Flatland

I’m a city person. I seldom see the horizon. What I probably share with you, whether you are a city person or not, is the habit of looking at tall things. Trees, poles for street lights, even buildings, set a scale for my judgment of distance. I found myself completely lost in the desert. In the flat landscape which extends all the way to the horizon, I could not gauge distances. I saw a man striding towards me, and took the featured photo. I thought it might take him a quarter of an hour to get near us. It was more like five minutes.

Later I saw this cow sitting in the distance, chewing its cud. Far far away, I thought. It got up, ambled past us and was lost in the distance; all in the space of ten minutes. My eyes could not adjust to this completely flat landscape. If there was a line of electricity pole marching from horizon to horizon, I might have been able to use that to estimate distances. But without any vertical cues, I completely failed.

A little walk later I saw this tree sandwiched between two hills. Later I looked at the photo and thought, “Just a minute. Hills?” No, in this desert there are no hills. The tree is the usual stunted acacia tree. It gives us a scale for how large things are. The bumps around the tree are just two heaps of sand, not very high. Looking again at it, I realized that the picture also has two electricity poles which are higher than the “hills”. The poles here are not very high, so that limits how high these piles of sand and dust are.

I didn’t stay in the desert long enough to get used to gauging distances. Wherever I looked I was deceived.

New Year? Get outta here

On my last night in the desert, a friend asked me whether I’d taken any photos of camels. “Too trite”, I replied. But when I woke before dawn the next morning I remembered the question. I walked out into the sands outside our little mud hut and looked at camels munching away on thorn bushes. The sun was just breaking through the clouds while the camels looked terribly bored and sleepy.

“You got up just to look at this s***?”, it seemed to think. “Why did you even bother?” it might have asked in that sleepy, the morning after the night out look, that a camel always has. I couldn’t forget this image. So, at the crack of a dawn that brings on a new year, I’m posting this photo.

“New year? Really, why did you think it might be interesting?” the supercilious chap seems to ask. I don’t want to argue with it, but a happy new year to you.

Sunset of the Bustards

In other times the featured photo would be a grand sighting: four individuals of the Great Indian Bustard and four Chinkara (Indian gazelle) lined up in the scrub inside the Thar desert. Unfortunately, what you see is probably 4% of the world population of the Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps). This bird is almost surely dwindling into the mists of extinction. A decade ago I saw a single individual in a different habitat. I fear that this habitat, one of the last large refuges for it, will also see the last of them in a couple of decades.

This species is listed as Critically Endangered because it has an extremely small population that has undergone an extremely rapid decline owing to a multitude of threats including habitat loss and degradation, hunting and direct disturbance. It now requires an urgent acceleration in targeted conservation actions in order to prevent it from becoming functionally extinct within a few decades.
IUCN Red List

A century ago the Great Indian Bustard was visible in Rajasthan, all the way south to Maharashtra, and east to Madhya Pradesh. Why are they endangered now? Two decades ago it was due to hunting. The number of bustards fell from over 2000 in the 1960s to about 200 in the last decade. Since then it has plummeted because of habitat degradation. The bustard lives in scrublands, lays a single egg in a nest in rocky ground, and incubates it for about a month. Natural predators include foxes, mongoose and monitor lizards, which eat the eggs, and cats, jackals and dogs, which eat the chicks before they are a month old. The greatest danger to eggs, apparently is due to cattle stepping on them. Habitat loss to humans, and the resulting increased danger from cattle and feral dogs, has been the main cause of the total population of this bird diving below a hundred since 2011.

I never got less than a kilometer away from a bustard. That’s what you see in the featured photo, which is the best that I could do with a 1500 mm zoom. In 2009 I had seen a single bird at roughly the same distance in Maharashtra. At that time I saw a feather from its back (photo above) in a forest guards’ hide. I took the shot as a record, knowing fully well that I would never get closer to a bustard than this.

I’d seen birds move through grass, hunker down under shrubs, but never seen it fly. This time around, we spotted three of them at a distance. As we watched, a car drove past us right towards the trio. I managed to take a photo, without getting its number plates (photo above). Two of the birds slipped behind a thicket and could not be seen any more. The third ran away as the car approached. The birds are excitable, and encounters of this kind visibly agitates them. There is also a chance that unscrupulous tourists like this could drive over eggs. The late fame of this bird could be the last straw.

The government has declared the bird protected, with legal provisions similar to the protection given to tigers. The state of Rajasthan has adopted it as its state bird. There seems to be some confusion about how to go about increasing the population. I sincerely hope that the Great Indian Bustard, one of the largest flying birds in the world, does not follow the Indian Cheetah into extinction, but I am very afraid that it will.

