Friday, 15 May 2015

Identities


Having deleted all the rubbish, and answered the most urgent, I am left with 86 emails from friends, family, colleagues and contacts all over the world. Each contains information, an invitation, an attachment, a question or a request. Together they illustrate the continent-spanning web which is my life. A life, this year, in search of cats and the knowledge of them.

Today I have heard from Konchok, my friend and colleague in Ladakh, with whom in February I was watching snow leopards in Hemis National Park. He writes with good wishes from the team in our camp in the Rumbak valley. I miss them already and, after two days at home, am itching for it to be February again so I can curse my frozen toes alongside these wonderful people.


Konchok searching for snow leopards at Rumbak Sumdo

Konchok and a marsh tit


Also today I have heard from Sanju at the Mahey Retreat, our hotel in Leh. He too is well and asks whether I will be visiting in 2016. I hope so Sanju, I hope so.


The view from the Mahey Retreat across the Indus Valley
to Hemis National Park


From hotter climes - very hot by mid May - I've received photos and greetings from my friends Vinod, Dimple, Tarun and Jai who live in the shade of the tall sal forest at Kanha Jungle Lodge and, at this time of year, watch tigers every day for as long as they like. As happy as I am to be home, I miss them, especially Jai who was away at school on my visit this year so I didn't see him. Tu meri adhuri pyas pyas.


The sal forest entry to Kanha Jungle Lodge


From weeks ago I have an email from Quentin, who masterminded my mammal-watching bonanza in Borneo, with the identity of a plant I photographed in the beautiful garden of the Sepilok Nature Resort. It is of Clerodendrum paniculatum and Quentin writes that Clerodendrum was traditionally regarded as the most powerful plant in the Malay Peninsula, used by medicine men known as pawangs to summon up pangil pangil or forest spirits. Clerodendrum flowers and leaves, he continues, were used as magical bait by many in Borneo when trapping mouse-deer. Magical or not it is a quite lovely plant.


Clerodendrum paniculatum in the garden
at Sepilok Nature Resort

Clerodendrum paniculatum at Gomantong Caves


Continuing with identifications, my friend Tim, who has seen snow leopards with me and not seen Sunda clouded leopards with me (but had a lot of fun in the attempt) sent this photo of a hawkmoth, which I rescued from the loo in Tabin. A lepidopterist friend of Tim's tells us that it is Daphnusa ocellaris. It too is very lovely.


Daphnusa ocellaris (on my own fair finger)
photographed by Tim Stowe


And on the same trip, my friend Kenny Ross took photos of two species of horseshoe bat, one at Gomantong Caves and the second hanging from a wire fence along the entrance road to Tabin. Our new friend Derek, a batophile of some renown, has identified them since the group's return to the UK. They are, respectively, Rhinolophus creaghi and Rhinolophus trifoliatus.

What happiness there is to be had in seeing, wondering, asking, hearing from friends, and learning.


Rhinolophus creaghi photographed by Kenny Ross,
identified by Derek Smith

Rhinolophus trifoliatus photographed by Kenny Ross,
identified by Derek Smith

Curious rainforest species photographed by Kenny Ross,
as yet unidentified



Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Landings


In the past three days I have landed in four planes, each bringing me closer to home, to spring, to my friends, and to myself. My real landing, my re-emergence as me, begins on the tube from Heathrow, and the train from King's Cross: in the flowers by the tracks, the birdsongs heard through the open windows, and the wings seen over chalk south of Cambridge and fen to its north.

The may is in flower, of course, and the wild apple too. A blackbird sings by a tube station platform and woodpigeons flap over greening suburbia. A hare canters on a chalky field of cereal shoots and rooks billow in the spring breeze. By a fenland drain a reed warbler chants heavily; a sedge warbler wheels madly by another. Over a third a cuckoo flies and the sun flickers on the glossy back of a swallow. All of spring is poured, for me, into this one day of coming home.

At home, my garden sings of the love I sowed in it last spring. A female orange-tip nectars from red campion, my signature plant in the words of one gardening friend. I love it and admit I let it creep into every bed. At home there is also a text, from my oldest birding friend Gav, with whom I have seen hundreds of species of bird in the past almost thirty years. Of four birding friends from school, two now live in Norfolk after years away and two stayed away. Gav lives in London but is the only one among us who still keeps a Norfolk list, a fine Norfolk list at that. If I twitch it is always with him.

