|India: The Western Ghats '11|
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I'd been to the centre, west and east of India but never to the south, which has a set of nice endemic species including Lion-tailed Macaques and Nilgiri Tahrs. So the Western Ghats was an obvious choice of destination when I was planning how to spend my 3 months long service leave at the end of 2011 (long service leave is one of the Australian public service's finest contributions to modern civilization).
I organised the trip, again, with with Anil at North West Safaris, who had arranged my 2007 trip through Gujurat and 2008 trip in Assam. As always Anil did a great job choosing the best itinerary, finding wildlife friendly places to say and in particular using his network to arrange for Sasi to accompany me (see the Kerala intro below). Ramesh Nair from Explore helped with the local bookings too.
This was the best trip I've had in India. Kerala is beautiful and while the towns are still chaotically Indian its a little bit less frenetic than other parts of the country. The food was spectacular and, compared to the other places I have visited here, the parks were more relaxed and better set up for a naturalist wanting to look for things other than just Tigers and Elephants (though I am sure Sasi's presence helped with this too).
Mumbai is probably not the best gateway to Kerala, but I wanted to visit two sets of caves - Elephanta and Kanheri - that are close to the city. Caves that are well know tourist sites (they both comprise a set of temples) but are also known roosts for several species of bats I wanted to see. Vivek Menon's Field Guide to Indian Mammals recommends Elephanta Caves as the easiest place to see both Schneider's and Fulvous Leaf-nosed Bats, and Kanheri as the best place for Fulvous Fruit Bats and Greater False Vampires.
Elephanta Caves are a world heritage site and tourist boats start chugging out there each morning from 9am from in front of the Gate of India. It ought to take about an hour to get there though it took us 90 minutes on the way out, mainly because the skipper couldn't steer a straight line.
There are at least 5 caves on the island, all next to each other along the main path through the heritage site. The first cave has the most tourist activity. I saw two clusters of Asiatic Greater Yellow House Bats in here, both clustered in sink holes in the roof.
There was also a mixed colony of both Schneider's and my first Fulvous Roundleaf Bats above the main statue at the back of the cave (I managed to miss these first time I entered the cave somehow.. and it was difficult to work out that there were in fact two separate species other than from examining the nose leaves in the photos: speoris has 3 supplementary leaflets, fulvus has none). They were a bit too high up for decent photographs plus there was a perpetual queue of tourists wanting to be photographed in front of the statue too which limited photographic time.
I couldn't find any bats in the smaller No. 2, 3 and 4 caves, but in the 5th cave, in a low small chamber on the left hand side as you enter, were a group of my first Greater False Vampire Bats. A great species.
I didn't explore the rest of the island - nor am I sure its all that easy too or even permitted. Things are pretty much all set up around the 5 caves. Bonnet Macaques are very common and hang around the caves looking for handouts and causing trouble.
I headed back to Mumbai on the first boat at 12.30 (two hours or so on the island is just about enough time to look in all the caves reasonably well).
The journey back was quicker (and straighter) and we drove straight to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, an hour or so away. This is part national park, part safari park and also home to the Kanheri Caves. It was particularly hot and humid around the caves. And when I discovered there are 109 caves I decided to take a local guide who claimed to seen bats in a few of the caves and knew which ones. So we wandered from cave to cave, probably visiting about half of them. Most of the 'caves' are small chambers cut into the cliff face and very similar in size and layout.
Cave No. 1 stank of bats but I couldn't see or hear any. I'm not sure if it is a night roost, or a seasonal thing or that there were in fact bats in the upper chamber which I couldn't see into. The upper chamber is about 10 metres above the cave floor. Now I could have climbed a makeshift ladder to have a look. It had been left there by the locals, and was just two pieces of bamboo lashed together with various twigs sticking off that served as rungs. After several near death moments in Asian bat caves I decided not to risk climbing up and then immediately regretted how unadventurous I had become. I consoled myself with the thought that Fulvous Fruit Bats were using the cave from time to time but I would have heard them if they had been in there.
