He came with a lizard in his beak. A choice tidbit, most appreciated. But only if you’re a Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis). The female lays up to four white eggs in a tree hole blocked off during incubation with a cement made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. There is only one narrow aperture, barely wide enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. These birds usually live in pairs or small flocks consisting of up to five birds (2 adults and 2-3 juveniles). They are omnivores observed consuming berries, fruits, insects and small lizards. It feeds mostly on figs, although occasionally it eats small rodents, reptiles and insects.
We, my friend Ifham Raji and I were parked in our open Toyota Hilux safari vehicle, our cameras mounted on sand bags placed on the roof of the cab and focused on the hole in the tree which was the Hornbill nest. We could see the beak of the female from time to time as she threw out the waste from her nest, ensuring that it remained clean.
It was early morning and the forest was filled with birdsong. A Shama (White-rumped shama – Copsychus malabaricus) alighted on a twig facing me, scarcely five feet away and gave me a personal recital of his song. I wanted to photograph him but decided only to let my memory do the job for fear of scaring him away with my movement. The Shama has a black head, a brown waistcoat and a black tailcoat with two long tail feathers. On the back is emblazoned his white shield on which he hasn’t inscribed his coat of arms yet. The white shield on the back is very striking. But above all this, what impressed me was his attitude. Confidence, curiosity, friendliness. He came, he saw, he sang and he conquered my heart.
Meanwhile the male Hornbill came with his delicacy but looked extremely suspicious and skittish. I wondered whether we were the cause of his alarm or anything else, until I saw two other Hornbills, fully grown juveniles, that flew in as if they’d been lying in wait for him. One, which I think was the male, dive-bombed him to try to make him drop his catch. That was fairly easily taken care of by the simple action of swallowing it. When this tactic didn’t work after trying it several times, the male gave up and went off into the forest. The female decided that the best way was to appeal to whatever nobility existed in the heart of her father and simply begged. She did that so pathetically and effectively that he eventually coughed up something for her. I say “father” because that’s who he was. These two were his fully grown millennial chicks from a previous brood, who know what human millennials worked out only in this generation. That it’s easier to live off your parents than to work for your own living. Hornbill youngsters do that for a year or more after they are fully fledged until the parents finally kick them out altogether. The interaction was fabulous to watch.
This is my greatest pleasure in bird photography; watching interaction as birds afford you an opportunity that mammals and reptiles don’t. Birds go about their lives as if you don’t exist and allow you a glimpse into their lives that’s a privilege which pays the patient who value their time. You may be surprised to see the use of the phrase, “value their time”, in a context different from the usual. We imagine that our frenetic lifestyle is worthwhile and that the best use of time is to cram as much into it as possible with no thought about what we get as a result. I believe that the best use of time is to consider the result in whatever we propose to do with it and then spend the time only if the result warrants it. Time is not money. Time is far more valuable than money. Money can be earned, lost but replaced. Time is free, can be lost but never replaced. That’s why I’m very careful with my time and consider sitting for six hours watching a Hornbill father take care of his mate, while avoiding the raids of his children, one of the most beneficial uses of my time. That’s how long it took us to get some decent photographs.
So now there was the father, finally having got rid of his pesky brood, ready to feed his mate. But with what, I wondered. Because he had swallowed the lizard to save it from being eaten. Sounds oxymoronic but there it was. So I watched. He looked all around. Called a few times to assure his mate that he still loved her. His raucous call that can be music only to a female Hornbill’s ears. He flew from perch to perch all around the nest-hole to assure himself from every angle that the coast was clear. Then he landed on the vertical trunk of the tree, on the lip of the nest-hole. Then I loed and beheld, to my amazement, the lizard emerged. And after it, a large green beetle, a large black beetle, a large grey caterpillar, and one after another a series of black berries (not the phone, real ones). Not having been a Hornbill ever, in my career, nor privy to his loading sequence, I can’t say if everything came out as it was ingested. But the lizard was last in, first out. Then he was off.
The second trip was a repeat of the first. We wait and wait. The Shama takes pity on us and returns to sing us another song. Then the juveniles return to check out if dad is back with food. The male chick is chased out of another part of the forest by a highly aggressive and territorial Golden Oriole. The GO is one sixth or less in size but has ten times his courage. So throwing all dignity to the wind, the Hornbill chick makes haste with the GO in hot pursuit. All he had to do was to stand and say, “Okay, do your worst.” And the Oriole would have come face to face with his limitations. But this is a world of deception, even for birds and noise counts more than action.
I sensed something behind us. I had been listening to some movement in the forest with an occasional branch breaking and dry leaves gently rustling. Could be jungle fowl or monkeys. But as I turned around, I saw the biggest cow elephant that I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. Sri Lankan elephants are the biggest of Asian elephants and this one was proof. She came out of the forest like a shadow, in total silence. She turned and looked at us in the safari jeep, barely 20 meters from her. Then she turned and walked away with elephantine dignity that only elephants can muster. No aggression, no posturing. Someone who knows herself and her own power and has no need to demonstrate it to anyone. Someone who is content even to let those intruding into her space, to do so without protest, as long as they are respectful. Big question in my mind was what she was doing alone. Where was her family? We saw her twice more, both times alone. I wonder what that story is.
Meanwhile the Hornbill returned, this time, regurgitating a series of red berries, one after another and passing them to his mate through the hole in the wall. It was amazing to see the precise nature of the sequence where he would bring out one at a time, run it up his long beak, and very delicately drop it into the nest. I didn’t see him actually feeding his mate nor did I see her take the fruit from his beak. But it all went into the nest-hole.
