Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

Sleepy

There’s a thing about leopards. They are the stealthiest creatures I know. While stalking one in a jeep, on one of my early wildlife experiences, I’d lost track of it after passing through a defile in a ridge. Backtracking to the defile, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I realized from its pug marks that it had slipped into hiding as we passed, and it was now tracking us. Wild looks around yielded no results. Much later we saw it sitting on a rock under a tree high up on the ridge, still keeping an eye on us. So, if you are interested in wildlife, you’ll cherish even the smallest sighting of a leopard.

One evening in Bera, we sat in a jeep below a rock, watching a sleepy female sit on top of it. Not a spectacular view, you say? Maybe not, but majestic. It yawned and put its head down. Then it sat up and looked around, its gaze snagging briefly on our jeep. It put its head down again. Then, like an old man waiting for a morning cuppa tea, it sat on its haunches and dozed. I wish I knew more about the way these animals spend their days. They don’t need to eat as often as us, nor do they need water as frequently. They disappear into their caves during the day, probably to sleep. Human and leopard periods of activity intersect at dusk and dawn, when both are slightly tired, slightly sleepy. I was happy to sit and watch.

Comfort

We spent the morning scanning a set of hills which was said to be fairly crowded with leopards (Panthera pardus, tendua in Hindi). Apparently two females had their ranges in these mounds. One of them delivered twins recently, another had triplets a little more than a year ago. Leopards become adults and move away from the mother at about a year and a half, until which time they may still share food. In addition, a male was said to visit the place often. So there could be up to eight leopards in this little range. We had been pretty unsuccessful for about two hours.

Then The Family asked “Isn’t there something on that large rock?” At the same time our driver declared “A leopard has just come out of its cave.” We’d been looking at the hill that you see in the photo above. The Family and the driver had been scanning it with their binoculars while I’d been looking through my camera. Binoculars have their uses. Indeed a sub-adult, one of the cubs which was getting to the point where it would seek its own place in the world, had just walked out to a little hollow in a rock and sat down. Look at the slide show for a zoom into the lazily reclining adolescent.

When you watch an animal in the wild there are long periods when nothing happens. Then all the action gets over in a jiffy. By not seeing it come out of the cave with my camera, I’d missed the initial action. There was a long wait as we watched the leopard. The sun climbed in the sky and shone into the hollow that it had flopped down on. It must have got warm, because it sat up and fidgeted (see the featured photo). If I’d known more about leopards I would have realized it was ready to move. When it did, it quickly bounded up to the top of the rock and I thought I lost it in the thor bush. No, it had moved to the shady side and prepared to find a comfortable spot.

It sat there for an hour longer. The sun was hot, but behind the bush it had a comfortable spot. We kept a close watch on it. Eventually it must have got hot again. It crossed to the sunny side of the rock, inspected the hollow it had sat in first, and then finding it unsuitable, padded down the slope of the rock, turned and was lost in the shadows of its lair.

Where leopards live

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.

Camouflage

You may think that leopards (Panthera pardus) are brilliantly coloured, and the rosettes on their fur make them look cheerful and pretty. But these two cubs were hard to find as they sat still on an exposed rock. The spotted skin blended into the spotted appearance of the granite in their natural habitat. Quite apart from the bit of natural camouflage, they usually evade the eye by their perfect stillness when they don’t want to be seen. These three months olds were frisky, for leopards. It was their movement which gave them away. You can see in the featured photo that one of the cubs was playing with its sibling’s tail. At this age, a leopard’s skin has little gold on it. That develops with age, perhaps because the spotted gray pelt is better camouflage when the cubs are still.

In order to show how hard spotting a leopard can be, I took the series of photos which you can see in the slideshow above. It is actually even harder than it may seem from the slideshow, since you already suspect that the leopards are more or less in the center of the frames. In the wild you could keep scanning a wall of granite for many minutes before you can see them. In this case the light made the amber skin glow, and there was a little movement, so it wasn’t very hard. It took me most of the weekend to learn to look for them, to recognize the shapes of lines in the rocks which cannot be the result of natural weather.