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.

A heritage hotel

Would you stay in a 350 years old house? We looked at what other travelers had written, and decided it wasn’t risky. The owner explained that it was not a palace, “We are not royals.” He was very clear about the distinction. “There were only two kings in Marwar,” he explained to The Family, “Jodhpur and Udaipur.” The explanation of the differences between royals and jagirdars, land-holding princes, was a page out of history books. He cannot call the house a haveli either. Those belonged to merchants. He gets around it by repurposing a word which is never used in this context. He calls his place a castle.

We parked in the forecourt of the property and walked in through a grand door. It was probably built to the proportions of an elephant with a howdah. Royals did visit this place in those early days. Like most such old houses, the building was somewhat haphazard. Different wings had been added on at different times. Photos had shown this place as white with red trim. Now it was a dazzling white. There was a complex explanation. The old man, the owner, was full of stories. It was interesting to sit with him over a drink before dinner.

We had a choice of rooms. The manager walked us through the place. The oldest wing was very interesting. A bathroom had part of an ancient painting on the roof. I was told that it was 300 years old. I’m not a student of art history, so I can’t tell. Perhaps you can tell from the featured photo whether this appears to be a Marwari painting from three centuries ago. Apparently maintenance had been planned for early 2020, but then the lockdown happened. During that time a small tremor shook down some of the plaster, carrying part of the painting into history. The owner was quite crestfallen when I asked him about it. “I am told they can use our photos to restore it. But I can’t lie about its age. I have to tell people that parts are modern.”

The rooms in the oldest wing are charming, but small. We chose to stay in a wing which was two hundred years younger. This part of the building has interesting painted terra cotta panels embedded into the external walls. They seemed to have served some ritual purpose, because they flank niches with place for lamps.

Was there room service? “No,” one of the men said, “but I will be outside your room. Call me if you need something.” He stayed out of sight but available, behind a wooden screen with champa flowers peeping over it. We didn’t need much. The room was good, very clean, and the food was excellent Marwari fare. I discovered that the approved traditional way to eat bati and churma is not with dal, but with laal maas.

There was no wifi. Bera has good mobile connectivity. We could live without free broadband for a weekend. The rooms were otherwise wonderful, each a little suite. The furniture was what The Family called antique, but the owner said was just little things which had been in the family. He had stories about how he had to pull them out of storage and have them polished and repaired.

Our room had photos of horses and polo players on the walls. I thought I recognized one of the former kings of Jaipur in a photo taken after a fall during a polo match. When I mentioned this to the owner he said that the team mate next to him was his grandfather’s younger brother. I was treated to a walk through the bar, and a view of treasured photos of his grandfather, a polo champion, winning matches and hob-nobbing with the likes of Prince Philip and other famous polo players. Those times are past, but family stories live on. Although we enjoyed the weekend, he did not manage to make royalists of us.

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 (babul 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.

Winter rain

A very hard afternoon shower in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park had left roads soaked. At one end of the road you could see a single rickshaw coming. Local investment in tourism takes many forms in this area. The most visible are probably the many hotels which line the approach to the main gates of the sanctuary. But another wonderful form of investment are these rickshaws. Many national parks have cars with trained guides. Here they are replaced by rickshaws. The people driving them are trained naturalists. The best have wide knowledge not only of birds, but also the trees and herbs in this area. They are also enormously curious if they find that you know something better than them, and try to gain as much out of conversations as they can. You could hire bicycles to ride into the sanctuary, but it is good to take the rickshaws at least once. Not only do you support the local economy, you also get to spend a long time talking to a local. That’s always something I look forward to when I travel.

Blue city doors

The Family and I started talking about our walks through the blue city of Jodhpur in the December of 2017. The narrows streets were lined with old houses, each closed off by a grand ceremonial door. But these doors were seldom used any more. They had inset doors for daily use which stood open.