A Barking Deer cautiously made his way out of the forest on my right and hurriedly crossed the open patch of the road and entered the undergrowth on my left. My dilemma was whether to photograph him and risk disturbing the Hornbill. But he solved my dilemma by taking off again on his never ending quest to keep his spouse happy. Never saw anyone work so hard at this. Reminded me of the picture I see every morning in my mirror.
The jungle is full of surprises and wonders for the one who takes the time to look. As we were driving in search of the leopard, the king of Wilpattu and indeed Sri Lanka, we saw a small bird on its nest, incubating its eggs. It was so confident of its camouflage that it didn’t budge as I photographed it.
A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl came out of the forest, followed by his hens. His blood-red comb with the yellow blaze in the center distinguishes him from the Indian Red Jungle Fowl who he resembles. He crowed to announce to the world that he was walking the earth and then busied himself scratching in the dirt.
As we were watching a leopard sitting drowsily through a gap in the bushes, a very busy Red-vented Bulbul landed on a twig near me with a piece of grass folded like a bow tie in his beak. It is nesting season and Bulbuls are busy building their nests. They are among the most vocal of birds and having this grass in its beak, didn’t stop it from saying,’Excuse me, what on earth are you doing, simply sitting and watching that silly leopard, being drowsy? Don’t you have other things to do?’ Having got no response, he decided that he didn’t have time to waste with me and flew off.
Yeah! I know. Where’s the scene of all this action? Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. A world heritage site and the oldest national park in the country. Flat land, very sandy, with very large trees and lots of lakes. Villu is Tamil for lake and Pattu means ten. There are more than forty in the park but ten large ones, thus the name. The huge trees are great perches for leopards and create a lovely shady micro-climate. The forest when we were there was simply flooded with purple flowers on the tertiary branches of a plant that I don’t know the name of. If someone who reads this article can tell me the name I will be most grateful.
This plant is everywhere. It is a large bushy plant with these wonderful flowers growing directly on the tertiary branches instead of on their own individual stalks. They have a very subtle, sweet aroma and the forest looks absolutely fantastic because of them.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (much better name than Forest Department, because it speaks of their focus), has built bungalows (rather grand name for cottages) on the banks of some lakes. The location makes up for the lack of maintenance and resultant challenges is staying in them. The one we stayed in had no door handles or latches. So at night I had to push an extremely heavy bed against the door to keep out any potentially unwelcome visitors. The same was the case with the bathroom with the added joy that the floor tiles squelched and squirted water, every time you stepped on them. But the joy of a cold shower at the end of a hot, humid day compensated for the squelchy floor tiles. The bungalows have solar power but no fans or plug points. So no charging of phones. There is no signal anyway so the death of the phone goes unmourned. But the impending demise of camera batteries is another matter. At any rate this adds to the excitement of trying to conserve battery power and shooting wisely.
Also no fans means that hot humid days are exquisite torture. But all you need to do, to forget the discomfort is to look out from the veranda at the lake before you. Brown grass in the foreground, getting greener as it nears the water. Lush green grass closer to the water, then reeds and then the inviting blue of the lake itself. Do not yield to the invitation to jump in. Jump into the squelchy shower instead because in Wilpattu and Yala, every puddle has its resident croc. Not the shoes but the real ones. Ranging in size from cute and cuddly to enormous maneaters, which probably never ate a man and so would be doubly anxious to try one out. You’ll also see lots of birds on the Villus (lakes, remember?).
On our Villu, in one afternoon, I saw a pair of Wooly-necked storks walking purposefully looking at the ground. An Adjutant Stork (a very ugly bird) walking with whatever dignity it could muster while being harassed and chased away by a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings, screeching their alarm call, Did-you-do-it, Did-you-do-it? The Adjutant hadn’t but his reputation of eating eggs and chicks is enough to pronounce him guilty in the eyes of the Lapwings and they didn’t want him in the vicinity. Then there was a pair of Malabar Giant Hornbills crossing the lake, their characteristic flight, their signature.
There were perhaps thirty or forty butterflies congregating on a patch of moisture. They attracted the attention of a Green Bee Eater, which decided that he was not bound by his name and had no objection to eating butterflies also. After the fourth swooping flight and the fourth butterfly which became history, they got the message and dispersed. But not before a fifth one was picked through the air.
GBE’s are such graceful flyers and such attractive birds. What strikes me yet again is how alive the forest is. As we were sitting in the jeep waiting for the Hornbill to turn up, I could hear an absolute orchestra of bird song. I could identify five or six but there were at least another dozen that I didn’t recognize. Yet all this is not noise or cacophony just like the infinite variety of color has nothing that’s mismatched.
After we got the last shot, we headed back for our bungalow. As we came to yet another lake, this one covered in white lotus flowers, I spotted a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees (Eurasian Stone Curlew) doing what they do best; just being. I recalled having spotted them many times in several countries but always simply being; doing nothing. What’s their purpose in life, I asked myself. They do nothing. Not even search for food; at least whenever I was watching. Ifham tells me, “I know a lot of people in the cities who run around all day but do nothing. These birds are doing it better because they’re doing it without expending any energy.” And he’s right, isn’t he?
There was an Egret which was flirting with a baby crocodile. Until the little croc lunged forward. The Egret did some inspired gymnastics and got away otherwise the little croc would have had a bird brain for dinner.
The sun had set. We finished our dinner. I’m sitting with my cup of tea after which I intend to go to bed. A Cheetal (Axis deer) sounds an alarm, the Langur sentinel takes up the call, then a Sambar bells his call. Now I can be sure that the leopard is on the prowl. Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka and so the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya) is the largest of its species. He behaves the way a tiger behaves in the Indian forest and so if you want to see leopards, Sri Lanka is the place. Since they have no enemies, they walk around during the day and are very relaxed when you spot them either dozing on a tree branch or on the ground, in the shade of a tree. You’d never see that in India or Africa where leopards must always be on the lookout for tigers and lions, who will kill them as soon as look at them. But in Sri Lanka they have nothing to fear and so are much easier to spot.
