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Published: February 3rd 2017
As you can see, I've got a little behind in the trip updates (only like a month or so) because I have had an unexpectedly difficult time finding access to WIFI throughout India (and Sri Lanka). Anyway, here's the next one.
In the northwest of India is a state called Gujarat which for wildlife enthusiasts has three major attractions, namely Gir National Park which has Asiatic lions and chousingha, Velavadar National Park which has blackbuck and wolves, and the Little Rann of Kutch which has Indian wild asses.
My first stop from Ahmedabad was the Little Rann of Kutch. From the hotel in Ahmedabad I had rung up a camp called Desert Coursers at the village of Zainabad, just near the Wild Ass Sanctuary, and talked to the owner Dhanraj about staying there and about organising staying at the Forest Lodge at Velavadar. This latter accommodation is quite complicated to arrange for a foreigner. You can only book it by phoning the head-office in the nearby town of Bhavnagar - but they only speak Gujarati - and then you need to pay in advance by posting them a Direct Debit cheque. But Dhanraj knows some
forestry people and can sort it out from his place.
I had already more or less decided to drop Gir from my plans, despite that being the only place in the world to see wild Asiatic lions, because it was just far too expensive. The camera fee alone is US$30. The jeep safaris need to be booked months (or longer) ahead of time and now apparently can only be purchased online. You can't join in on other peoples' booked jeeps because the jeep permit is made out to specific people (so if I had booked from NZ, for example, I would have only been able to book it for myself because I'm travelling alone). It is a really weird rule - on the face of it you'd assume it was to make more money because there would be more people in more jeeps, but the number of jeeps per day is set so they are actually losing money (by not getting any extra entry fees on half-empty jeeps). There were also some ethical concerns because I had read several accounts of how the guards "herd" the lions away from the roads each morning so that they can then extract
more money by saying they know where to see the lions in another spot but it costs extra to take you on that road.
So with Gir out, I was going to spend three nights at the Little Rann of Kutch and three nights at Velavadar. There are two places to stay at Velavadar. The expensive option is Blackbuck Lodge which when I was researching all this cost 7500 to 8500 rupees per night (roughly NZ$160). The cheaper option, which I was going for, was the government-run Forest Lodge which I had found (in an account by a foreigner as what he paid) was 500 rupees for a non-A/C room or 1200 for A/C. However the costs I had were now wildly wrong. Blackbuck Lodge has gone up considerably in price in the last year, to (minimum for a single) 12,000 rupees per night. And the Forest Lodge now has rates of 1000 rupees non-A/C for an Indian or US$100 for a foreigner (and 3000 rupees and US$150 respectively for an A/C room). Those are the costs of just the room, no food, no park entry fees. There was no way I could afford those prices, so the secondary
option was to stay in Bhavnagar and go for a day-trip. This wouldn't be ideal - the town is about two hours by bus from the park - but it could work, except that the entry fee for a foreigner comes to US$70. I figured there was little chance of seeing wolves on a one-day excursion and zero chance of striped hyaenas (and someone at Desert Coursers who had been to Velavadar a few weeks previously told me there were no hyaenas left there now). That just left the blackbuck from my main three, and I knew there was a blackbuck reserve called Kanjari Gam near Ahmedabad which is relatively close to the Little Rann.
So I dropped Velavadar as well and just stayed at Desert Coursers for the whole time, with one trip out to Kanjari Gam for the blackbuck.
There are a few tourist camps in the Little Rann area - six just around the Zainabad area. The one all the tour companies use (and hence the one most bird- and mammal-watchers stay at) is Rann Riders which is something like 8000 rupees per night (about NZ$160). That is somewhat outside my price range, so I
wanted to stay at Desert Coursers which is actually the closest to the Wild Ass Sanctuary (about 7km away), is probably the cheapest (2500 rupees per night, which includes food and a jeep safari each day), and seems to have the best ethics with regards to the wildlife. The owner Dhanraj is a hard-core naturalist which explains the last point.
From Ahmedabad to the town of Dasada is about two and a half hours. There were Southern Plains grey langurs sitting on the roof of the bus stop shelter in Ahmedabad when I left. Something particularly noticeable when on the road in Gujarat is the camels. You still have the usual Indian street-animals like dogs, cattle, pigs and donkeys, but there are also a lot of camels pulling carts. I don't see camels often - there are no more left in New Zealand - and I forget how big they are. They dwarf the horses which are also used to pull carts. There are some individual camels which dwarf the other camels too. They are huge
. And speaking of huge animals, in Mumbai, when on the way to the Sewri mudflats to see flamingoes, I saw the
biggest goat I've ever seen. I honestly thought it was a pony standing outside a shop, until I realised it was a monstrous goat. A sort of Andre The Giant goat. I would have taken a photo but I only had my longer lens on my camera and couldn't get a position to take it.
