Author: Ravi Kailas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A report from a mammal watching oriented tour, with a specific goal to see/identify potential sites for the rarely seen, locally endangered (within India) Caracal, to Kutch (Western India) in April 2019.
Highlights included a sighting of Caracal (!), Leopard (a rarity in these parts), Jungle Cat, Indian Long-eared and Indian Hedgehogs and Indian Porcupine, among 17 species of mammals in 5 nights. While early summer birdlife is a small subset of the fantastic winter riches in these parts, we still saw a solitary Spotted Sandgrouse, several Painted and Chest-bellied Sandgrouse, a single Grey Hypocolius, large numbers of Steppe Eagle attracted by the drought-induced abundance of Lesser Bandicoot Rat in Banni Grasslands, Long-legged Buzzard and several larks. Unlike at cooler times of the year, the ground was often alive (mostly!) with reptiles (we saw Saw-scaled Viper, (sadly) a road kill of the rare but beautiful Royal Diadem Snake and several Spiny-tailed Lizard among others) and invertebrates (Scorpion sp., Six Spotted Beetle, Sun Spider among others). As always the landscapes of Kutch were mesmerising and Geological nuances, expertly interpreted by Mr Jugal Tiwari of CEDO, fascinating (not the least of which, a fossil-a-minute walk at the Paat River bed!).
Sadly all is not well in Eden – following the script elsewhere in India. Changes here, have been rapid and very evident, comparing 10 years ago to now. Kutch, was then, still, a remote, sparsely populated region – but today, signs of ‘development’ everywhere, with natural areas, often illegally taken over for agriculture, charcoal production, roads and glaringly for ‘Green’ energy production (which has resulted in a large-scale modification of the landscape, with impact on wildlife, hitherto unknown, but likely negative) . This has already led (or nearly) to the extinction of the Indian Bustard in the region. If such a large, well known species can disappear under our noses, it is definitely time to take stock and protect what is left (there are still Caracal here, if that is what it takes to provide the impetus!) of this unique ecoregion.
Dates: 4th to 8th April 2019
Please see picture gallery from the trip
Day 1, 4th April 2019: Arrived post-lunch at CEDO, Moti Virani village (transfer from Ahmedabad by train to Bhuj, and an hours drive from there) – our home base to explore a vast landscape of Thorn Forest, Grassland and Scrub in this West-central part of Kutch.
After an hour or so sheltering from the heat (already considerable in early summer), we set-off to the famous Chari Dhand area of Banni Grasslands – a rich, wintering ground for a variety of globally significant birds, but also interesting for other wildlife. April is already well past prime birding in Banni, but we were treated to a sighting of the Grey Hypocolius in its fringes (at the very end of its winter visit to these parts) and a spectacle of an unusually high number of Steppe Eagle that had stayed back to feast on the abundance of Lesser Bandicoot Rat (A summer phenomenon correlated to monsoon failures. In years with good monsoons, the mortality rate of these rats are known to be much higher, due to inundation of their burrows in the bowl shaped Chari Dhand wetland – among the several nuggets of local wisdom from Mr. Jugal Tiwari, during this visit).
Banni is distinctly quieter in summer. Gone are the pervasive bird sounds, especially of the Common Crane, replaced instead by the sound of strong wind, as it blows through this trough of dust, loosely held by roots of sedges, halophytes and the exotic mesquite. As the sun finally set around 1900 (it remains uncomfortably hot all the way until this moment), the ground started to come alive with Lesser Bandicoot Rat emerging from their burrows. A little later, after nightfall, skirting some rocky hills – which tell stories of volcanoes and time spent under a shallow sea – a Golden Jackal and three Jungle Cats.
Day 2, 5th April 2019: A cool morning (and preceding night – a pleasant phenomenon here, even in the peak of summer, it seems) at around 0615. Visited a location, where a Caracal had been recused (from a snare set in farmland adjacent thorn forest) and released, a few years ago. An adjacent hillock of thorn forest, with hidden gullies, seemed promising for the Caracal, but a few minutes of scanning proved unproductive for anything significant. Later that morning, through various patches of thorn forest and scrub, with flowering Euphorbia peppering the landscape, we visited the ancient monastic site of Dinodar. At the gate, a colony of Indian Desert Jird, which live in a network of burrows resembling a honey-comb, and inside, in the cool of a dilapidated building a roost of a species of Tomb Bat. Barring Chinkara, Indian Hare (a distinct subspecies of this region), Grey Mongoose, a couple of lizards and a handful of commoner birds, sightings were somewhat subdued this morning.
