Author & Naturalist: Ravi Kailas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A brief, mammal watching oriented guided tour to the salt pans of the Little Rann of Kutch and the tropical grasslands of Velavadar produced carnivores galore – including Striped Hyaena, Indian Wolf, both foxes and Jungle Cat, most with pups/cubs, among the easier to see ungulates. In Velavadar, it was interesting to observe Blackbuck on the cusp of their bi-annual lekking peak. Bird highlights included numerous Aquila eagles, Red-necked Falcon and harriers among other raptors, Sykes Nightjar, Common and Demoiselle Cranes, Greater Flamingo, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans among a variety of wetland birds. There is always something magical about the wide open spaces of the Rann (but the ‘bets’ are sadly quite disturbed for illegal charcoal making, cattle grazing and possibly more sinister activities) as well as golden grasslands (at this time of the year) of Velavadar. It was great hosting Andreas here, hearing about his ‘fresh off the press’ adventures while searching for some of the world’s most elusive wild cats in the Eastern Himalayas, and learning about his far flung travels across the globe in pursuit of wild cats and other wildlife.
2nd to 6th March 2020
Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch; Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar
Andreas Jonsson, a keen mammal-watcher and photographer with a specific interest on wild cats of the world. This trip followed his visit to south India with us in mid-Feb (report here) and, independently, to the Eastern Himalayas, in an effort to add to his impressive list of 25 plus species of wild cats he has recorded from around the world so far.
Day 1, Wild Ass Sanctuary
Entered the Zinjuwada gate of the Sanctuary at 1645, about a 45 min drive from our lodge, via a rural landscape of villages and agricultural fields. Commoner countryside birds recorded on the way, including a large flock of Yellow Wagtail, possibly on a migratory stopover. On the periphery of the village, soon after entering the sanctuary, we waited at an Indian Fox den, where very young pups had been observed over the last few days. Sadly, our driver told us, the mother had been killed by feral dogs – a bane of wildlife in many parts of India – and the pups were now taken care of by the father alone. While looking around, in this disturbed, overrun by exotic Mesquite landscape, Ganesh caught a glimpse of an Indian Fox (the parent?), in a dry stream bed, which, apparently disturbed by our presence, took off through the vegetation, away from us. The rest of the evening, searching primarily in the ‘Bets’ – islands of elevated, vegetated land surrounded by the salt pans – produced herds of Indian Wild Ass, but no other mammals. We did however, come across a very bold, adult Indian Fox (likely the same as earlier in the evening) close to the den site, as we exited the Sanctuary around 1915. Birdlife, while not especially diverse, included flocks of Common Crane and Bimaculated Lark as well as Short-toed Snake Eagle, Short-eared Owl and Isabeline Wheatear.
Day 2, Wild Ass Sanctuary
Entered the Zinzuwada gate of the Sanctuary around 0710 (sunrise), on a cool morning, with an initial focus on observing known Desert Fox dens for activity. The first den on the slope along a bund, only produced an adult crouching quietly on the ridge nearby, just for a moment after we saw it, before disappearing in the depression behind. The second den proved more productive with a trio of pups (within 2 weeks old as per Ijas, our driver cum naturalist), playing close to the den (which had 2 interconnected openings, located under thickets of mesquite), before disappearing inside. When we visited the den later in the morning, around 0930, the (shyer) mother was with the pups, briefly, while the bolder pups hung around, playful, in the immediate vicinity of the den. Between our two visits to this den, the morning proved productive and included a pair of Golden Jackal, several herds of Indian Wild Ass, Nilgai and Grey Mongoose. The morning’s bird list, included flocks of Rosy Starling largely feeding on the life-giving fruit of the Salvadora busheson the edge of the Rann as well as Pallied Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-necked Falcon and Desert Wheatear, within. As we exited the Rann around 1030, some countryside highlights included Five-striped Palm Squirrel, Indian Flying Fox, Indian Pond Terrapin and an inundated field with hundreds of Demoiselle Cranes, Greater Flamingo, feeding and displaying by the roadside, Pied Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Spoonbill among various ducks and waders.
Entering the sanctuary at 1625, on a warm evening, through the Zainabad entrance, searching the ‘bets’ focussed on Jungle Cat, with an off chance of Desert Cat (which are rarely recorded from the location). Neither showed and the only mammals of the evening turned out to be Indian Fox, resting in the shade of mesquite and herds of Indian Wild Ass (including a lovely herd – sometimes galloping – in the wide open expanses of the Rann, as the blood red sun dipped under the horizon). Birdlife was interesting for Eastern Imperial Eagle, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers (but none of the large harrier roosting numbers the location is known for – too late in the season?), Short-eared Owl, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (in pairs), Common Crane and Syke’s Nightjar. We exited in the cool of the night, around 1945, to be shown our way out by an Indian Fox in the disturbed thickets where the sanctuary meets the outside world.