A de Chirico landscape

As we drove through the Thar desert, I was intrigued by villages which seemed half-built and deserted. Often blocks of yellow Jaisalmer sandstone would be piled up at several places, enhancing the impression that the houses in the village were unfinished. Eventually we stopped at one of these. Indeed, as you can see from the photo above, the village looks like a painting by Giorgio de Chirico: surreal empty blocks of buildings, open plazas, blue skies, bright sun, and not a living soul in sight.

The buildings are made entirely of Jaisalmer yellow sandstone mortared together. The stone is common in this region, but not easily seen elsewhere. We found a few buildings which had been left unfinished. Sand had piled up against the boundary wall you see in the photo above. The electrical lines which cut through this empty village marched away to the horizon. Sand had also blown into the unfinished houses, and piled up in great drifts inside.

It was only when a bunch of children came running towards us that we noticed the real village. It was a couple of hundred meters away; a cluster of mud huts. The children gathered around us discussing every move we made in Hindi. There was some controversy about whether we were “English”. I decided to talk about very mundane things with them, in Hindi: like why they were not at school (it was after school hours) and whether they liked math more than Hindi (there was no consensus). After this conversation quietened them down, I asked them to pose for a photo. Only four did, and you can see them in the photo above. After this they decided there was no entertainment left in us, and they ran off. We were left alone in the deserted village, wondering why it came into being when there was a real live village right next to it.

Desert livelihoods

As we traveled westwards from Jodhpur into the deep desert, we raced past tiny villages. A day later, as we stood in a little oasis in the desert and saw a herd of sheep come in to graze and drink water, I started to wonder about the livelihood of people who live here. The desert covers about 60% of Rajasthan. The population density of about 80 persons per square kilometer is about a fifth of the rest of Rajasthan. Still, the desert holds more than 15 million people. How do they live, what do they do?

Herding is a major traditional livelihood. Apart from sheep we saw goats, cows and donkeys. The photo which you see above was taken near one of the largest oases in the western desert. Ground water is scarce in the desert; we hardly saw any wells. Because of this, traditional herders were nomadic, driving their livestock from one oasis to another. I don’t know whether this lifestyle is still possible today. I suspect that the slightly improved supply of water, from the Indira Gandhi Canal, has contributed to the settling of nomads. Another factor in the settling of nomads is the plentiful electricity from wind generators: you need to have a settled address in order to tap into the electric grid

There was evidence of subsistence farming, as in the photo above. I had to keep my nose and mouth constantly covered against blowing dust, so I suspect that there is little soil here. Farming cannot be a paying proposition. The article on the Thar desert in Wikipedia claims that a third of crops fail. This figure is not referenced, and may be inaccurate. New crops are constantly tried out, and it was clear that pearl millet (bajra) is a success. We had wonderful bajra roti all through our trip. The Family pointed out that the bajra is better than what we get in Mumbai. On the other hand, it is also clear that there is a constant battle to contain the desert.

One possible future for India due to global warming is widespread desertification of the country. This is not inevitable, because good policies and innovation in large-scale rain and ground water management could lead to a different future. The Thar desert is a laboratory for how we could try to manage this kind of disastrous future.

The tigers of Ranthambore

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.

Cheetal fawn grazing in Ranthambore

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.

Peacock and plastic trash in Ranthambore

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.

Sambar deer

The only group of Sambar deer we saw in Ranthambore was the one in the featured photo. Of the group of four, the three in front seemed to be a mother and her two young. The one in the background looks like another adult female. The group was aware of us, but they continued to feed. The female at the back occasionally lifted her front feet off the ground to reach for hanging leaves.

Although we did not see any male Sambar, they were definitely around. Every day we heard alarm calls of lone Sambar: a short bark repeated periodically. These alarm calls signify a tiger or a leopard in the neighbourhood. I learnt a bit of jungle lore from one of the guides. Apparently Sambar keep making these alarm calls as long as the tiger is on the move. When it sits down, the calls cease, but the Sambar keeps a watch and calls again when the tiger starts moving.

We tracked the movement of a predator this way once. It seemed to have been fairly close to the road when we heard the alarm call of the Sambar first, but then it gradually moved away and we lost it. The unseen predator was reluctant to move away, because it hunkered down several times before giving up and vanishing into the forest. It was probably a leopard, because we were near a leopard’s kill.

Birds of Ranthambore

Any place in north India is full of migratory birds at this time of the year, and a forest with lakes is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Unfortunately, in Ranthambore most tourists, and every guide, spend most of their time driving around at high speed looking for tigers. As a result, you tend to miss the birds.