In Cave No. 3 - which is more of a temple - there were a few very flighty Tomb Bats above the corridor around the perimeter. I saw at least one Black-throated Tomb Bats Taphozous melanopogon (which have been recorded here before according to this very useful report on the status of all South Asia's bats) but they may possibly have also been some T. longimanus but I couldn't get a good look or photo at all of them.
I didn't see sigh nor sound of bats in any of the other 40 or so caves I wandered around. So Kanheri was a little disappointing and perhaps there are more animals there at different times of the year. A guide I was chatting too at Elephanta said there were lots of bats in Kanheri, so many in fact she'd been scared when she visited, so it might be worth visiting at a different time of year.
In the forest around the caves we saw many Bonnet Macaques, a few Rhesus Macaques, a Southern Plains Grey Langur and a brief flash of a striped squirrel that I think was a Jungle-Striped Squirrel (Funambulus tristriatus).
Back in Mumbai I saw a roost of Indian Flying Foxes and many more flying around the city at dusk. Some smaller Fruit Bats were feeding near Homian Circle Gardens. I saw them flying from the trees while we were stuck in traffic so didn't get a good look but they were smaller than Flying Foxes but too big to be anything but Fulvous Fruit Bats (Leschenault's Rousette) I believe.
Its a 2 hour flight from Mumbai to Kochi and the landscape coming into land is as lush as anything I've seen. I was met at the airport by a driver and Sasindra Babu, a conservation campaigner who had taken leave from his job in the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department to join me after Anil had contacted him. Sasi coordinates eco tourism and development activity in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve and has campaigned to involve the local community in conservation and ensure they see some rewards. It appears to have worked. If you would like to visit Kerala you could contact Sasi to see if he could help. He's a great guide, fixer and companion.
Thatekkad Bird Sanctuary
We headed to the sanctuary for a late afternoon/night walk, all of which required special permission of course, in true Indian style. Sasi got the permission but by the time a local guide had arrived it was dark. We decided to focus on looking for Travancore Flying Squirrels which are apparently not so easy to find in the Western Ghats but were quite common in Thatekkad. We didn't see or hear anything inside the sanctuary so headed to the edge of a cocoa plantation nearby where we heard several calling - a mournful whistle - but couldn't see them. Other interesting species in the sanctuary include Malabar Spiny Dormice and Pangolins. The former can probably only be seen by trapping. The latter sometimes get stuck in nets that farmers put out to protect their fruit.
Pampadum Shola and Top Station
After transferring to India's oldest Mahindra jeep we bumped up the last 8kms of track to spend the next two nights at the lovely Camp Noyal, a set of forest bungalows nestled at over 2000 metres amid tea plantations. It was something straight from the Raj.
The high altitude rainforest up here is called shola and there is precious little left: first it was cleared for the tea plantations, and now for short-sighted eucalypt plantations which are big business (and unfortunately the Australian government have been helping fund the work).
A 2 hour hike up and into the nearest bit of shola to camp was uneventful other that for the leeches. The forest was largely impenetrable - what might have one been a trail was now overgrown with head high stinging plants but we did hear a Grizzled (Sri Lankan) Giant Squirrel but couldn't see it.
We arranged with the camp for a night safari and headed off at 10pm in India's second oldest Mahindra. The 3 hour drive through patches of shola was surprisingly good: a Black-naped Hare, several groups of Sambar, 9 Gaur (on the golf course!) and best of all a Brown Palm Civet, a species I had thought we would struggle to find. The Civet was unfortunately quite high up and distant and we only saw it for a few seconds while it was feeding in a tall tree.
I set a bunch of elliott traps around the hotel and next morning caught 4 shrews: 3 were the almost black Hill Shrews (Suncus montanus). The other was smaller with a proportionately longer, and less bristly, tail. I think it must have been a Day's Shrew (Suncus dayii) so far as I can tell from the tiny bit of information in the field guide. I also caught a couple of big rats that were probably Rattus rattus but it would be nice to get some more information on the small mammals in the area.