In his text he proposes walking the Point at dawn the following morning, to look for a Moltoni's warbler, Norfolk's first. He knows I have just got back, he knows I am exhausted, he knows I have had my fill of people and of wildlife, but would I like to join him? Of course I would like to join him. Blakeney Point is my soul place.

In my childhood many summer days were spent encamped in one of the last beach huts on the Point, which belonged then to my great uncle and now to his children my uncle and aunt. We would stripe our legs tearing through marram, burn our skin in the sun, and drop our sandwiches in the sand, only to eat them anyway. I was unaware then of wildlife in a naming-listing-categorising way, but aware of the wild, in this great place and in myself. My summers, and those of my brothers, were the pale shimmering purple of sea lavender and the changing, threatening, seal-hiding blue of the North Sea.

From the Point can be seen the church in which my parents were married, the heaths on which I learned the songs of turtle doves and tree pipits, the marshes through which my flip-flopped child feet would slide in the mud, and the wide beach on which I have won and lost many things. My father rode his boyhood horse along the coast road here and both of my grandfathers were friends of the famous Point warden Ted Eales. Of one of them, the GP in Blakeney, Ted wrote in his autobiography:

He bred a very famous breed of Labradors, Bally Duff. Being of Irish descent he loved his black Labradors and everybody respected him. He was a great character in the village at Blakeney. There was only one thing he was apprehensive about, when I had to call him out to Blakeney Point he said to me, “For Goodness sake, Ted, get me along the beach, I don’t like going across the harbour.” He didn’t like the water, he was not fond of going across in a boat, a thing that one can’t help.

Ted Eales
Countryman’s Memoirs, A Warden’s Life on Blakeney Point

For generations of my family Blakeney Point, and the land and sea around it, have been a soul place. So I said yes to Gav, to seeing one of my oldest friends, to going home to the Norfolk wild, to looking for a lost bird, and to landing. In any case, getting up at four is no hardship for someone who has just returned from three months in Asia. My body is hours ahead of the time on the clock in my little flint cottage in North Norfolk.

Thus in today's dawn we went up the Point, with the tide low enough to take the easy route on the sand both there and back. Our way was loud with the oystercatcher's shriek, with the stammering African rhythms of little terns, with the wavetalk of the still cold sea.

We did not see the warbler, but better still we saw friends - Paul, Sarah and Ajay - over coffee and tea around the kitchen table in the NT Lifeboat House. We shared stories of seals and terns in the dunes, of friends on a puffin island, of little tern decoys and, naturally, of wild cats in Africa and Asia. As always when I see these friends I, who live with my passport in my pocket, was struck by the wisdom of staying in one beautiful place and letting the wild world come to you.

In ten days I must travel again, this time - no thanks to the SNP - without my passport. For now I have landed at home, in the smiling company of flowers and friends, terns, seals, butterflies and books. And it is good to be home.




Flowers and an orange-tip butterfly in my North Norfolk garden

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Cats


The birds of Delhi line the road to greet me as I'm driven from the airport. First a red-wattled lapwing, spindle-legged and quiet in the shade of a roundabout bush. It's likely - I've been so many times - that, though the airport and the arteries of roads around it have hugely changed, I saw this lapwing's parents near here, and grandparents too. Then there are pigeons. Always in Delhi there are pigeons and, reaching my grubby guest house in East Patel Nagar, I see from the scattered feathers in the bathroom that one has been here too. There are mynas, common and bank, a rose-ringed parakeet and many kites wheeling on the hot air of summer Delhi.

Yes it is hot. In June I have known it ten degrees hotter, but just shy of forty degrees today it is the sort of heat I love: dry and solid, bouncing back from the black asphalt of the road. Dogs pant, and brown cart-pulling boys in tank-tops sweat, and Madagascar flame trees blaze in the heat.

I am here for less than a day. A full stop at the end of my three-month journey through Asia in search of cats. Early this morning I arrived from Malaysia, to collect my snow-leopard-watching kit from storage with our ground agency. A little after midnight I fly home to the UK. I hear it's cold. At least now I have my thermals again, though these will be scant protection against our new government.

By now they have gone the snow leopards from our camp in the Rumbak valley, gone to the mountain pastures with the blue sheep and the spring emergence of the marmots. Perhaps the leopard who called above camp for a night was indeed a female. Perhaps a male came to her and she fell pregnant. Perhaps now, three months later, she is searching for a high cave in which to bring her fluffy, eye-closed cubs into being. Perhaps.