I hope the leopard will come around the bungalow in the night and I get to hear his sawing grunts. The night is alive with its own sounds. Nightjars announcing that they’re on duty. The Brown Fish Owl calling his mate. Two Spotted Owlets discussing hunting strategy. Langurs murmuring after hearing the far sentinel announcing that the leopard’s on the move.
Life goes on. The struggle continues. Some win. Some lose. For some, it is only fun. He also serves who only bears witness.
Kabini River Resort on the bank of the Kabini Reservior, bordering Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. I am in the Gol Ghar (which is actually rectangular) at tea and snack time after the afternoon safari.
“What did you see?” asked an American who had come to Kabini for the first time.
“Nothing. Totally dry. Five safaris and we saw nothing,” said an extremely bossy Indian woman whose rude behavior was on display wherever she went with the saving grace that nobody was exempt from it. One must be grateful when people with bad manners display them equally for everyone.
Ajeeb! I say to myself. Then I check to see if the people talking were blind or blindfolded. But no. They weren’t. Bright eyes and each had a camera and lens worth at least 3 – 4 laks each. One a Nikon and the other a Sony. But we shall not hold that against them. What was more, this conversation or different versions of it, were happening all around me. So, it wasn’t only this one woman who saw nothing.
How could this be? How can people go for a three-hour drive in one of the most beautiful forests in India and say that they saw nothing? Unless of course one were to ask, “What does seeing mean?”
Well, what did I see?
I saw a silent life and death struggle between a strangler fig and its saprophytic host, a nameless giant of the forest, whose fate was sealed when the first tender filament of the fig started its climb upwards towards the sun. After that it would only be a matter of time, measured in decades perhaps, but the ending, inevitable. The fig strangles the host. As I saw this struggle without motion, I thought how closely it resembles what is happening in our national politics. Politicians of all hues have taken hold of the nation like strangler figs and are busy throttling its life out. There is one exception to this however in our case. Unlike the forest giant, we the people of India, are not helpless. Unless we choose to be. We are not helpless unless we choose to vote for the one who gives us Rs. 200 instead of voting for the one who is most likely to serve our best interests. Rs. 200 doesn’t even buy a chicken. Is this what we have priced our futures and the futures of our generations yet unborn, at? Less than the price of a chicken?
I saw Chital (Axis deer) or Spotted deer in their hundreds. Chital is one of the most beautiful of the deer species. In Nagerhole, they abound. Grass and shrubs are aplenty. The terrain suits them very well. There are predators; Wild dogs (Dhole), leopards (black and regular) and tigers but the Chital simply outbreed them all, so they thrive. Predators also ensure that all the weak die early and only the strong are left to breed so predation helps and promotes survival of prey species. I saw their fawns ranging from some which must have been literally days old to older ones. Chital fawns simply must be the most beautiful creatures on earth. All Chital have liquid black eyes with eyelashes that will give every Bollywood actress a complex. Their coats, golden brown with white spots showing shadowy in the morning mist are a sight to behold.
Then their behavior; the way the dominant alpha males strut. The stags with a full rack of horns, which they shed every year to grow a new pair; clothed first in skin called ‘velvet’ which they then rub off on trees until it is at first hanging in rags and then is totally cast away to show the shiny bone beneath. It is rutting season and you can hear the territorial braying call of the alpha males, challenging all takers. The stags eat very little during this time, being focused almost entirely on protecting their harem of hinds from other roving males, ready to give battle at the slightest provocation. When there is none they sometimes take out their testosterone on innocent bushes, bashing then to smithereens with their impressive horns.
But if you are a Chital, no matter how impressive, you are at the bottom of the food chain. Everyone eats you and you eat grass. So, if you want to survive and live to tell tales of your life to your grandchildren you need to be extremely alert. Chital learn this lesson early in life. Those that don’t, never grow old. The result is that Chital will sound their typical alarm that sounds like a very high-pitched bark, at practically every suspicious movement. I have seen Chital calling when they see a Sloth bear, Dhole, Wild boar, eddies of wind rustling the bushes and simply because they imagined that they saw a tiger or leopard. But you can hardly blame them for this because they are No.1 on the menu of any predator on a keto diet. One of them calls while striking the earth with one forefoot with every call. The rest, run. Chital learn two CTS (Critical to Survival) lessons in life which are good lessons for us to learn also.
Lesson No. 1: Complacency is death.
Lesson No. 2: It is better to run twice than to be caught once.
A much more reliable alarm giver is the Grey Langur. These have a symbiotic relationship with Chital. Langur feed in tree tops and drop more than they eat, of leaves and fruit which the Chital eat off the ground. And all bands of Langur have a sentinel, who doesn’t feed but sits on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the area and scans the forest for threats. When he sees anything suspicious, he calls the alarm and the Chital take off. Since this sentinel is watching from a vantage point, he is much more accurate in his risk assessment. When his shift is over, another of the tribe takes over and he goes to feed. It is amazing to see how this entire system works to the advantage of two different species who are united in threat. How much can we learn, I muse, about being united despite our differences because we face the same threats in our societies. Threats of moral degradation, drug abuse, unemployment, domestic violence, rape, murder, crime of different kinds; all of which don’t differentiate between us because criminals view all victims equally. Makes the forest with its lurking leopards and tigers seem positively safe.