Day 3, Wild Ass Sanctuary & Blackbuck National Park
The morning session was an abridged birdwatching oriented affair along the idyllic Nava Talav. This seasonal lake hosts a variety of migrant wetland birds in winter and our brief session here (from 0710 to 0840) was enjoyable for great views of a late season subset of these migrants, in glorious morning light. Highlight birds included Eastern Imperial Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Greylag Goose, Greater Flamingo, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and various ducks and waders.
Later, after an uneventful drive of about 3hrs we arrived in a landscape of open grassland, akin to (a disturbed version) of the modestly sized protected area within the Blackbuck National Park, a further 20 minute or so away. Even in the heat of the afternoon, we saw more than a handful Blackbuck, the park’s most abundant denizen as we approached the entrance to the park and onward to our accommodation within. After a hearty, homestyle Gujarati lunch, washed down with typically watery (and welcome) Chaas, an hour or so waiting for the park to reopen at 3PM
After some rather arduous, time-consuming paperwork in honour of arranging park entrance tickets, we were on our way into the park around 1515, on a warm, windy afternoon. Driving along the golden (with a tinge of green grasses, thanks to a late season rain surge), we came across a profusion of Blackbuck (some with days old calves) and few Nilgai, largely resting in the heat of the day. Activity however picked up after a 5PM with Andreas spotting a Jungle Cat kitten zipping across from the open shade of a mesquite bush into the opaque grasses. The real highlight of the evening was the sighting of a trio of Striped Hyaena pups emerging from their (moderately distant) burrows, well hidden in the grasses, late in the evening. These 4 month old cubs (as per our naturalist), evidently all by themselves until the mother visits in the night, were quite curious of the outside world (and each others bottoms, from around where scent glands are known to be in hyaenas), but never strayed far from the burrows. Watching them play in the soft glow of the evening light was a satisfying finale to the safari which also included Indian Eagle Owl (on a regular roost), Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Common Kestrel, Steppe Eagle (several), Greater Flamingo, Great White Pelican, Common Crane (large numbers) among commoner birds.
Later that night (1945), enroute Andreas’s accommodation a few kms down the road from the park entrance, we came across a mother and kitten Jungle Cat, stoically in the middle of the road until we got close. While the kitten disappeared into the thickets soon enough, the adult, quite bold, continued feeding, periodically taking a break in the thickets, on what appeared to be juicy grasshoppers on the main road. A few minutes later, another Jungle Cat and preceded by Indian Hare on this brief drive.
Day 4, Blackbuck National Park
The park ticket counters open just before 0700 and using the first in first out approach (although this was not a busy season in the park, when you can expect long queues) we managed to get on safari by 0705, on a cool, crisp morning. Activity was slow to begin, with Blackbuck, Nilgai and a lone Striped Hyaena pup (from the same brood as the previous evening) among the sightings in the first hour or so. Wild Boar and an Indian Fox pup followed (bringing down the average age group of mammals sighted by another notch), before we crossed the road into the wetland side of the park, in search of Indian Wolf – another star attraction of the park. Not much later, “Wolf”, someone cried (only literally), as an individual crossed the road to the side, paused on open ground to look back at us, before a deceptively fast trot across the vast landscape, away from us. Later we saw a trio of wolves resting in the shade under the umbrella like Acacia with an adult male Nilgai for company – strange bedfellows! Later, yet another Jungle Cat kitten decided to show itself very briefly in a small clearing amidst tall grass, to add to the morning’s list of mammals. Strikingly, there was an abundance of Aquila Eagles – mostly Steppe, but also a few Greater Spotted and a couple of Tawny Eagles – as well as Short-toed Snake Eagle, Eurasian Kestrel, Marsh and Pallid Harriers in the impressive (for the numbers, more so than the diversity) list of raptors from the morning. We exited the park around 10.30 as the heat of the morning drew curtains on a productive effort.
We entered the park again at 1600 on a very windy (with menacing clouds in the horizon) evening. There was a special light early on in the safari, with an interplay between cloud, dust and evening light and a smell of rain hung in the air – unusual weather for this time in these parts. An Indian Wolf, once again moving at considerable speed without seeming to, crossed the road in front of us ‘walked’ across the grassland, apparently stalking Blackbuck, late in the evening. We could just about discern two pairs of ears peeking out the grasses (wolves in blackbuck’s clothing?), observing the scene, potentially lying in wait for the prey to come towards them, before we let the crouching dogs lie. The evening was also interesting for what we think as the same Jungle Cat kitten from earlier, this time lying exposed in the shade of a tree for as long as we wanted to watch it. Birdlife was akin to earlier efforts, with a striking abundance of raptors, including of Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers roosting in the fire lines (patches of grasses balded intentionally, to control forest fires, but also to encourage harrier roosts, for which the park is globally renowned – incidentally also improves visibility of other wildlife at this time of the year), as we exited around 1800.