The Family, who is a much better birder than me, threw up her hands and refused to look at birds. I was left on my own. I’m a terrible spotter, and certainly from a speeding jeep I could not see any of the little warblers I could hear. The only small bird I saw was very distinctive, and I could later identify it as a common chiffchaff. This was a lifer. Everything else I identified was something I’d already seen before.

Spotted owlets in Ranthambore

The one bit of birdwatching where local expertise is really helpful is in spotting owls. Typically, these nest in the same place over years. You could spend a long time looking for the nest, or ask a local. One of our guides knew where to find spotted owlets (above) and a oriental Scops owl. That was handy.

    Darter in Ranthambore
    Darter

  1. Peacock
  2. Jungle babbler
  3. Yellow-legged buttonquail
  4. Red-vented bulbul
  5. Rose-ringed parakeet
  6. Common myna
  7. Bank myna
  8. Pied myna
  9. Spotted dove
  10. Eurasian collared dove
  11. Common drongo
  12. White-bellied drongo
  13. Indian magpie robin
  14. Purple heron in Ranthambore
    Purple Heron
  15. Indian roller bird
  16. Rufous treepie
  17. Pied kingfisher
  18. White-breasted kingfisher
  19. Bay-backed shrike
  20. Southern grey shrike
  21. Red-wattled lapwing
  22. Common cormorant
  23. Great cormorant
  24. Indian darter
  25. Purple heron
  26. Common moorhen
  27. Eurasian coot
  28. Crested serpent eagle in Ranthambore
    Crested serpent eagle
  29. Black-winged stilt
  30. Black-shouldered kite
  31. Shikra
  32. Black-headed ibis
  33. Woolly-necked stork
  34. Yellow-footed green pigeon
  35. Oriental Scops owl
  36. Spotted owlet
  37. Crested serpent eagle
  38. Common pochard
  39. Common teal
  40. * Common chiffchaff

One sighting that momentarily energized The Family was of a black headed Ibis. She sat up, looked around and spotted a lump on a tree. We looked closer, and it turned out to be the woolly necked stork which you see in the photo below.

Woolly necked stork in Ranthambore

From our speeding car we saw a mass of small birds flitting above a field next to the Jaipur-Indore road. They were probably Dusky crag martins, but it was hard to be sure. In far corners of some of my photos there are two more birds: perhaps the Eurasian wigeon and the Northern pintail, but they can be barely made out. I won’t count them in the list.

Monkey’s business

If you observe monkeys, or read accounts by those who do, you’ll find that most of the social life of monkeys centres around grooming. It seems to be as important to monkeys as chatting is to us. I watched the two langurs you can see in the featured photo. The smaller one was initially sitting by itself, when the larger one sauntered by. The smaller was startled, and was ready to run in fright, when the bigger one reached out, pulled it down and began to groom it.

These gray langurs, sometimes called hanuman langurs, have been studied extensively. Much is known of their genetics and social structure. Still, interesting new material comes to light from amateur observation of these herbivorous monkeys. Many interesting new observations are of deception. I wasn’t lucky enough to see anything as interesting as this.

Monkeys hugging each other in Ranthambore

If you spend even a little time in an Indian forest you cannot fail to see an association of Cheetal and langurs. Of course, if amateurs and tourists can spot this, professionals must be writing papers about it. The bottom line seems to be that Cheetal gain from staying around langurs.

We stopped to watch the deer, but my attention turned to the monkeys. After the first incident, which I described above, I saw many more pairs grooming each other. Another encounter was also startling. A smaller monkey ran towards a larger one and hugged it (as you see in the photo). The larger one then started grooming the smaller one. What was it? Mother and older child?

Monkey behaviour is complex enough to be endlessly fascinating.

Blue cows

Nilgai (meaning blue cow) and wild boars are original residents of India. I’ve seen paintings of both these animals in the Bhimbetka caves, so they have been part of the landscape around the earliest humans in India. For all that, they are not very dense on the ground. So one tends to stop and admire them when one comes across an individual.

In Ranthambore I saw a single large male almost as soon as we entered the park. The stately, slaty blue antelope was foraging at the periphery of a herd of Cheetal. The scene was quietly beautiful: the yellow-brown coats of the Cheetal were lit up in the morning sun, whereas the darker Nilgai stood in the shadows of the trees.

Nilgai browsing in Ranthambore

As I watched the Nilgai craned its neck up to browse on the low branches of the tree near it. I saw it eating the woody twigs along with leaves and recalled news stories of man-animal conflict because Nilgai ate up crops. Nilgai population outside of these protected areas is very sparse. So talk of Nilgai destroying crops over large areas sounds like a lame excuse to hunt a protected animal.

In recent years the decline in Nilgai populations has reversed, but recent decisions to allow their killing could easily endanger them again. I was happy standing with a group of people gawking at this animal out of our history in such a peaceful setting.