We spent the rest of the day hiking around nearby Pampadum Shola National Park. I was here mainly to try for the beautiful Nilgiri Marten which seems very hard to see so I didn't hold out much hope. They are spotted occasionally on the road (even close to the town of Munnar), or in the forest, but its a rare sighting indeed. Three hours on a forest track from the gate - and back along the road - to and from the National Park's log camp in the morning, and another 3 hours down the road to Watavada in the afternoon did not produce a Marten (though the guide we were with pointed to several scats that he said were from this species). The leeches were as bad a they come.
We did see a few Nilgiri Langurs (and heard many more) as well as at least 10 Indian Giant Squirrels (and heard many more). I've never seen a more beautiful squirrel. In fact this might be the most attractively marked mammal going. We also saw a couple of troops of Bonnet Macaques.
The next morning we added a very aggressive House Shrew and a House Mouse to the list from the traps, along with a couple more Hill Shrews and another R.rattus. And then we set off for Eravikulam.
Eravikulam National Park
I'm sure Eravikulam, at the top of a particularly lush mountain, is stunning on a good day. But it was hard to tell when I was there. The rain was bucketing down when we arrived though it - if not the clouds - cleared after we took the shuttle bus to the summit. Nilgiri Tahrs are pretty much guaranteed here and it took us an unusually long 20 minutes to find our first animals. But once the rain stopped several groups appeared. It was heaving with tourists but that didn't seem to worry the animals. There were more Bonnet Macaques here too, and Nilgiri Langurs along the highway just out of town.
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary
Chinnar is another 90 minutes from Eravikulam. Its up at about 800 metres and is mainly the classic dry Indian forest reminiscent of Bandhavgarh, with some evergreen forest along the river. It was set up primarily to protect the Grizzled Giant Squirrel. We arrived quite late and stayed in the forest bungalow on the border of Chinnar and Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Great location. Shitty building (literally my room's only decor was rat poo). It was about 10C warmer inside the house than outside which was oppressive. It would have been hideous had it not been raining that afternoon. The forest department provided a chef who cooked up a great meal and we headed out at about 11pm to spotlight along the road through the park (this sort of activity is forbidden further north in India but seems to be tolerated down south). In a couple of hours we saw Chital, Sambar, Indian Muntjac, Wild Boar, Black-naped Hares and two groups of Gaur. Mouse Deer are seen from time to time along the road though we didn't find any.
The next morning it was easy to find Grizzled Giant Squirrels along the river near the bungalow, and Jungle Striped Squirrels on the other side of the road.
We spent 3 hours after breakfast walking around Chambakad Village and back through the bush to the house. My main aim was the Dusky Striped Squirrel which I was told was quite common in Tamarind and Banyan trees though this contradicts the IUCN site which says they are extremely rare and restricted to riparian forest (reed beds in particular) so I have my doubts that the guide and I were talking about the same species. But he knew we weren't after Jungle Striped Squirrels so I don't know what he was looking for if it wasn't a Dusky Striped Squirrel...Possible Treeshrews? Much to the village guide's surprise we couldn't find one. How I wish he hadn't have said we "were sure to see one". There was plenty of evidence of Elephants in the area, and Slender Lorises and Pangolins are around too (I was shown Pangolin diggings). Bonnet Macaques and Tufted Grey Langurs were all around the house and park gate.
Valparai (Tamil Nadu)
Valparai is a 3 hour drive from Chinnar, half of which is in Tamil Nadu a state where drivers may sound their horns even more often than the Keralites. Its an interesting area: primarily tree plantations with a mosaic of remnant shola forest in between that provides habitat for many large animals. Animals that are quite easy to see because they are often crossing from forest patch to forest patch. Its also the best place to look for the endangered Lion-tailed Macaques which can apparently take a bit of finding within the national parks they inhabit.
We stayed at the All Season Guest House, run by a tea plantation, in a bungalow that came complete with a cook. The manager was interested in wildlife and arranged for a local to help me find the animals.