Langur are playful in the extreme. Most amusing are the young. They fight, chase each other up and down trees, making some leaps which almost amount to flight. I saw one young chap simply hanging from a vine and swinging back and forth. Just like a child on a swing. He was simply having fun. Another one climbed up behind his older sibling and used his tail for a swing. That didn’t last too long because the owner of the tail had a different opinion about this liberty. Some older individuals simply sit on a branch with their hind legs stretched out before them. Occasionally those lower in the pecking order come up behind them and start grooming them. I saw one Langur sitting on one branch and leaning out holding another with his hands while resting his chin on his hands, fast asleep. His instinct ensures that he doesn’t let go of the other branch even in his sleep. Our driver stopped the jeep under a tree, but noticed some Langur sitting directly above and very wisely and hurriedly moved us out from beneath them. I could almost hear one of them look down at us and say to the other, ‘Are you thinking what I am thinking?’ I didn’t fancy being the recipient of their donations.
Nagarhole seems to have the highest population of Hoopoes and Flame-backed Woodpeckers that I have ever seen anywhere. Both are beautiful birds with the FBW males shining like jewels in the forest. They fly in their characteristic wavy flight and land on a tree trunk (unlike all other birds that land on branches) and immediately switch to the back of the trunk. Very infuriating because my camera can’t see through the tree. The females are not as colorful as the males, as is the case in most species of birds but have the same flight pattern and irritating habit of hiding from you.
Trying to match the FBW is the Indian Roller. A brilliant blue bird whose brilliant lilac breast and fluorescent blue wing colors are spectacular in flight. What is best about the Indian Roller is his desire to be photographed. He is totally unfazed by the jeep or the chattering monkeys in it. He perches on a solitary branch of whichever short tree or bush that happens to be present and watches intently for his prey; worms, insects and whatever is small enough to appeal to his palate.
Then he flies down, picks it up and flies back up to the same perch to eat it. This is an absolute boon for the photographer who can literally set his camera and wait to get the in-flight photos which are the best for this bird.
Another extremely photogenic bird is the Green Bee Eater and its various cousins. They are best seen in the early morning and sometimes in the late evening. They perch on any raised object, a dry branch, a rock or even a blade of tough high grass and watch for flying insects. As soon as they spot one, they swoop up, pluck it out of the air and return to their perch to eat it. Once again, this predictability of returning to the same perch and the fact that they are not spooked and liable to fly away at the slightest movement, makes them such favorites of photographers. Their brilliant green plumage, with some blue in some of the sub-species, their feathers which closeup look very fine hair, black beaks and shiny black eyes are a study in art. Birds in general afford one a look into their lives and behavior much more closely and readily than mammals and so are wonderful to photograph. Naturally, given their size (small birds) and that they fly about means that you need a camera and lens that can get you close to them. But if you have that, then there is endless joy in photographing birds.
As I was trying to find a better perch for myself in the jeep that had (believe it or not, eleven adults in it) the driver whispered to me and I looked up to where he was pointing and loed and beheld a pair of Imperial Pigeons. They were in a fig tree, engrossed in gorging themselves on the fruit. While I took pictures of them, there was a shadow and the pigeons exploded out of the tree and headed for the Lantana bushes. I looked up to see a Brown Serpent Eagle.
Pigeons are not his normal diet, but I am sure it wouldn’t object to a change of menu; something the pigeons understood very well. The eagle settled on the fig tree and so there was no chance of the pigeons returning, but I noticed a Monarch butterfly alight on a blade of tall grass. One single butterfly on a single blade of grass in just the right light. As I was clicking away, I saw a flash of yellow and there were a dozen Clouded Yellow (I think!!) butterflies on a damp patch in the road. Butterflies of all kinds settle on patches of moisture in the road and make wonderful objects of photographs with their brilliant colors, set off against the brown or black background of the road.
The driver moved along as our companions were getting bored with not seeing anything. We drove around a corner and came to a pack of Dhole (Indian Wild dogs), resting in the grass under some trees. The Dhole is a rich brown in color all over with a pointed face and a black tail. It is barkless and whistles. The dominant female and alpha male were sleeping. A couple of uncles were also resting, but one of them was sitting up, alert and watchful. In the jungle you have two choices; be alert or be eaten. There were four puppies who were being the pesky nuisance that all young are when adults are resting. Whistling and nuzzling and trying to crawl under their elders, failing which climbing all over them. What was amazing was the patience of the elders, who couldn’t have been enjoying this ‘affection’ but showed no irritation. The sentinel suddenly tensed but didn’t sound an alarm. I looked in the direction that he was pointing to and saw the most enormous Gaur bull that I have ever seen. Huge and black with his signature white socks, walking slowly and majestically, fearing nobody and nothing. He was followed by three cows, one of which was a subadult and so much more skittish. But the bull was a sight to behold.
Just then a peacock screamed. What else can you call that sound? It is a communication call, ‘See what I am doing!’ What was he doing? Dancing to try to please a bevy of totally disinterested peahens. But he was spectacular to say the least.
Still not having seen anything, the driver decided to go and investigate why two other jeeps that had passed us, hadn’t returned. We drove to a place where the road takes a steep dip between two low hillocks and there in the depression, we finally saw that after which we couldn’t say, ‘I saw nothing.’ A tigress sleeping.
Or more accurately, trying in to sleep. No sentinels here. Just a cat trying to get some sleep in a patch of sunlight while batting flies and mosquitoes which had other ideas. No sentinels because when you are the apex predator, you fear nobody and everyone else fears you. Our camera shutters sounded like machinegun fire as we took amazing action photos of a sleeping cat. Every time she flicked her tail, the cameras would go trrrrrrrrrrrr. Every time she rolled over they would go trrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. We watched her in action for over an hour, hunched up with our eyes glued to the viewfinders, our backs screaming in agony but who cares? A tiger is a tiger.
We returned with the light started failing and we had to get out before the designated time. “Did you see anything?” they asked.
“Yes,” we replied. “We saw a tiger.”