Day 5, Blackbuck National Park
Our final effort in this little gem of a park was an abridged safari (0700 to 0900), as we had to be at the Ahmedabad airport for late afternoon flights. The highlight sighting of the morning was of an adult Striped Hyaena – the mother of the pups seen earlier, seemingly scouting an abandoned den, to shift the pups there (our naturalist hypothesised). This sighting, at a relatively late hour for Hyaena (0745, bright sunshine) was preceded by another one of a solitary pup, out of its den (same location as earlier sightings). Towards the end of the safari, we were treated to a sight of Blackbuck lekking behaviour – a group of males, ears flattened, head thrown back, in challenge mode for a bare piece of ground to call their own. A pair soon faced-off on a rather serious looking fight, locking horns aggressively (we could hear a loud clap as their horns came together), until after 5 minutes or so a victor emerged, chasing the vanquished out of its territory and ‘celebrated’ by urinating/defaecating to mark its domain. This spectacle lasted all of about 10 minutes, an interesting observation to culminate the visit to this engrossing, but often underrated park.
List of Mammals seen
Striped Hyaena Hyaena hyaena
Indian Wolf Canis lupus pallipes
Indian Fox Vulpes bengalensis
Desert Fox Vulpes vulpes pusilla
Golden Jackal Canis aureus
Jungle Cat Felis Chaus
Indian Hare Lepus nigricollis
Five-striped Palm Squirrel Funambulus pennantii
Nilgai Boselaphus tragocamelus
Blackbuck Antilope cervicapra
Indian Wild Ass Equis hemionus pallas
Indian Wild Pig Sus Scrofa
Indian Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus
Grey Mongoose Herpestes edwardsii
Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch
We stayed at the Rann Riders Safari Resort, offering modern, air-conditioned accommodation in a charming oasis of green – among the popular options for wildlife enthusiasts. Food is a reasonably elaborate affair, largely pan-Indian, with some Chinese and Continental options (spice levels catering to Western palate). One could also consider staying at Desert Coursers, in an equally charming setting (and well loved by nature enthusiasts), offering rustic accommodation with a local touch and superb, largely local style food. Both offer safaris into the sanctuary.
As with sanctuaries in the rest of Gujarat, safari entrance and camera fees for foreigners are (absurdly) considerably higher than for Indians – INR 2800 (for the vehicle permit if just one of the visitors in a foreigner) and INR 1200 for each camera (as against INR 400 and INR 100 respectively).
Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar
We had initially booked forest department accommodations (double rooms), adjacent to the sanctuary gate, for all of us. However, the forest department here takes it to the next level wrt discriminatory pricing, we discovered, with (these rather basic) rooms for foreigners charged at an astronomical USD 150 per double (INR 1000 for non-A/C and INR 3000 for A/C for Indians). As such we decided to host Andreas in the much more modern Blackbuck Safari Lodge a few kms (15 minute drive) down the road from the Sanctuary entrance.
Accommodation offered by the forest department was simple and adequate, with en-suite facilities and electricity – the best thing going for it, its location within the sanctuary, with sit outs overlooking the grasslands. Meals were simple (Gujarati) homestyle, vegetarian and quite delicious (again INR 250 for lunch/dinner for Indians more for foreigners!). The booking process for these rooms are a touch convoluted and involves calling (warning: the person at the other end speaks Gujarati style Hindi only, especially challenging if you are like me, with awkward Hindi skills at best) a number in Bhavnagar (+91 278 2426425) to pre-book and later, physically send a Bankers Cheque as advance payment towards confirmation.
For safaris, we hired a Suzuki Gypsy from the entrance (limited numbers, so quite a lot of demand at popular times of the year) for INR 2500/safari (one could also enter their own vehicles though). Get in touch with Sikander (+91 83475 86351, also a good guide) to pre-book vehicles. Safari permit fees, are once again shockingly high for foreigners (USD 40/vehicle/safari and USD 20/camera/day compared to Indians (INR 800 and INR 100 respectively). The initial paperwork for foreigner entrance was especially time-consuming, in as much, Andreas quipped, that it was easier to get through Indian immigration than this (although I have never been through Indian Immigration as a foreigner, I am inclined to agree)!