Encounters with hog deer

Through a gap in trees, I saw a female hog deer browsing (featured photo). I didn’t remember seeing hog deers before. The colour of the fur, the two lines of white spots flanking the spine, and less well defined lines of spots further down the body reminded me of a Cheetal’s colours. But this was much smaller, and looked more muscular. It took some time to notice us, then looked at us carefully, and decided we were no danger. Poaching is not unheard of in this forest, but this behaviour probably meant that poachers seldom target hog deer (Axis porcinus). I haven’t explored the protected forests below the Himalayas further west, which is also part of the range of this animal, so it is not unlikely that this was really my first sighting. A. porcinus are endangered because of tremendous loss of habitat, but they are fairly common in Kaziranga. After this first encounter, I kept seeing them again and again.

A very pleasant sighting was of a mixed group at a water hole (photo above). In a group like this my eyes first fix on the largest animal: the rhino. It was completely caked in mud and was grazing determinedly. We kept this rhino in sight, and it raised its head and sniffed at the air only when our jeep’s engine coughed a little. The baby hog deer was more than six months old, since it also browsed. The two adult deer were both female. The behaviour of hog deer is fairly plastic. When food is plentiful, as it is here, they are fairly solitary, with the males becoming territorial. Encounters between females are peaceful and occur by chance. When food is restricted, the deer do associate, but herding is uncommon.

The birds in the photo are very interesting. The large one on the right is one of the endangered greater adjutant storks (Leptoptilos dubius). At this distance I could not see the pouch which distinguishes it from the lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus). I had to resort to the secondary distinction, which is that the back feathers of L. dubius are an uniform colour, whereas the L. Javanicus has a lighter and darker shading on the back. Worldwide there are about 1000 of the greater adjutant storks, and Assam is one of the last breeding grounds, since it went extinct in Myanmar and Laos. The vulnerable L. Javanicus fares marginally better, since there are more than 5000 individuals left across Asia. These are among the largest of storks; so large in fact,that at an archaeological site in Vietnam, 6000 years old digging tools made of the bones of L. dubius were found. The nearby egret is barely larger than the bill of the adjutant.

It took me a while to encounter a male hog deer. Here is one: startled, and not quite sure whether to run. The antlers seemed to fork at the end. When I looked through binoculars I could see a nub of a branch lower down, but it was not very well defined. I’m fascinated by the association of birds with grazers. The two great mynas, identifiable by the tuft of feathers over the beak, sit on their backs not only for a better view, but also to jump on insects disturbed by the cropping. I’ve seen this kind of bird behaviour translated to urban settings, where a family of egrets spent a couple of generations following gardeners as they mowed a lawn.

I got a closer look at the antlers when I saw a male hog deer resting under a tree late in the morning. There was a small branch close to the base, with the main branch curving out to fork again at the tip. The difference between this individual and the other probably means that the antlers are slightly variable. Hog deer have disappeared from all of south east Asia in the recent past, except possibly in small patches in Tailand and Myanmar. Little is systematically recorded about it in Pakistan and Bhutan. There are conservation efforts in India and Nepal. I probably saw one of the few stable populations world wide.

Lesser Adjutant Storks

In my days as a couch potato, I’d read an unlikely book by Douglas Adams, who, in collaboration with Mark Carwardine, went round the world looking for species on the verge of extinction. Not only do I still have Last Chance to See on my bookshelf, I go around the country now with a mental list of endangered species which I want to see. The Lesser Adjutant Stork is one of these, and Bhitarkanika is its only known nesting site outside north-eastern India.

The IUCN Red List classifies it as vulnerable (to extinction) because it is “rapidly declining as a result of a variety of threats including hunting pressure, loss of nesting trees, conversion and degradation of wetlands and agricultural changes”. It is thought that the disappearance of this species from the Sunderbans is due to degradation of mangrove diversity in the region.

It is one of the most spectacularly ugly birds I’ve ever had the opportunity to see. It is also huge. As we crossed the Brahmani river, The Family spotted some huge birds in a field far away. We stopped to look. They were these ugly storks. The Lesser Adjutant (and its cousin, the Greater Adjutant) is called হাড়গিলে in Assamese and in Odiya (meaning bone eater). When I consulted older people in my family, they remembered the name and the bird. At one time it was probably common in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. It can now be seen only in protected forests and wetlands, where it eats small animals and crustaceans. Its local name probably comes by association with the Greater Adjutant, which often scavenges around human habitation.

We saw these birds several times in the protected forest. They were wary of our boat, and tended to fly whenever we came within camera range. Eventually I caught a juvenile sitting on top of a tree. The juvenile has much more down on its bare neck and head than the adult. Apparently these birds have extremely sharp vision, and this one could have been sitting there to scan the area for food.

One never knows which sighting of this bird could be the last.