Saturday, 28 March 2015

From Ladakh


After almost a month sweating in the jungles of central India, it seems hardly possible that so recently I was in Ladakh with an intrepid band of snow-leopard-watchers. However, while I have been out of the range of the internet, I have received many photos from the clients - now friends - of my 2015 snow leopard tour with Naturetrek. With their permission, I reproduce some of them here,


Dog at Shey Gompa by Nick Baker

Tea in Norboo's house in Ulley by Nick Baker

Snow leopard in Ulley by Richard Hurrell

Snow leopard by Richard Hurrell

Snow leopard by Richard Hurrell

A local lad watching a snow leopard with us in Ulley
by Nick Baker

Snow leopard in Ulley by Giovanni Mari

The walk into camp in the Rumbak Valley
by Stan da Prato

Our bags carried into camp
by Stan da Prato

Large-eared pika at Lato by Stan da Prato

Denzel the camp yak by Stan da Prato

Denzel by Stan da Prato
(sounds like the name of a perfume)

Camp in the Rumbak Valley
by Stan da Prato

The start of the snowstorm in the Rumbak Valley
by Stan da Prato

Camp in the snow by Stan da Prato

Water being brought from the river through holes chipped in the ice
by Stan da Prato

Snow leopard above camp at dawn
by Giovanni Mari

Snow leopard far above camp, seen from Lato
by Giovanni Mari

Camp by starlight
by Richard Hurrell


Friday, 27 March 2015

A video and photo diary from central India




Tiger and chital at the gate of Pench National Park

Gaur at the gate of Pench National Park

Reni Pani


26th March

On arrival in Reni Pani, the beautiful lodge which Naturetrek uses in Satpura Tiger Reserve, I told our guide Amith and lodge-owner Ali that at all costs I wanted to see a rusty-spotted cat. I went further: with my tongue firmly in my cheek I told them that should they fail to find me a rusty-spotted cat I would destroy the lodge's reputation with one stroke of my blogging finger.

We failed to find a rusty-spotted cat, despite heroic efforts on Amith's part. Our attempts to see them, with my Naturetrek Satpura extension group, were hampered by recent cold, wet weather (gone now, but its effects on wildlife are apparently still being felt) and by the park's edict, the very day we arrived, that lamping for wildlife by night is forbidden. We have made every effort to see one, without flouting the park's new regulation, but the world's smallest cat has eluded me. It is in fact the first feline which I had a reasonable chance of seeing in 2015 which I have failed to see.

It does not matter. It would have been wonderful to have seen one on my Big Cat Quest but it has been more than wonderful to stay at Reni Pani and to learn from wise, kindly Amith about the lovely forests of Satpura. This is a place where the strange songs of Indian and savannah nightjars puncture the hot air of the night. This is a place where blackbuck bound over golden cereals, ripe for harvest, in the fields of local villages. This is a place where handsome, smiling guides paddle even more broadly smiling Naturetrek clients in canoes: to see river terns and Indian skimmers building their nests on an island, as north-bound Temminck's and little stints display on the mud around them. This is a place where glossy gaur chomp the forest undergrowth and sloth bear mothers sway their shaggy heads as they walk, their scrap-like infants clinging to their humped black backs. This is a place of wild wonder.

I did not see a rusty-spotted cat but I do not care. I am grateful to Amith, to Ali and his friendly, efficient staff, and to everyone at Reni Pani for a serenely beautiful stay in Satpura. I leave central India with the jungle, its peerless wildlife and its gracious people, in my heart.



Naturalist and conservationist Amith

Butea monosperma in flower in Satpura

Naturetrek clients photographing birds at Butea flowers


Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               1
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                4
rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus 0, zilch, not a single one


Sloth bears, a leopard and a dislocated toe




A leopard-related injury

A very bruised foot the following morning


Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               1
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                4


Gifts from the jungle


21st March

For a moment this afternoon a leopard sat on a rock above the road, its eyes and the sun searing into me.Yesterday a male tiger padded soundlessly along a forest track towards us. The jungle gives still.



Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               1
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                3


Dogs


20th March

Of all the animals of jungle India, the one I most long to see on every visit is the wild dog. There is a taut energy about the dogs which defies description in words. Where the tiger is laconic and the leopard disdainful, the wild dogs are wired.