Nothing else, only a tiger. So, did we see anything or didn’t we?
What do you say?
He had killed the buffalo late the previous night. The dark was his friend. Thanks to the reflectors in his eyes, he could see as clearly in starlight as we can see in bright daylight. If he could have read a book, he would have, reclining on a massive tree branch overhanging a pathway. As the light faded and night set in, he was on his favorite perch, only his tail hanging over the side, announcing his location. He had climbed the tree earlier in the evening to give the Langur sentinels and their friends, the Axis (Cheetal) deer to sound their alarm calls and eventually tire of it when they couldn’t see him any longer in the gathering darkness. The sun goes down rapidly in the tropics and Yala National Park, where he lives is in the far south of Sri Lanka. He is a leopard (Panthera Pardus kotiya). A big male, full grown and at the peak of his powers. The Sri Lankan Leopard is a subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Deraniyagala. In 2008, the Sri Lankan Leopard was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
But he didn’t know all this. All he knew is that he was the top predator in the forest and, so he could roam where he wished and take whatever suited his fancy, at will. There are no larger predators in Sri Lanka unlike India and Africa where leopards live in fear of tigers and lions. In Yala and other national parks of Sri Lanka, the leopard is king, and this shows in their behavior. Yala is the only place where I have seen leopards stalking along a road in broad daylight. And wonder of wonders, I saw a full grown young male lying under a bush, with several jeeps full of tourists ogling at him from just a few feet away. He made no sign of leaving nor did he show even the slightest nervousness. The only cat which does that in India is the tiger and in Africa, the lion. Though the African leopard (Panthera Pardus Pardus) is a larger animal, it is very secretive and almost totally nocturnal. He is far too fearful of lions and rightly so. So also, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), is wary of the tiger which would kill it if it could.
Sri Lankan leopards grow bigger than their Indian cousins because of their top predator status and because there is abundant game in Yala. Not only are there huge herds of Axis deer (Cheetal) but feral water buffalo and wild boar. In addition, it appears that villagers are permitted to graze their buffalos in Yala and I saw a great many of them as well, quite at peace with those that appeared to be wild. I think this is a very bad idea as invariably this invites man-animal conflict and the loser is always the animal. In this case, the already endangered leopard.
To return to our story he made his kill as the buffalo, a fully grown but young female was returning to her herd. As she passed under his tree, he landed on her back and bit into the back of her neck, severing her spine. The buffalo bellowed in pain and fear, took a few lurching steps forward trying to dislodge him from her back but in vain. By then the massive jaws with their powerful bite did their work and the canines sank through skin and gristle and severed the spine. The buffalo collapsed in its tracks and the leopard, lithely leaped off and immediately grabbed her throat in the classic killing stance of the leopard, cutting off air and possibly severing the carotids. In this case, this was not necessary as the buffalo’s spine had been severed and so it was going nowhere. It is interesting to speculate on the killing technique which is like that of the tiger when it tackles Gaur; the massive wild ox of India. Tigers also leap on to the backs of Gaur, preferring younger bulls or cows and bite into the back of the neck to sever the spine. That way they incapacitate an animal that is otherwise more than able to kill the tiger, being far heavier and having a pair of lethal horns.
After killing his prey, the leopard fed on it until he was full and then dragged it behind a large Lantana bush to hide it from Jackals. There are no vultures in Sri Lanka. Neither are there any Hyena or Wolves. So, Jackals are the only ones likely to try to steal a bit of meat from the kills. Other leopards are a threat but in this case, he was so massive and powerful that he didn’t really expect another of his species to take any chances with him. Leaving the kill behind the bush, he climbed an old Banyan (Ficus Religiosa) nearby and stretched out on his favorite branch to sleep off his meal. Early the next morning, just as the sun was starting to show on the horizon and the Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl with its splash of bright yellow on its comb, started calling, to be answered by the Peafowl roosting on the topmost branch of a dead tree with its feet in the flood waters of the river, he walked down the trunk and leaped down the last few feet to return to his kill to take some more mouthfuls of the, by now, reeking meat.
As he was tugging at an especially tasty bit, we drove up on the jungle road going past his cache. I saw the leg of the buffalo move which meant that the killer was on his kill. We stopped and waited but there was no sign of him. Then my friend Ifham Raji, a wonderful professional photographer from Colombo, who very kindly accompanied us and gave me lessons in the field, decided to call. He can imitate the call of a female leopard calling its young. Until that moment, we didn’t know what would come out. All we knew was that there was a leopard kill and we had come to see if we could get a look at the one who made the kill, if possible.
As soon as Ifham called, a guttural, woof; he came out from behind the bush in one short rush. He stood there looking for his mother whose voice he had heard. Then he walked towards our jeep and about twenty meters from us, he turned to his right and walked a few steps and lay down. Then he rolled over, as if he was playing, his tail high in the air. He sat up and looked at us directly. Then he decided he didn’t like being fooled and walked away. That was the last we saw of him and though he must have returned to the kill later, we never saw him again. The sight of his massive head and shoulders, his fluid majestic walk, his stand looking at us in total confidence and then his playful rolls on the ground as he would have done as a cub, playing with his mother and siblings, etched into my memory. Was he remembering his own childhood? Did the call remind him of his childhood? Who knows?
All I know is that I got some amazing photos and lived through an experience that can have no parallel. This is the gift of the wild places, which one can only experience. Indeed, I can write about them and you can read what I write and see the pictures. But I can’t for the life of me, express the excitement of the moment when for me time stood still; I stopped breathing until I had to gasp for breath as if rising out of the depth of the sea to the surface and forgot all about Aperture and ISO while taking my photos. But as a person learning photography, I can tell you that I would rather spoil a thousand photographs, than lose the excitement of the moment when you first see a big cat. The leopard is my favorite but don’t tell the tigers that. They are elusive enough when I try to find them.