Through these open doors we could see that the grand houses had been cut up into little apartments; some perhaps even hold the impoverished descendants of the pater familias who build the original mansion. The citadel of Jodhpur dates from 1459 CE, and the early years were full of wars. So this part that we walked through, just outside the ramparts, must date from the early modern era. It is quite likely that the oldest structures here date from the 17th century.

The blue city is no longer a middle class enclave. You can judge that by the importance of the ration shops (featured photo) and the poorly stocked grocery stores. In this relative poverty, all houses are dilapidated, and look ancient. We peered through an open door into a calm and sunny interior courtyard, shaded by trees (photo above). From the bricks that were visible, I would guess that the house was built in the second half of the 19th century. But the residents of the blue city will consider anything that existed before their childhood to be ancient, and it is not unusual to be told that something is a thousand years old.

The middle of the 19th century was the beginning of nearly a century of recurrent epidemics of plague which swept across the world. Before the invention of antibiotics, they were quite as deadly as today’s viral epidemic. The narrow streets of the blue city would have been devastated. I guess that is the time when the richer inhabitants left this part of the town for the new town, with its wider roads and better zoning, on the other side of the citadel.

Pangshura

In my earlier visit to Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park, I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of birds that I’d not registered how many other animals find a home in this wetland reserve. I don’t know much about turtles at all, and the variety here is a good place to start figuring out how to identify fresh-water turtles. The Indian Roofed Turtle (Pangshura tecta) is one of the easiest. I’ve seen them being sold as pets, but the individual you see in the photo was larger than the ones I’ve seen in shops.

I had to learn two technical words in order to start identifying turtles: the carapace is the hard shell on top, and the plastron is the hard underside of the shell. The plastron of the Indian Roofed Turtle is a yellow-orange in colour with the irregular black spots which you see in the photo. An additional identifier is that the neck has longitudinal yellow streaks, which you can see in spite of the fact that the neck is not fully extended. Since females grow to be larger in this species, this individual is likely to have been one.

A turtle’s life is slow and measured: slow maturity, taking 10-10 years, long and modestly fecund life, so that enough offspring are produced to fit into what were historically stable ecosystems. I’m not sure what the lifespan of this species is, but it is unlikely to be much longer or shorter than the usual lifespans of Indian turtles, which is about 60 years.

Rosy Pelican

Once upon a time the Rosy Pelican beer was quite common. I would look at the very rosy pelican on the label and wonder about the bird. It didn’t occur to me then that one did not have to travel far to see those birds. There was an attempt to revive the beer again in the early years of this century before it followed the Dodo into oblivion. I was reminded of this old favourite amongst lagers as I stood by the ponds of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park and watched flocks of Rosy Pelicans (aka Great White Pelicans, Pelecanus onocrotalus)

Unlike the very similar looking Dalmatian Pelican, the Rosy Pelican is not a loner. Apart from the fact that they are gregarious, I eventually found that the easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the eyes. The Rosy has a large pink patch around the eyes, as you can see in these photos, whereas the Dalmatian has round yellow eyes and no eye patch. In size they seemed about similar. The bills are also similar (except that the Dalmatian’s may be more orange in colour than that of the Rosy). The Rosy Pelican is named for the yellowish or pinkish feathers of the neck and breast, a feature which I found needs mellow light to see clearly. The really major difference is that the Rosy Pelican is one of the decreasing number of species which are not yet endangered.

Earlier in the day I’d seen a solitary pelican foraging in a body of water, accompanied by a Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus). It seems that Pelicans catch more fish with less effort when they are alone, but, paradoxically, prefer to be in large flocks. In their breeding grounds in Africa, Pelicans may take 10-25% of the stocks of fish in lakes, setting up potential conflict with humans. The rosy colour of the neck feathers apparently comes from ferric oxide in the silt in its African habitats. This may partly explain why the individuals I saw had paler feathers than in the stock photos one sees. The label on the beer bottle definitely took artistic license with reality.