This morning we came across a pack of five dogs, a pair and their three well-grown pups, on a sandy road through the sal forest of the Mukki zone in Kanha. They move, the dogs, in the manner of mercury, bright drops flowing along the road, parting and recombining as they go. These molten mammals slipped by our jeep and into the scented forest understorey, now seen as bewitching shadows behind a blind, as they trotted purposefully towards a stream. We pulled to the bridge and one by one the dogs dropped down the dusty bank, across the stream bed on neat feet, and up to the forest on the far side. At their head went a confident pup, followed by its parents, with two less bold pups in the rear.

As the rust-red dogs rippled over the stream's bank, the long white tails of chital rose in the brush and the deer bounded away. The dogs appeared on the road, one rolling like a wild wave towards the fleeing deer as if in hunting. A single chital fled the wrong way, back towards the stream, and for a moment one dog gave half-hearted chase; but the pack was in no mood to hunt, or judged the chase fruitless. The chital's time had not come. It will meet the dogs again one day, or a leopard, or a tiger, and pass its life back to the flickering magic of the Indian jungle.

Years ago, a tiger-expert friend Raghu was leading a tour here in Kanha. His English is self-taught and, being of great intelligence, he appropriates new expressions from conversation all around him. On this occasion, one of his jeeps returned to the lodge and he asked his clients how their morning had been and what they had seen. They replied that they had seen no mammals of note but that they had spent a pleasant morning birding. Raghu was unfamiliar with the expression. To date he had heard only of people birdwatching. Now he knew to take an animal's name and make it into a verb.

That afternoon he had an excellent sighting of the wild dogs.


A wild dog painted for me by a Naturetrek tour client
at the end of a marvellous tour



Five tigers for breakfast


19th March

I love Kanha. If there were a self-help group for kanhaholics I would be its poster-boy. The park is a dreamily beautiful mix of tall, cool sal forest, grassland with drifts of deer, and plentiful waterholes. What's more, I know that my friends at Kanha Jungle Lodge - Dimple, Tarun, Vinod, Manoj, Dilip, Santosh and all their colleagues - will do everything in their power to ensure that Naturetrek's clients have a superb time here. Whenever we reach the Mukki gate of the park I'm greeted by guide friends from years back, all chiding me for not coming more often. I love Kanha.

In Kanha I can relax and do my job of sharing wildlife with people. And what wildlife there is here! Orange-headed thrushes turn the crisp sal leaves on the forest floor and brown-headed barbets purr from the tops of the trees. In the meadows the herds of chital and barasingha graze, twitching their big ears over the tall gold grasses. Wild boar scurry for cover and langurs chew contemplatively at the road's edge. This is a wondrous place.

Tigers though are on everyone's minds. Last night Vinod told me that the Mukki zone, where we stay, is enjoying the best tiger-watching in the park, the orange and black equivalent of a purple patch. Tigresses with well-grown cubs always make for the best tiger-watching and the eight-year-old Mahavir tigress has, at the moment, four cubs of ten months which have just this week begun to be seen. Our focus this morning was on them.

The park currently opens at six. By nine there had been no news of tigers so we called at Sondar camp for breakfast. As soon as our delicious food was laid before us there was frantic activity from the jeeps which had already eaten and were leaving the camp: the tigress was crossing Sondar meadow. We packed our hampers as fast as we could but reached the spot just too late. One of my jeeps was there and had seen the tigress well, the second was nowhere to be seen, while in my own jeep we had missed her by seconds.

We waited on the road, some distance from the patch of forest from which we could hear the cubs calling to their mother. Excitement pulsed through the few jeeps present as this solidly built, deep orange tigress, with a powerful chest and long white cheek tufts, emerged from the forest edge. She stood in the maidan and looked back to the trees, waiting for her cubs to follow. And this they did, tentatively and in stages. One cub, a perfect copy in miniature of its mother, was bold, joining her quickly. Two more arrived but soon scampered back to the safety of the trees. The fourth, a small, timid, tan-coloured cub, was slow to appear. Finally all the cubs joined their mother who marshalled them over the grass into a cordon of forest by the road. From here they crossed in front of us, into the forest, and were gone.

It's lunchtime at Kanha Jungle Lodge and I find I am very hungry. It doesn't do to go without breakfast.


Kanha Jungle Lodge in the sal forest

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               1
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          12
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                2