After resting through the heat of the afternoon, an early evening visit to a scrubby, sparse thorn forest location in the vicinity of a temple. Jackal and Indian Hare en-route, a colourful riverbed of a seasonal river on one side and hilly thorn forest on the other. The road ends at a temple and we scan the surrounding hills for Caracal (especially a promisingly ample cave on a hill slope). While waiting, at dusk, Jugal Tiwari notices a silhouette about 200m, atop a rock. First instinct suggested that it was an Indian Eagle Owl, but further probing through the binoculars revealed that it was a Leopard, resting on a rock with its head facing us! A rarity in these parts – so rare that it was Jugal Tiwari’s first sighting of the species in three decades here! After (unsuccessfully) waiting for activity from the cat, listening to the calls of Savannah and Indian Nightjars in the dark, we traced our way back towards the homestay, via thorn-scrub and agricultural fields. En-route a flurry of invertebrates – Scorpions, Sun Spiders and Six-Spotted Beetles, peppered the ground, along with a few Indian Hares and a Saw-scaled Viper.
Day 3, 6th April 2019: An early start to a long day travelling to the distant (from the village of Moti Virani) Eastern part of the Banni Grasslands. The two hour drive turns out uneventful, except for a road kill of the rare Royal Diadem Snake – just a nugget of the amazing biodiversity of the region. Entering into the Banni, when the sun was already well up at around 8 AM, we were greeted by a sighting of a Golden Jackal, quenching its thirst where water seeps out into a pool, from an underground water-supply pipe – a life line for people (and wildlife) in this arid landscape. This moist patch also attracted flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and even better, a rare Spotted Sandgrouse among them – a straggler for this time of the year. Further into the grasslands, looking out for Desert Cat and Desert Fox, as the temperature rose, several Spiny-tailed Lizard basking around a sparse vegetation of halophytes. Turned back around 11 AM, from where Banni meets the barren salt pans of the Great Rann of Kutch, towards lunch and shelter at the Epicentre Homestay, in the unbearable heat of the afternoon (it clocked 42 Celsius in the shade at 1600 that afternoon).
We head back into the grasslands around 1630, still very hot, to try for Desert Cat and Desert Fox (both misses in the morning). Activity was even more subdued in the heat of the early evening, and barring a few Crested Lark and a solitary lizard (possible Agamid), in a clump of Suaeda, there was very little activity. As we reached the edge of the Rann, a cat flitted across our line of vision and disappeared before identification was possible (a toss up between Jungle and Desert Cats). A futile attempt to search ensued, with numerous escape routes for the animal, through channels carved by water as it flows into the depression of the Rann during the monsoon (a characteristic landscape in this part of the Banni). After a rather quiet evening, we exit Banni around 1945. Enroute, on the main road, the first sighting of the Indian Long-eared Hedgehog on the road side, abutting some open fields. Further down an interesting record of the same species with its nose buried into a road-kill of its own kind (feeding?), before the rest of the uneventful drive back to home-based.
Day 4, 7th April 2019: Having discussed the need to be out as much as possible in the dark, an earlier start to the day (0515) to visit a thorn forest location close to the popular Mata Na Mad Temple. At the cool crack of dawn as we entered the forest, on a dirt road, around 620 AM, and immediately struck by the visibly high quality of the forest (seemingly minus big pressure from illegal extraction for charcoal – a big conservation issue in these parts). A few moments to enjoy the morning bird activity and and a fawn coloured animal about 40m showed up in a clearing. A few moments grappling with binoculars and there it was, a Caracal – with its distinctive ears and facial markings – looking back at us, before disappearing into via thickets into low ground! All this within 500m of a relatively busy main road, with the air heavy with the smell of a nearby coal mine. This is an animal that very rarely shows itself, and the proximity to some rather intense human activity is surprising. Then again the forest seemed undisturbed, the trees and undulating terrain providing adequate cover, and hosting a relatively healthy (potential) prey base (we saw several Indian Hare, Indian Peafowl and Painted Sandgrouse). Around the bend, a Golden Jackal and some communal scat (Possibly a mix of Golden Jackal and Caracal). The dirt road leads to a temple, which likely blesses this patch with protection (a sacred grove?) and hosts a trough filled with water – a manna from heaven for local wildlife in the dry season. The morning’s excitement provided the impetus to explore a vast stretch of adjacent thorn forest, parts carved by a dark ravine (quite a magical landscape), but the increasing heat of the day, the resultant lack of visible wildlife)\ and a maze of dirt roads, which rather confounded progress (and us), put paid to the (rather satisfying) AM’s adventures.
