predator she’s protecting herself against; she’s large enough to deal with most rodents and lizards, and probably also snakes. The male feeds the female and chicks through the slit in the tree which you can see. When the chicks are old enough, the mother will break open the sealed edges of the nest, and climb out. That is probably still two or three weeks away. The forests of Kaziranga seems to host quite a few of this threatened species. We saw males in flight several times.

Seeing these majestic birds in the forest is a wonderful sight. I hope their numbers grow. It will be sad if we are among the last generation to see these birds.

Forests-full of rhinos

Let’s get this over with: when you go to Kaziranga expect to see Indian one-horned rhinos everywhere. We saw many of them grazing on the grass in the distance, several crossing the road, others cooling off by floating in water. We saw one bad tempered brute chase another off its patch of short green grass. Elsewhere we saw a badly injured male: gored by another’s horn in the plate between its shoulder and neck, its own horn broken, and possibly another injury on a back leg. Such fights are uncommon, but a grazing rhino is not to be trifled with. Kaziranga is a conservation success, having brought the Rhinoceros unicornis back from the brink of local extinction: there are more than 2000 individuals in the park now.

“Do tigers hunt rhinos?” I asked The Family. She didn’t know either. But our question was answered by one of the jeep drivers who heard from the grapevine that one jeep had just seen a rhino charge at a tiger and drive it away. There are reports of tigers killing rhino cubs. But the armour and temperament seems to be a defense not only against tigers but also against larger extinct predators. The genus Rhinoceros is about 50 million years old. They were hunted in the past by giant crocodiles, dog-bears, giant proto-hyenas and humans. The evolution of Indian rhinos 2-3 million years ago carried forward the armour plates of earlier species, and perhaps also their short temper.

The IUCN red list lists this species as vulnerable, a step up from endangered. It reports that the population is in excess of 2500 individuals, and increasing. Nevertheless, the species is vulnerable because 70% of the population is found in Kaziranga. Strangely, in spite of the huge conservation effort, there have been few studies of the species. I could not find a definitive list of the plants it eats, nor much about its life cycle. How long do most individuals live? As with so many other vulnerable species, there is much to be learnt yet.

Green Imperial Pigeons

On a drive through the western zone of Kaziranga I saw this lone bird sitting quietly on a low branch above my jeep. The sky was bright and it was dark under the canopy, so it required a bit of fiddling to get a reasonable photo. The back light did not bring out the metallic sheen that you sometimes seen in the green feathers of the Ducula aenea or Green Imperial pigeon. In spite of this, I was happy to see this arboreal bird in its normal habitat.

It is large, like many of the Imperial pigeons: well over a foot long. Although D. aenea is not a rare bird, not too much is known about it. Its lonely habits, and nesting characteristics are known. The IUCN red list classifies it as a bird of least concern because of the wide geographical range it occupies: from the Western ghats in the west to the Philippines in the east, and from China in the north to Brunei in the south. At the same it says that the population has never been estimated, and it is likely to be in decline. So there’s a lot of fieldwork which can be done.

Even the genetics of this bird is preliminary. I found a study of Pacific Imperial pigeons which touches very briefly on D. aenea; merely mentioning that it probably radiated into Asia from the region of New Guinea late in the Miocene era, less than 10 million years ago. The state bird of Tripura is therefore a latecomer to India.