Friday, 4 December 2009

Lions that go GIR!


The gir forest is a dry forest and the majority of trees are deciduous with a lot of leaf litter covering the forest floor.

We stayed in this area for 3 full days with the target species being Asian lion. We had a total of 7 game drives scheduled with each drive being either morning or afternoon. The morning drives required us to be ready for 06:30 which meant a 05:45 alarm. Generally we were always a little late getting going as we had to await the arrival of entry permits to get into the forest. Also before we could enter the forest we had to get a permit for my camera which being over 7mp cost 500R, this now seems to be the going tourist rate for many reserves. This area in particular seems to be competing with the more famous tiger reserves and the local ‘trackers’ also expect a payment for any lions seen whether you are a tourist or a local. For example for seeing a male lion the going rate is 300R. 

We asked some of the locals who were on a tour and had seen a male lion and they had also paid the trackers 100R each. This is probably taking ecotourism to an extreme but I guess in the end people have to live and if it ensures the on-going welfare of the lions then that must be a good thing.

As we were to find out over the next couple of days the lions are very hard to find (at least that was our experience) and the reserve is extremely dusty with many vehicles driving the various tracks looking for the lions, Sunday being an extremely busy day. Our first 3 game drives resulted in no lions but some good general wildlife experiences.

The reserve holds a population of 359 lions, of which the mature females can have a litter of cubs once every 3 years. So whilst the population is increasing the rise in numbers is very slow and all the time at risk from disease as the gene pool is restricted.

Good numbers of spotted deer (chittal) in the park along with wild boar, sambar, nilgai and leopard. At the time of our visit there were some young spotted deer calves and some excellent stags with impressive antlers in velvet.



Ruddy Mongoose


Plenty of warning calls from spotted deer and langurs, usually warning of leopard which we didn’t see initially until our 6th game drive. We were then almost at the end of the drive and it was getting near to dusk when our guide saw the first of an encounter with 3 leopards. The first was a male which crossed the road in front of us and then proceeded a little way into the forest before sitting and then crouching down. Our guide then saw a female lion moving deeper into the forest which neither of us saw. The male then moved off and our driver then reversed a little way to try and see if we could see him and our guide then saw a second (female) leopard in some deep shade. We only caught the briefest of glimpses of her but we could hear her panting in the shadows. We then heard a leopard roar and thinking it was the first male we drove slowly forward to then see a third male cross the road and move off into the forest, this male had a radio collar and was much larger than the first.


Whilst at Sasan we stayed at a luxury tented camp which was excellent and bordered onto a river which meant we could go for a walk in-between the days game drives and catching up on some sleep.

In the reserve itself birding is quite diffiicult as you are not allowed to walk about however some species were easy to see from the vehicles, such as Tickells blue flycatcher and mottled wood owl.


A leopard made a kill along the track between the town of Sasan and the camp where we were staying. The buffalo carcass could be seen from the track and was slowly being eaten away by egrets, crows and occasionally a returning leopard.

On our fourth game drive we finally scored asian lion, the first lioness we saw we almost ran over in our drivers efforts to get the prime position for viewing.


Then drove very fast along the forest tracks to see a pride of 4 lionesses and 5 cubs, something that is a rare event, with all 5 cubs having a good chance of survival.

The lions are monitored by trackers, in fact these guys are almost lion keepers as they seem to stay with lion groups or individual males supposedly to make sure that all remains well. They try to ensure that cubs do not get killed by rogue males as they are such an important commodity to help ensure the survival and future of the asian lion. The trackers wander about the reserve with only a large stick for protection and sometimes they remain quite close to their charges.





Thursday, 3 December 2009


An early start again today, away from the hotel by 06:00 to get to Velavadar for an early morning game drive. No tea stops this time and we managed to arrive shortly after 07:00. The tide was high as we journeyed along the road on the edge of the coastal strip and much of the surrounding salt marsh was flooded.  