For some reason the bus to Dasada didn't go all the way there, but stopped at a junction and everybody got transferred into a tuktuk-truck for the remaining twenty minutes or so. All the other passengers seemed confused about this, so it wasn't a normal thing, but nobody could explain the reason to me. I thought maybe there was some obstruction on the road ahead which meant the bus couldn't go, but two buses passed us on the way. I got dropped at the pick-up point for Desert Coursers, where Dhanraj was waiting, and he also didn't know why the tuktuk-truck was used.
Zainabad is about ten minutes from Dasada. Desert Coursers has been in operation since 1984 and is owned by the family who created Zainabad. Dhanraj's great-grandfather and grandfather were actual kings. Of course it was all a bit more grand
back then, before the British rule sort of destroyed everything about the local civilisations. Now Zainabad is just your typical little Indian village and most of the structures including the palace are long gone.
The accommodation at Desert Coursers are Kooba-huts, which are round huts made of mud with tile roofs. The trees around the camp are filled with birds. Migrants like Orphean warblers, lesser whitethroats and rosy starlings; and residents like white-eared bulbuls and spotted owlets. And a couple of minutes walk away is a small rubbish-filled lake where the local women wash their clothes, which has flapshell turtles and water snakes, pied kingfishers, and all sorts of ducks and waders. You could easily see fifty species without even leaving camp.
The first afternoon I went out on a safari with Dhanraj. He doesn't normally do the safaris himself, but he's probably the best person there you could want as your driver. The safari itself is included in the cost of staying there, but the entry fee for the sanctuary is separate and paid to the park HQ. As usual in India, there are hugely different prices for Indians and foreigners. The cost of a jeep with
Indians is 400 rupees, and for one with foreigners - even if there is only one foreigner and six Indians - is 4500 rupees (about NZ$90). A bit of sleight of hand avoids this where-ever possible though, with some swapping back and forth of the foreigners with Indians when the jeep goes to the HQ for the permit, meaning every jeep becomes an "Indian" jeep unless the group of foreigners is too large to allow this. I went on several safaris (of course) and paid between 50 and 120 rupees each time, the fee being split between the people in the vehicle.
On one of the safaris, the driver stopped as we passed through the village and pointed out a peacock. It was scavenging for food in the rubbish. The National Bird of India, surviving in a pile of garbage. That has to be emblematic of the country.
The Little Rann is a salt-pan. Every year it floods for several months (and all the camps close down because there's no good access for tourists), leaving only "islands" here and there. The water is shallow, only a few inches deep, and the islands don't look any higher than the
Jungle Cat (Felis chaus)
terrible photo, obviously, but just to prove I saw one...
surrounding land when you're driving around on the pan in the dry season. The only thing that shows where they will be is that the ground there is covered with rough grasses and thorny shrubs. It is these areas in which the wild asses and other animals spend most of their time. The rest of the Rann is completely flat, brown and white, and cut all over with tyre tracks.
Possibly because it is such a hostile environment, impossible to use for farming or settlements except for little camps at salt-extraction ponds, the Little Rann of Kutch is the only place where Indian wild asses are still found. They have been hunted to extinction everywhere else. The Wild Ass Sanctuary is obviously the best place to see them, which I did on every jeep-trip into the area, usually one or two groups of females and young, and then two or three stallions which live alone except in the breeding season. The ones here are very relaxed around people - elsewhere in the Little Rann it is another story apparently - but they do get quite a bit of harrassment. Anyone can take their car into the sanctuary so long
as they get the permit, and even just in the few days I was there I saw a private car chasing a herd of asses to make them run.
Apart for the wild asses there aren't a lot of other large mammals here. There's not much to eat out here after all. Nilgai were reasonably frequent - large antelope of which the males are nicknamed "blue bulls" for their size and colour - and wild pigs were seen a few times. Everything else seems to be nocturnal.
On the first safari with Dhanraj we stayed out later than normal to look for Syke's nightjars which breed in Pakistan and migrate to India in the winter. Right now they are common in the Little Rann. Being nocturnal aerial hunters I expected to see them only flying but instead they can be spotlit on the ground where they just sit there and blink at you. Some black-naped hares were also seen. I did a couple of other night drives, which are at additional cost, mainly looking for striped hyaenas. The hyaenas are supposed to be common-ish here, and there is a particular waterhole they visit every few days, but I
was unfortunately out of luck with those. In fact, the only animals I saw on any of the night drives were Syke's nightjars, black-naped hares, and desert foxes (a small subspecies of the common red fox).
Dhanraj was surprised I hadn't seen jungle cats on any of the night drives I'd done, because they are "everywhere". So one evening we went for a drive around the village. Barely three minutes after leaving the camp, there was a jungle cat, just sitting beside the road. Jungle cats are bigger than domestic cats and are all tawny, kind of like a miniature lioness. They have a characteristic way of sitting upright on their haunches, exactly like an Egyptian cat statue, and that is what this one was doing. It sat there looking at us, without any show of fear. I had my camera but I was too busy looking at the cat through my binoculars - I don't see wild cats very often so I wanted to just watch it - and after a couple of minutes it turned and stalked off through the scrub. We drove up the road a bit and then came back, and there was a second
jungle cat (larger than the first one) eating something in the rubbish beside the road. I did try to get a photo of this one but didn't succeed in getting anything worth showing.