In Lower Sheikalmudi Estate, on the other side of Sholayar Dam in the Anamallais, we had a coffee area which was adjacent to the reserve forest. The coffee presented open grazing area to the Sambar and Gaur that live in the reserve forest. They did not damage the coffee itself but would feed on the grass and shrubs that grew in the fields. I set up two or three salt licks in this area to attract these animals and to get them used to coming into our area so that we could watch and photograph them. For this I got some bricks of rock salt from the Forest Department and cleared small patches in the grass to arrange them. Once the animals discovered them we had a huge herd of Gaur, about thirty-five of them, who took up residence in the coffee area. They would come down from the hills every evening as the sun went down and would leave only the next morning once our workers started to arrive in the fields. They would be joined by several Sambar hinds and stags so that when I would drive into the coffee area at night, I would see this big herd lying down and chewing the cud. It was almost like seeing domestic cattle at rest; the Gaur had become so used to us. Grazing animals love salt, which they get from deposits in the soil. Carnivores get it from the blood of their prey. So if you put out some salt in the forest you were absolutely sure to get anything which was in the vicinity to come visit.
If you walked to the end of the coffee area and entered the forest, taking the small pathway leading up the hill, you would pass under the heavy shade of big leaved, tall trees. Lining the path were lovely light green big leaved shrubs, which if you didn’t know what they were and took one in your hand, it would prove to be a very painful and potentially dangerous experience. These were stinging nettles called locally Anaimarti (the chaser away of elephants). The leaves have poisonous hair on them, which produce anything from painful rashes, to blisters, to high fever, and delirium, depending on your level of tolerance. As you walk along this path it is a good idea to keep all your senses functioning. The thick undergrowth can and does hide anything. As you continue climbing steadily, getting sweatier by the minute due to a lack of breeze, you come to a small flat rock on your right a little way inside the forest. If you walk silently you will almost always see the resident cobra that likes to sun himself on that rock. Sometimes you will see his skin, which he has shed and then you must be very careful because he is almost blind for a while and extremely irritable.
As you continue onwards, you will come out of the forest into an open area which is a sheet of rock. This area stretches about three kilometers all the way up to the ridge beyond which the forest descends three-thousand feet down to the backwaters of Parambikulam Lake. This sheet of rock is covered with a patchy lichen growth almost all over which becomes yellow when it matures and so it is called Manjaparai (Yellow Rock). This is also where you will get the first breath of cool breeze, most welcome on your hot and damp brow. There is a large clump of thorny bush right before you and almost surely you will hear the ‘Dhank’ of a Sambar doe as she bolts out of the bush and gallops down the thirty-degree rocky slope at a speed that would certainly topple a horse and break its neck.
If you continue to climb then you would eventually come to the top of Manjaparai , which was a small flat plateau through which flowed a small perennial stream. I’d had a machan (platform) built on a tree at the edge of the forest overlooking the stream, which emptied into a small pool and then went down the slope of Manjaparai . I had cleared a small pathway to get to it, but without disturbing the area or its animals. The machan was halfway up the tree at a height of about twenty feet. It was quite substantial and could comfortably seat four people. We would sit there late into the night watching animals come to drink at the pool. It was an amazing experience to suddenly see a shadow move and realize that what you had been looking at was not a shadow at all but a Gaur bull; the herd leader who was watching to see if the coast was clear to signal his herd to follow him to the water. This forest had tigers and so the Gaur and Sambar, which are its main prey were very cautious.
We once had a full-grown Gaur cow killed by a tiger in our coffee area. At first the Forest Guards came and tried to accuse us of having shot the animal in an attempt to extract some silence money. But I would have none of that and demanded that the DFO come to inspect. When he came, I took him to the carcass and showed him the telltale claw marks of the tiger. The tiger attacks from behind and rides the animal, and as it gallops in panic, the tiger reaches forward and hooks its claws into the animal’s nose and draws its head back, biting into the back of the neck to get at the spinal cord until the animal falls and breaks its neck. If you see the neck of a Gaur, how huge and muscular it is, you can imagine the strength of the tiger which can force that neck to bend back until it makes the animal fall. Tigers generally go for juveniles or cows, which are smaller. The big bulls are immune to everything except men and old age. The DFO (District Forest Officer) was more knowledgeable than the Forest Guard and so the matter was resolved.
You sat in the machan very still, secure in the knowledge that you were invisible unless you moved. Though the game viewing was amazing, the stillness made you very stiff, a relatively small price to pay for the privilege of watching wild animals in their habitat. In the early hours of the morning, after all animal movement had ceased and it started getting bitterly cold, which it does in the forest at that elevation, we would come down onto the rock, light a nice big fire and warm ourselves and spend the rest of the night sleeping on the rock around the fire. Then in the morning we would re-kindle the fire and put on the tea pot and watch the sun come up over the horizon. I know many people lived in Lower Sheikalmudi, but I don’t know of anyone other than myself and Suresh Menon, who was my assistant at the time, who enjoyed the beauty of the forest like we did. It was a rare privilege and we appreciated every minute of it.
The India Tourism byline is – Incredible India.
I agree. I encountered it. Here is what happened.
I decided to go to Corbett Tiger Reserve – being one of my favourite places on earth. I am a lifelong wildlife enthusiast and photographer and ensure that I spend at least a few days every quarter in the wilds. There are sea people, mountain people and among the Arabs – desert people. I am a forest person. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to spend time by myself, without any connection to the outside world, in the middle of a forest.