On entering the reserve we picked up a local guide who then took us to the location of the striped hyena den. Initially there was no sign of her but then two ears appeared in the grass and we enjoyed watching her waking up as the sun rose.
Sometimes she would roll on her back and stick all her legs in the air stretching. Finally after a bit of yawning and more stretching she got up for a quick stroll around before returning to the den entrance. Then a one year old juvenile male appeared beside her and finally 3 of her 5 small pups appeared and settled down to suckling. Her markings were striking and altogether she was better looking than the spotted hyenas normally seen in Africa. Only in the last couple of years has it been possible to see striped hyena with any degree of certainty at Velavadar as up to 5 years ago they were very hard to see and uncommon in the area.
Striped Hyena
We pulled ourselves away from such a great encounter and climbed back into our vehicle to continue around the reserve. Whilst approaching a water hole our guide noticed, with some excitement, a group of 5 Indian Wolves that were trotting at speed away from us and into the light. Incredibly efficient movement they quickly put some distance between us and after the initial excitement of seeing them we went in pursuit. However they initially disappeared in the grass and then we picked up 3 of them as they tried to get close to a spread out herd of Nilgai or blue bulls. Finally we lost them as they crossed the road to enter the eastern part of the reserve.
Indian Wolf
Whilst the wolves would almost certainly try to catch blackbuck I expect that they would try for larger prey such as Nilgai. This species is doing well in India and can quite often be seen outside of the reserves, in fact we saw several in agricultural areas.
The mature males have a lovely steel grey/blue coloured coat, giving them the alternative name of blue bulls.

Nilgai or Blue Bulls
Whilst Velavadar is a national park, locals are never too far away and people wander around collecting wood and materials for day to day life. Within the park is an interpretation centre which schools make use of and whilst we were there we became quite the celebrities with a pack of school kids wanting to say hello.

_MG_9597-EditAs the morning temperature got hotter animal and bird life became harder to see and despite more efforts to see MacQueens bustard we finally had to make the decision to move on.

Bay-backed Shrike_MG_9746-Edit
There are plans to improve the main coast road to a 6 lane highway which whilst great for the local economy will almost certainly result in the isolation of the reserve and increase the threat of road kill for the local wildlife. The thought of building bridge corridors for the wildlife has been considered but there isn’t the funding available.

Just outside the reserve there were two small groups of common cranes in the more cultivated areas. One of my target bird species was demoiselle crane and I was hoping to see these in the Rann of Kutch part of the trip. However little did I know that I stood more chance of seeing them in the coastal area as the monsoon had failed and many of the inland waterways favoured by the cranes had dried up. None the wiser we moved onto the Gir forest and subsequently I never did see demoiselle crane and it remains on my hit list.

On the way to Gir we stopped off at a cafe and enjoyed some giant Bombay mix along with a cup of milky tea.

The journey to the Gir forest took a long 7 hours arriving shortly after 16:00, with some of the drive along dirt roads.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The 3,800 Steps

Not an extended remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic but almost a religious classic. The things people do in the name of religion. Palitana is a site of pilgrimage for those people that worship the Jain religion and I've taken the following from Wikipedia.

‘Jainism is an ancient religion of India, also now found in other countries around the world, that prescribes a path of peace and non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice rely mainly on self-effort in progressing the soul on the spiritual ladder to divine consciousness. Any soul which has conquered its own inner enemies and achieved the state of supreme being is called jina (Conqueror or Victor). Jainism was revived by a lineage of 24 enlightened ascetics called tirthankaras culminating with Parshva (9th century BC) and Mahavira (6th century BC). In the modern world, it is a small but influential religious minority with as many as 10.2 million followers in India, and successful growing immigrant communities in North America, Western Europe, the Far East, Australia and elsewhere.

Jains have sustained the ancient Shraman or ascetic religion and have significantly influenced other religious, ethical, political and economic spheres in India. Jains have an ancient tradition of scholarship and have the highest degree of literacy in India; Jain libraries are the oldest in the country.’

Now whilst I try to focus on wildlife for most of my foreign trips there are some cultural experiences that it would be a shame to miss and this is one of them. At the top of this one particular hill are around 900 temples and to get there you have to follow a path that is in much better condition than most of India’s roads but consists of 3,800 steps.


The view you might get after collapsing with exhaustion.

The Palitana temples are considered the most sacred pilgrimage place (tirtha) by the Jain community. There are more than 1300 temples located on the Shatrunjaya hills, exquisitely carved in marble. The main temple on top of the hill, is dedicated to 1st tirthankar lord Adinath (Rishabdeva). On the top the Shatrunjai Hill is a cluster of Jain temples, built by generations of Jains over a period of 900 years, from the 11th century onwards. From the foot of the hill to the top there are 3,800 and odd stone steps cut to facilitate climbing.  P1010771

Getting close–ish to the top.

If you don’t have quite the religious zeal to make it to the top without assistance then you can hire sticks to help you and also teams of 2 and 4 people to help carry you to the top for a price, 300 Rupees.


Now the guys doing the carrying would make the journey to the top and back down again many times a day!!!