My friends from camp - Sonam, Sonam, Angchuk, Nurboo, Gyatso, Gyaltsen - will be beginning now their season trekking over passes, between homestays, seen by the leopards but almost certainly not seeing them. Chosphel will be back in Zanskar, working with local people, spreading the word, with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, that the shan is a friend, an asset, a treasure. I wish them all fortune this summer on the high mountain passes.

In Tadoba P1's two tiger cubs are now sixteen months old, lying in waterholes, panting through the summer heat, easy to see by anyone tough enough to brave it. May is a boom time in tiger-watching. In Pench, old Collar Wali will have had her last litter. By now they're squat and tubby, sniffing round the bush or cave where she has denned them, still small enough that when they have to move she carries them secretly in her mouth, away from males, away from leopards, away from tourists.

In Gir the lions too pant through the brutal heat of Gujarat in summer. Stalking chital by night, and roaring to the waning moon, they rest by day in the dwindling shade of leaf-dropping trees. Monsoon is coming and with it water, leaves, flowers, fruit, insects, birds and abundance. Manisha will be there to watch, with her friends the guides and forest guards, pouring her love onto people, trees, snakes and lions alike.

The small cats live their small lives still beside the great this May. Jungle cats twitch their ready ears in the dry grass of Velavadar, leopard cats crouch round and bright-eyed by the roadside in Tabin, and along the Kinabatangan a tiny flat-headed cat peers from the elephant grass, then slips away into its breeze-rippled vastness.

In time they all slip away these cats, like leopards into the dapple of the forest. They slip into the imagination, the were-they-real? was-I-there? could-it-have-been? imagination inhabited by wild cats. No sooner seen than longed for, wanted, dreamed of, they are a drug.

I've had my fix, these past four months. In Tanzania, in Ladakh, in Madhya Pradesh, in Gujarat, in Borneo. I've seen wild cats, more than a hundred and thirty of them, wherever I've looked. But still I crave them.

Before there will be more cats in the wild, there will be summer in England: swifts, nightjars and natterjacks. There will be time to think on all I've seen, all I've learned, all the people who have given so much of themselves, and to write about them too, I hope.

For I have some small thoughts of big cats to share here; and in the autumn there will be wild cats again. At home in South America. My home: donde durante diez años maravillosos viví.


Friday, 8 May 2015

The name's Bond


Were I a Bond villain, the animal I should stroke menacingly while presenting my plans for world domination to a weaponless Bond would be a banded palm-civet (of which we which saw one on our seventeenth night drive in Tabin this evening). Banded palm-civets, to use the language of Bond villainhood, have edge. Malay civets (of which we saw two this evening) have edge too, though less of it, and one imagines that, with their long legs, they would make rather ungainly lap animals and would refuse to settle. I might allow my minor minions to stroke common palm-civets (five this evening, including two sparring in the middle of the road, so engrossed in their tiff that they failed to notice us) as these, beautiful though they are, have a bumbling quality and are quite lacking in edge.

Leopard cats (of which we saw at least three) are far too cute to be villain familiars. It wouldn't do at all for a man with nuclear devastation at his fingertips to be stroking an animal so adorably spotty. As for the Bornean slow loris (one stranded in a tree devoid of leaves and fruit by the road, apparently wondering how he had got there), any villain seen caressing so sweet a primate would be laughed out of the company of evil forever. (Though poisoning its own saliva with gland-secretions is clearly a major point in favour of the loris as a Bond villain's lap-pet.)

Buffy fish-owls (two on our seventeenth drive), despite their most imposing stare, have far too big talons and would always be rumpling my immaculately pressed Bond villain suit (Mao-style collar I fancy). Bearded pigs (nine of these in two families): let's not even go there. With a pig as a pet I'd spend as much on dry-cleaning my suits as on weapons of mass destruction.

Some animals would be better deployed in attack than kept as pets. Red giant and black flying-squirrels (one apiece this evening) could be trained to glide out under cover of darkness and smother the faces of my adversaries: an army of nut-nibbling night-ninjas. Rhinoceros hornbills (a roosting pair of these tonight) could have razor-sharpened edges to their splendid bills and be launched to snip up my hapless foes.