These birds are good fliers, migrating every year from their main breeding grounds in Africa to winter in India, stopping to feed multiple times on the way. When you see them on the wing, they seem to glide effortlessly, moving their wings with great economy. On our last evening in Bharatpur, as we passed the huge marsh where I’d seen Cheetal and Pelicans foraging together I had the exciting view of a flock of Rosy Pelicans taking off. As they fly, the black edges of the wings can be seen clearly. When the wings are folded, these black primary feathers are hidden under the whites of the remainder of the wing. They took off with great flaps of their wings, but once they leveled off in flight, I was impressed by the elegant economy of their motion.

Skimmers and Gharials

The one thing common between the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicolis) is that both eat only fish. That is if you don’t count the fact that both species are declining in numbers. The Skimmer is classed as vulnerable by IUCN, and the Gharial is said to be critically endangered. We took a boat ride on the Chambal river, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, through the National Chambal Sanctuary to see them.

This was my first good view of Skimmers. As you can see, they are so distinctive that you won’t forget them once you’ve seen one. The general black and white colour is in contrast to the bright orange bill, distinctly down-curved, with the upper bill shorter than the lower one. We saw a small flock skimming across the river, lower bill occasionally dipping into the water. I couldn’t see whether they caught any fish. Although they passed pretty close to the boat, a small boat riding high on waves is not a good perch from which to take photos. I pressed the shutter button down, but the boat yawed a bit and I got a shot of the blank sky. Some people think that skimmers could be largely nocturnal. From the fact that flocks of skimmers were mostly resting, they could be right. There are said to be between 6000 and 10000 of these birds left in the world. We probably saw about 1% to 2% of the world’s population of skimmers.

Gharials used to be common enough once that it takes an effort to understand how severe the crisis in their conservation is. A decade ago there were only about 250 mature individuals left in the wild, now the numbers are estimated to be up to between 300 and 900. The few individuals we saw were about 1% of the world’s population of gharials. The tri-state agency which is supposed to look after the conservation of these grand ancient animals perhaps has more employees than the total number of gharials across the world. Their long snout, and the tightly interlocking teeth used to give me a fright when I was a child, until I realized that they would much rather be left alone to fish. I don’t think any of my nieces or nephews has even seen a gharial. What an impoverished world we are leaving to the coming generations.

Do you find Dalmatian Pelicans in Dalmatia?

I understand that the pelicans named after the Dalmatian coast of Croatia have not been seen there since the 1950s, and may be considered to be locally extinct. I was not aware of its immense population crash in the previous century when I admired this lone Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). When The Family called out to me, I came running with my camera ready, but I caught the featured photo seconds after a fish had disappeared into its gullet. There is really no understanding of why there was a major drop in the population of one of the largest freshwater birds in the world, but it now has only two breeding populations: a very small one in Mongolia and another larger one somewhat further west in Russia. The ones I saw in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park were winter migrants.

I read the usual stories of hunting (mainly in Mongolia), habitat destruction by draining of swamps (mainly in Russia), and widespread disturbance of nests due to human activity having pushed it into the near-threatened category of the IUCN red list. But interestingly, there have been many investigations in their mysterious decline. It seems that intense parasite infestation is one reason. This was found in other pelican species too. Current thinking rates this as a more significant factor than chemical pollution. This kicked off studies of parasite epidemics and climate change, since the realization that the immune systems of host birds may be stressed in warmer climates.

If you thought that the end result is the disappearance of this species, you could be wrong. It seems that 6000 to 8000 years ago, when the temperatures were about 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today (a time called the Holocene temperature maximum), these pelicans could be found as far north as Denmark. This could happen again, as animals move to parts of the globe more suited to their lifestyles. As the earth warms, egrets have begun nesting and breeding in England in this decade. Strange to think that the tropical birders’ paradise we watched could be in northern Europe in a century.