On the day we visited it was the festival of the moon as we were in a full moon period and it was very busy with many worshippers making their way to the top. One thing to point out here is that no-one is allowed to stay overnight at the top so every day you have to ascend to your place of worship and descend especially if you are there for the week. Now that is religious dedication or something like that! All the food and festival/worship trappings have to be delivered to the top by hard working donkeys.

Just don’t get in their way as they descend as you are likely to get bowled over as donkeys have not yet evolved brakes.

The ascent for Lisa and myself started at 06:00 to get up and down in the coolest part of the day.

Once at the top the worshippers follow a circular route to gain access to various temples culminating at the main temple of worship. Senior priests sit at key locations and people are on hand to provide fruit, flowers and rice as offerings to the gods which can then once offered can then be consumed by the worshipper.



To look down on the worshippers in the main temple was quite an amazing experience. Those people on the right behind the netting were packed in like sardines packed amongst tightly packed sardines. Very slowly they would shuffle into the main place of worship, do their stuff and then pop put on the left. Despite looking like chaos it was all very orderly and well organised.

Some of the temple architecture was quite impressive. P1010785

Coming down the steps was much easier although harder on the knees and calf muscles. We met many people still climbing as the day started to heat up including a couple of people who were climbing up on hands and knees, presumably some sort of penance or stricter version of Jainism.

Further on in our trip our driver pointed out a hill where a 10,000 step path had been built to the temples at the top, needless to say we drove on.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


Map picture

A small reserve of 35 square km, securing one of the few remaining areas of dry grassland left in India or the region. It is the best place in India to see good numbers of Blackbuck with a stable group of 1,500 animals and also a top site for Indian Wolf. We had an early start of 07:00 for a day at the reserve. Our guide arrived a little late as the area he lived in had suffered a power cut, his name was Dr Indra Gadhvi and he worked at the department of marine sciences at Bhavnagar University. His main interest was birds and he had a degree in ornithology, the students he taught were involved in the marine ecosystem of the gulf and tidal mudflats. The day started with us bird watching along an area of grazing marshes that were under threat from industrialisation and the creation of very large areas of salt pans. So much grazing land has already been lost that Blackbuck that used to occur in good numbers along the coastal strip are no longer seen. Birds included glossy ibis, black ibis, greater and lesser flamingos, little stint, wood sand, green sand, Temmincks stint, yellow and citrine wagtails, spot-billed, teal, pintail, pochard duck, red-rumped, swallow, wire-tailed swallows, plain prinia, imperial eagle, marsh harrier.

Wetland outside of Bhavnagar _MG_9520 Ruddy Shelduck
_MG_9517 Indian Pond Heron
Plain Prinia
Lesser Flamingo

We had several tea stops along the way too and from Velavadar, being served small cups of tea and despite not asking for either milk or sugar we received a very sweet cup of black tea and an extra bowl of sugar. Our patrons couldn’t believe we just wanted black tea, it had the consistency of thick syrup. After this we just accepted milk and no sugar which seemed to work, producing a palatable cuppa.

The dry grassland reserve of Velavadar.

Mature male blackbuck are amazing looking antelopes, with incredible antlers. They are endemic to India and in the days of the Maharajas of Bhavnagar were protected for the occasional royal hunting trip.
The mature males hold a small territory in a lek area, staying in this area day and night, even during the heat of the day. They wait until a female walks through their territory and then attempt to breed with her. They are constantly on guard to protect the territory borders from rivals but will eventually have to give up the area when the food supply has been exhausted and they are forced to move on by hunger and thirst. They can also be displaced by a fitter animal once they start to weaken. This way a constant supply of strong and fit male blackbuck can mate with several females in the herd. 
When crossing a road they perform high leaps._MG_9697-Edit _MG_9708-Edit
Velavadar is also a good place to see the vulnerable Stoliczkas Bushchat. This desert species has a small declining population because of agricultural intensification and encroachment.
Little-Green Bee Eater
Short Toed Eagle, but I prefer the name ‘Toady’.
Velavadar also boasts the largest harrier roost in the world consisting of mostly Montagus harrier and many pallid and Montagus harriers were seen over the grasslands. The farmers like the harriers because they eat a lot of locusts during the winter saving over a 1,000,000R is pesticide costs.

Toward the end of the day we attempted to find MacQueens bustard in the more arid areas of the reserve but without any luck and we had also missed striped hyena and Indian wolf, the latter having a healthy population here. As it was just getting dark and with us nearing the reserve gate our jeep suddenly jolted to a stop and in front of us were 2 jungle cats just sitting in the grass and looking at each other. Finally one got up and wandered across the road in front of us still being watched by the other. Great sighting to end the day.