The mastermind behind my weaponry, my brilliant anti-Q, would, I imagine, be much like a western tarsier (one seen superbly on our first drive this evening, our sixteenth of this tour in Tabin). A dome-headed boffin with mad eyes, a pixie face and strange rubbery fingers, a tarsier would make a fine professor-gone-bad at the head of the scientific wing of my vile empire.

But there is one animal alone which combines the grace, panache and edge required to earn a place in my villainous lap: the banded palm-civet.

Unless of course I could find a Sunda clouded leopard.


Harimau dahan


I am almost never aware that I dream. Perhaps once a year I wake with a dim awareness of having dreamed. Today I woke from my first daytime bout of fitful sweaty sleep with the clearest recollection of a dream: I had been watching a Sunda clouded leopard in a tree (in fact it looked more like an Asian clouded leopard but I'll forgive myself as I was dreaming). It came down from its tree, my leopard, and ran right by me. I was elated. And then I woke.

In reality I have not been seeing Sunda clouded leopards in trees. I have not been seeing them on roads or running past me. I have not been seeing them. I have been trying though. My two groups have been trying very hard. With them, in total, I have undertaken a hundred hours of night drives and river cruises.

Though not seeing I have been learning about Sunda clouded leopards, by talking to guides and drivers who have worked in Tabin these past few years. I have learned that our plan, hatched in Quentin Phillipps' London study early last year, was the right plan, despite our not finding the leopard. Had we done exactly the same thing in 2012 or 2013 I believe we would have seen the leopard.

In 2012 the palm plantations which abut the entrance road to Tabin Wildlife Resort were mature. It is tragically and ironically because of these palm plantations that night-driving here is so remarkably good. Many animals, including the leopard's prey, live in the forest but cross into the palm plantations by night, in search either of palm fruits or of rats, both of which occur in abundance. This was what Quentin predicted last year and it has been so. We have seen barely believable numbers of leopard cats, Malay civets and common palm-civets, plus many, many other fine creatures.

Characteristically generous with his knowledge and understanding, Quentin also told me that clouded leopards were seen more often along the Tabin entrance road than anywhere else and this was also quite true. However, through talking to guides here in Tabin I believe it was true until the moment in 2013 when the old palm plantations were felled and replanted, at which point, I speculate, the leopards moved back to more traditional hunting in the forest. One guide tells me he saw clouded leopard ten times along the road in 2012. Ten times on normal night-drives at dusk. Almost once a month. The other guides also report seeing clouded leopard quite frequently in 2012; but barely at all since the plantations were replanted, and then almost always along roads through the tall secondary forest.

This is why I believe that in 2012, spending the huge amount of time driving at night that we do on our tour, we would most likely have encountered a leopard. Perhaps in a few years' time the pigs will return in force to the regrown plantations. Perhaps the leopards will follow them and there will again be boom years. Perhaps my whole theory is nonsense.

Either way this is a magnificent tour. With my two groups I have seen more than forty species of mammal, most of them very well and many of them repeatedly. The forest is beautiful, the nocturnal camaraderie delightful and people of Tabin the most friendly and helpful to be found anywhere in the world. It has been a blessing to be here these past three weeks.

One fact tantalises more than any other. One of the drivers between Lahad Datu and Tabin, who has driven members of both of my groups to the resort, is a man named Henry. The night after I left with the first group he walked out behind his room in the staff quarters and, at the mouth of a bearded pig trail, he saw a Sunda clouded leopard.

So it has been here, right here, these three weeks - harimau dahan - but it has chosen not to be seen. As a guide in Botswana years ago told a once-client now-friend of mine, and as she wrote to me last week, 'Do not look for the leopard; let the leopard look for you.'

Tonight is my last night of drives in this wonderful place, of smiling people, wild, tall forests and charming wildlife. Perhaps a Sunda clouded leopard will look for me.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

On our fourteenth night drive in Tabin we saw...


... only a Malay civet, a bearded pig, a red giant flying-squirrel, two black flying-squirrels, three leopard cats and four common palm-civets.

Four drives to go.


On our thirteenth night drive in Tabin we saw...


... a colugo at nightfall, wrapping the trunk of a tree in its dermal flap; a Bornean slow loris in a muddle of leaves and the unmistakable eyes of another much further away; a small-toothed palm-civet searching for fruit; and, before dusk, a great-billed heron in a tree, its great bill a silhouette against the day's fading light.

Just as I finish this post I can hear smooth-coated otters calling in the river below the lodge.

Good place Tabin.

Five drives to go.