Having done this all my life, I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about the sounds and signs of the jungle and know how to read them so that I keep myself safe from danger while enjoying the beauty of unspoilt nature. In the world that I grew up in, all I needed to do was to take a small haversack and catch a bus and a few hours later I would be in the forests of the Aravalli hills, in the farm house of my dear friend and mentor, Venkat Rama Reddy sahib, located on the bank of the Kadam River in Adilabad district (Map link). But today I have to go to an official wildlife sanctuary and so am forced to come into contact with those denizens of the forest who are not listed in the list of wildlife that you are likely to encounter there. Therefore you are unprepared when you do encounter them. I thought I should do the kind thing and prepare you so that you are not caught unawares and pay the price of shattered dreams.
I started by taking the law abiding citizen route and tried to make a booking on the internet on the Corbett Tiger Reserve website which promises a lot. I had been to Dhikala and Bijrani Ranges in 2006 and so I decided to go to a different range and chose Sona Nadi Range. That range has three Forest Guest Houses. I had four days and decided to spend two in one guest house and two in another so that we would be able to see two different parts of the park. And that is where my story began:
I entered all the data that the form asks for and selected two days for Haldupudao guest house but the system would take only one day or three days. I wanted two. Then I thought I would be clever and book the two days, one by one. So I chose one day and completed the booking and made the payment with my credit card. Then I went in again to choose another day but the system wouldn’t accept the booking claiming that I have visited the park less than one month ago. Since I last visited the park nine years ago, I was astonished. But to no avail. The system knew best and repeatedly rejected my booking for another day. So eventually in frustration I decided to cancel the booking I had already made as I didn’t want to go from Hyderabad to Corbett for one day’s stay. But the system refused to accept the cancellation. Imagine my further astonishment when this happened.
However, there were two numbers that I could call in case of difficulty, so I did. But I forgot, though being Indian I should have known better, that in Indian Government (Forest Department and Wildlife Sancturies are Government of India, believe me) if they say you can call, that is precisely what they mean. You can call. As many times as you like. There is on restriction on that. However, they didn’t say that anyone would answer your call, did they? So how can you blame them if they don’t? And that is what happened to me. I called and called and no answer. As they say, perseverance pays – though not always what you wish. So after the tenth call a lady answered in Hindi. I speak Hindi fluently so no problems there.
I explained my problem to her and asked if she could help.
Corbett Lady: Aap internet par booking keejiye. Hum kuch nahi kar saktay.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: Madam main nay internet par hi booking kee hai. Wahan booking nahi ho rahi hai. Isi liye aap ko call kiya kyon ki aap ka number website par diya hai.
(Madam, I tried doing that and it is not working. That is why I called you because your number is given on the website)
Corbett Lady: Hum kuch nahin kar saktay. Aap internet par booking keejiye.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: (after going this route a couple of times more) Achcha Madam aap hamari booking cancel kar deejiye aur payment reverse kar deejiye.
(Okay Madam, please cancel my booking and reverse the payment.)
Corbett Lady: Aap internet par booking keejiye. Hum kuch nahi kar saktay.
(You can book on the internet. We can’t do anything)
Me: Madam booking cancel karnay ko kah raha hoon. Aap cancel karengi tho mujhe paisa wapas milega. Warna mera paisa nahin mil sakta. Please cancel keejiye.
(Madam, I am asking you to please cancel the booking and return my money. Unless you cancel the booking the credit card payment can’t be reversed and I can’t get my money back. Please cancel the booking, I request you.)
Corbett Lady: Nahin karengay.
Me. Madam, mera paisa hai. Meri booking hai. Aap ko sirf cancel karnay ko kaha. Kyon nahin karengay?
Corbett Lady: Nahin karengay.
(I won’t do it.)
And she hung up.
Now I am the persistent sort and definitely dislike my money being stolen, no matter who does it. I pay my taxes diligently and see no reason to subsidize the government any more. So I used my connections and got a friend to help and had them make the booking for the other days in Ramnagar where the Corbett Park Head Quarters are located. But thanks to some more communication issues, all four days got booked in Haldupudao guest house.
I didn’t have the energy to make any more changes and so left it like that. Corbett is beautiful and if I had to stay in one guest house for four days, so be it. At Ramnagar we took our Gypsy safari vehicle and proceeded to Haldupudao. We arrived at the Vatanvasa gate and when I gave my booking (called permit) to the guard, I realized that the permit was printed in English while the Forest Guards at the gate didn’t have a word of it. So I had to translate for them. I could have said whatever I wanted of course and they had no means of knowing if I spoke the truth but I did speak the truth and translated properly wondering what the point of a permit in English was, when it was to be read by people who don’t speak the language at all.
It takes roughly three hours to get to Haldupudao but since most of that journey is through the forest, crossing rivers on wooden bridges and driving over gravel river beds with a foot or more of water, it was thoroughly enjoyable. The Maruti Gypsy is the vehicle of choice for Indian jungle roads. It has front wheel drive, and FWD if you need it and does everything except climb trees. Our driver has to be one of the most service oriented guys I have ever met. He is employed by a local tour operator and so is uninfected with Sarkaari Jaraseem (Official Germs). He is a very skilled driver and a cook rolled into one, speaks Hindi like a runaway express train and is full of great wisdom like what he said about our current times:
Ghoday ko na milay ghaas par Gadhe khayen Chawanprash
We arrived in Haldupudao and as we drove in I was delighted to see the guest house, an old stone bungalow (built in 1849) with its typical wide veranda in front and chimneys promising a fire place in the house. There is nothing more enjoyable than a log fire in the sitting room on a cold winter night and nothing more painful than its absence. But to my surprise we didn’t go to the guest house but to what was the Outhouse (a plaque still states that) upon which had been built two rooms with bathrooms. The problem was that there were twenty high stairs to get to them. I had a bad knee and my doctor strictly forbade climbing stairs. Nowhere in the booking process did it say anything about stairs. So what was I to do?