After the mandatory afternoon aestivation, we set out at 415 PM towards Phot Mahadev Thorn Forest, initially scoping some windmill scarred thorn forest. In Acacia dominated, hilly landscape, sparser than the mornings forest, we saw some interesting Feline tracks (most likely Caracal), as well as those of Hyena. Chinkara, Indian Hare and Indian Flying Fox completed the sighting list for the evening. Parts of the forest, in the vicinity of Phot Mahadev, seemed especially promising – with undulating terrain and dark narrow gullies in the thorn forest, superficially resembling the morning’s. Exiting from the thorn forest after dark, an Indian Hedgehog showed up near some thorny scrub – the finale to an absorbing day.
Day 5, 8th April 2019: A day of revisiting promising sites (for Caracal) from earlier in the trip. Break of dawn to Caracal sighting location, but 3/4th of an hour waiting on this rather cool, slightly foggy morning, eyes and ears peeled at the clearing and surroundings, hoping that cat’s movement through the landscape is habitual (as they tend to be), proved unproductive (we did hear some Peafowl alarm calls though). We retraced the path the animal walked the previous day. The hard ground, sans loose soil, was useless for any evidence of spoor. Scanning from a high-point and, later walking through a ravine, revealed another unusual sighting – of an India Porcupine, possibly on the verge of returning to its daytime lair. But, no Caracal or any sign of it. Apart from a herd of wild boar, huddled together in the cool of the morning, a pair of Golden Jackal, and a Rufous-fronted Prinia, there were no other significant sightings this morning. From here we visited the Paat River bed area – a location strewn with marine Gastropod fossils (literally one every few feet), linking the region’s complex geological history to a time spent under a shallow sea.
In the evening we revisited the scene of our Leopard sighting from an earlier in the trip. This time, spoke to a temple priest, who lives alone near the scarcely visited temple, with hills, thorn forests (and their denizens) and with a perennial spring for company. He spoke of a cat that occasionally hides in the temple structure to leap up on unsuspecting pigeons that congregate here. Caracal (he says yes, looking at picture from on the camera viewfinder)? Or is it a case of mistaken identity mixing-up with the somewhat similar Jungle Cat (but less likely in this habitat?)? Anyway, a promising lead to explore for the future. The evening turned out quiet in terms of sightings with only a Wild Boar and Indian Hare recorded.
This was the last outing on this trip, culminating an absorbing visit to Kutch’s amazing landscapes with more than a taste of its unique wildlife, whetting the appetite for more!
All superbly taken care of by Mr Jugal Tiwari, an ecologist at the Centre for Desert and Ocean in the village of Moti Virani. He runs a quaint, eco-friendly homestay with comfortable, spacious, air-conditioned rooms and excellent home-cooked, vegetarian meals. The set-up has been hosting and guiding naturalists and birders for decades now, apart from pioneering an eco-restoration project for native plants of Kutch, as well as several outreach programs. One of CEDO’s naturalists, Mr Shivam Tiwari, a budding wildlife filmmaker, has some very interesting natural history footage from the region. A special mention to Chetan Bhai’s (the pilot of the Sumo Gold) amiable company, tireless driving and amazing spotting abilities.
Checklist of Mammals Seen
Leopard Panthera pardus
Caracal Caracal caracal
Jungle Cat Felis chaus
Golden Jackal Canis aureus
Grey Mongoose Herpestes edwardsii
Five-striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus pennantii
Indian Porcupine Hystrix indica
Indian Gerbil Tatera indica
Indian Jird Meriones hurriane
Indian Long-tailed Tree Mouse Vandeleuria oleracea
Lesser Bandicoot Rat Bandicoota bengalensis
Indian Hedgehog Paraechinus micropus
Desert Hedgehog Hemiechinus collaris
Indian Hare Lepus nigricollis
Tomb Bat sp.
Indian Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus
Indian Gazelle Gazella bennettii
Wild Pig Sus scrofa
Nomenclature as per Menon, V., 2014. A Field Guide to Indian Mammals. Hachette India.