On one morning I went to a large salt lake outside the sanctuary. I think most people stay just one or two nights when they visit the Little Rann, so the lake is the standard morning trip when the sun is behind you and the Wild Ass Sanctuary the afternoon trip. The birds are pretty flighty, most being migrant waterfowl and waders which may not be hunted here but would be in other parts of their range. Both species of flamingoes are here, although not in the numbers I saw at Mumbai; hundreds rather than thousands. There were all sorts of sandpipers and plovers, but my prize for the day was the pied avocets which I have always wanted to see. Runner-up was ruffs, a common bird in Eurasia but not in the tropical places where I spend most of my birding time. Great white pelicans were in flocks, and I probably saw Dalmation pelicans too but I can't tell the two apart at a distance
(I saw Dalmations in the afternoon at another lake inside the sanctuary, doubling my pelican total from two to four). There were lots of birds of prey too, including imperial eagles, marsh harriers, and a pair of red-necked falcons.
As mentioned above, I wasn't going to be visiting the Velavadar National Park to see blackbuck because of the cost of staying there and of the entry fee. But I knew of another place to see blackbuck for free, called Kanjari Gam, near the Thol Bird Sanctuary (15km between them) which was about 120km from Zainabad. The cost of getting a car out there and back from Desert Coursers was 1200 rupees (about NZ$24). I didn't actually know anything about Kanjari Gam except that it was somewhere near Thol, and that it had a couple of other names like Kanjari Deer Park and Kanjari Blackbuck Park which gave it a captive sound. However I was pretty sure they were wild animals, and when I got there I saw they were just in the fields so not contained at all.
I left Desert Coursers at 5.30am in order to get out to Kanjari Gam and Thol early. It
should have taken about two hours. Except it took almost five hours. The driver had no clue where he was going and we spent a lot of time driving along narrow farm roads with frequent stops for directions. It was very frustrating. But I did see common babblers and Brahminy starlings along the way which were new for me. In fact, common babbler was the 1600th species of bird I've seen in the wild.
Eventually we came to a viewing platform by the side of the road with a large sign saying that this was the Kanjari Deer Park. In the field beside the platform was a large number of cows feeding on tomatoes. I climbed up onto the viewing platform - a not-exactly-solid platform made of bamboo - and scanned the surrounding fields, and there on the other side of the road were a herd of blackbuck sitting in the grass, with a few outlying males dotted here and there.
After spending some time here taking photos, mostly from a distance because the blackbuck didn't want to allow a close approach, we drove to Thol Bird Sanctuary. It was midday by now and very hot so I
only stayed there about an hour before going back to Zainabad. The birds were the same as I had been seeing at the lakes in the Little Rann and the place was being treated as the local hang-out. Thol is not far from Ahmedabad and the entry fee for locals is about 30 rupees, so people come out here to have parties and picnics, and play cricket and throw balls, and generally just cause a disturbance. Meanwhile I'm there to not cause any disturbance and just look at the birds for which the sanctuary was set up to protect, and I have to pay twenty times the entry fee.
After leaving the Little Rann of Kutch I was going to be flying from Ahmedabad up to Himachal Pradesh in the HImalayan foothills, but I had one stop before that. Dhanraj had told me of a quarry near a town called Surendranagar, about 80km away, in which Indian eagle owls could be seen. He hadn't been there himself but his father had, and through him I made contact with a chap named Bhavani Singh Mori, or as he is locally known, The Green Bapu. For the last forty
years he has worn nothing but green; his house and offices are painted green; all the fixtures are green; even the toiletries in the bathrooms are products with green packaging.
Surendranagar isn't on the way to Ahmedabad but it is about the same distance between there and Zainabad, so it made sense to fit it in while leaving. I got a bus from Zainabad to Surendranagar where I was met by a guy on a motorbike who took me to another bus station, and there someone else in a tuktuk turned up to take me to Bhavani Singh's office which was indeed quite green. I'm not sure of Bhavani Singh's status in Surendranagar - he seems to be the equivalent of the king if there were such things still in India.
Bhavani Singh is a proper naturalist, his office decorated with wildlife photos he has taken, and his son Devvratsinh is made in his mold. (Check out his son's website naturehook. com). After lunch Devvratsinh and I headed out to the quarry which is about 5km outside town. The eagle owls are here all the time and are easy to find. Well, you know, except for today. For
an hour we walked all round the place with no luck. I had been expecting a quarry as in a single dug-out site surrounded by cliffs, so you could stand in one spot and scan the rocks, but it is actually an area of land with numerous small pits dug out by hand, so you have to walk from one to another checking each one in turn. I did see grey-necked buntings while we were searching, which were another new species for me.
Finally Devvratsinh found an eagle owl - he'd been getting worried because this was the first time he had ever had any trouble finding them! There were actually two of the owls, although one flew away before any photos could be taken. The other one flew back and forth a few times but didn't seem too concerned by us so long as we pretended we didn't see it.
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