(That’s a picture of me struggling up the stairs)
I tried speaking to the care taker about this:
Me: Hum us guest house mein nahin reh saktay hain?
(Can’t we stay in that (old) guest house)
CT: Nahin Saab
CT: Wo sirf Wan Adhikarion kay liye hai
(That is only for Forest Authorities)
Me: Tho kya koi aanay wala hai in char dinon mein?
(Is any of them booked to come here during the next four days)
CT: Nahin Saab
Me: Tho phir hum kyon nahin reh saktay hain?
(Then why can’t we stay there?)
CT: Kyon ki aap Wan Adhikaari nahin ho.
(Because you are not a Forest Authority)
That was plain enough even for my stupid head. That’s how our bureaucracy, strangely called Civil Service (which is neither civil nor a service) works. Gathers unto itself all that it has been given in trust.
So I abandoned that line and tried to appeal to his better self. But I should have first checked to see if it was with him. I discovered later that it was still in his village with his family. I am not reporting that conversation because it is simply too tedious. The long and short of it was that I had no option but to ignore my doctor and climbed up and down the stairs for four days, praying that I didn’t end up suffering for it.
The night was fantastic as all nights in the forest are. There is a cook in Haldupudao who will cook what you bring. The cook believes that he can cook and he has the freedom to believe whatever he likes as this is a free country. However, if it hadn’t been for the culinary skills of our driver, we would have been captive victims of his cooking and lucky to escape with our lives. As it was, the cook became our guest and ate better than he would have fed anyone. He was a man with spiritual inclination and so every night after dinner he would be in his cups and we would be his captive audience, listening to his caterwauling from the lower floor as we tried to sleep upstairs. Mercifully his stamina didn’t keep up with his spirits and he shortly fell asleep and left us to do the same.
The rooms we occupied didn’t have heating or a fireplace to light a fire in and so on the first night I froze to death. My feet lost contact with me and I tried to imagine how I would manage without feet the next day. Truly it is said that necessity is the mother of invention and so the cold forced me to invent the hot water bottle. I took two plastic water bottles, filled them with boiling water and inserted them under my blanket praying they wouldn’t burst. They didn’t and I slept well the next two days. By the morning, 5.00 a.m. however they get cold and so getting up and washing in cold water which appeared to come straight from a glacier was decidedly painful.
The highlight of the first night was that at about 4.00 a.m. I heard the alarm call of a Barking Deer from right inside our camp. He was calling so insistently that I was sure there was a leopard outside the door. So I quietly got out of bed and opened my door and came out on the landing to be greeted with the sight of a female leopard that had come calling. She sat on her haunches like a dog and looked up at me and I looked down at her. Then she got up and walked away, evidently not liking what she saw. Rejection is painful, even by a female leopard.
Next morning, we started out early as that is the best time to see predators – tigers and leopards. It was very misty and bitterly cold and an open Gypsy is not the best place to be in at that time. But off we went, wrapped in garment after garment, trying to prove the efficacy of layering to keep the cold out. We drove down one road and watched the sun rise over the river. Absolutely beautiful sight. Then we drove back a ways and tried to go on another road because we had not seen anything on the road we went on first. To our surprise but not delight we found that road closed. Our driver took us to another road and we drove up that for a bit and encountered another road block. So in effect, three out of four roads were blocked.
We returned for breakfast and I asked the Forest Department Official who stays in Haldupudao about the roads. He said that repairs were being done to bridges and so the roads were closed. I asked him why in that case, this was not mentioned on the website or why this location was not closed for bookings until the roads were useable. He shrugged. Such an expressive gesture, the shrug. Done well, it can mean anything at all. And what’s more it leaves you to decide what you want it to mean. I decided that I wanted it to mean end of conversation and reminded myself of my own quote – I will not allow what’s not in my control to prevent me from doing what is in my control. It was in my control to enjoy myself. It was not in my control to teach the Forest Department the fundamentals of customer service. So I was going to leave what was not in my control and do what was in my control and enjoy myself notwithstanding.
We drove up and down that one road for four days. We saw trees, termite mounds that were the epitome of industry and could be inspirations of architects.
We saw more trees and a very ambitious Kingfisher out of touch with reality who had caught a fish bigger than his head and so couldn’t swallow it.
We saw even more trees and otters catching fish and then peeping at us over boulders in the river, their curiosity getting the better of them but so beautifully camouflaged that it was almost impossible to see them.
We saw Chital grazing and late one evening and suddenly a Chital hind started stamping her foot and sounding her alarm and gazing intently at a thicket in which was a predator, which didn’t show himself to us.
We saw a Sambar stag in repose and several Barking Deer, always alarmed at life. But we saw no tigers in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Nor did we see any elephants though we saw tiger pug marks and elephant dung to our heart’s content. I believe this was because we couldn’t really explore the area that was given to us because roads were closed but nobody bothered to inform us.
Nobody can guarantee any sightings, especially of tigers and leopards which are nocturnal animals and shy to boot but if there are enough opportunities to roam the forest, then the chances of sighting increase dramatically. That is what wildlife tourism is supposed to do – increase your chances of seeing the animals. And that is what we were denied because roads were closed.
In short I am convinced that Corbett is a lovely place but the people in charge are decidedly strange. Their idea of customer service is the same as how they pronounce the word CUSTOMER – KASHT MAR. Ya’ani – Kasht say mar.
Incredible India indeed.
So what’s the solution?
Quite simple really. Let the Forest Department deal with the forest. And leave tourism to those who know how to treat people. Outsource tourism to a private company and let them pay a royalty to the Forest Department.
But will this happen? Incredible India once again.