It began to rain just after we arrived so we put out some traps in the hotel garden and decided to take the rest of the night off because of the weather (Its often very misty in the afternoon and evenings which makes night drives something of a challenge, especially as there is a risk of running into a herd of elephants on a narrow mountain pass). Early the next morning we visited nearby Puthu Thoottam village where a group of 50 or so Lion-tailed Macaques were waiting for us. They generally turn up early in the morning to feed before heading back into the forest. Really great animals.
We also saw Nilgiri Langurs along the main road and a couple of Malabar Giant Squirrels. Back at the guest house there was a Jungle Striped Squirrel running around, and in the traps we caught another Rattus rattus (probably - the cream bellied animals here seem way too pretty to me to be this species) as well as two mice. I'm as sure as I can be that, with their bi-coloured tail a little shorter than then 80cm body, they were Cooke's Mouse (Mus cookii), though they might also have been the endemic Bonhote's Mouse (Mus famulus). I stand ready to be corrected on both counts.
The hotel manager summoned me to see a group of Elephants feeding in a nearby shola patch later that morning and we saw a Wild Boar in the same area. We looked for Sloth Bears during a late afternoon game drive that are apparently common but couldn't find any. We did see a couple of Gaur though and more Elephants. A night drive was pretty quiet, with just a Sambar, a few more Gaur and a Black-naped Hare all close to the hotel.
In the morning something - presumably a Sloth Bear - had trashed a few of my traps set around the guest house. THe only animals inside were a Jungle Striped Squirrel and another Cooke's Mouse. Our final early morning drive added a rather dark Grey Mongoose to the trip list, with a Ruddy Mongoose and Bonnet Macaques about 30 minutes down the mountain towards Anamalai as we headed to Parambikulam.
A great spot and one that ought to be added to the ecotour circuit.
Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
Parambikulam, back in Kerala, is 3 hours from Valparai. Sasi works here, and has campaigned over the past 14 years to ensure the local community see the benefit of ecotourism. Its 650 square kilometres of evergreen forest and Teak plantation and borders the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.
There were a few Nilgiri Langurs, some Grey Langurs (though I am not sure what species) and a few hybrids hanging around the Anamalai gate 4kms before Parambikulam. Sasi arranged for me to stay in a fabulous tree top cabin inside the park. It was blissfully quiet for an Indian park: Parambikulam is closed to day visitor's vehicles during the day and all vehicles at night. They run a few safari minibuses for day visitors which keeps disturbance at a minimum.
During a late afternoon drive we saw stacks of Wild Boar and Chital Deer, all extremely habituated, several nice groups of Gaur, Nilgiri Langurs and a few Sambar. We missed a herd of Elephants by a few minutes.
After a wonderful night of solitude in the cabin I set off early to check for Sloth Bears in an abandoned building 500m off of the road. Its an active den. Full of proof that bears shit not just in the woods but in old houses too. But the bears must have been away for the weekend. There were a colony of Horseshoe Bats inside: I think Rufous Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus rouxii) though at first I thought there were two species. Half were bright orange and the others, much more clustered together, were grey. But looking at the photos they appear all to be R. rouxii (indeed a couple of individuals appeared to be turning from grey to orange, or vice versa). Meanwhile Sasi told me he'd seen a Leopard cross the road last evening after he had dropped me at my cabin.
Spot the difference: Red and Grey Rufous Horseshoes (Rhinolophus rouxii)
We walked for an hour or so through the bush and saw lots of Nilgiri Langurs and Spotted Deer, old Tiger scats and heard an Indian Giant Squirrel. A Serpent Eagle, flushed from the trail, was munching on a fresh Indian Giant Flying Squirrel which it had presumably caught not long after dawn. They are big animals up close.
Jungle Striped Squirrels were common around the park restaurant.
After a cup of tea we drove up the hill towards Parambikulam Village with a local guide, Shanmugam. He's one of the park's birding guides and reckoned we'd easily see a Dusky Striped Squirrel. He wasn't wrong. This is an interestingly little known species. The IUCN claim its been recorded very few times but it is not uncommon at Parambikulam. We heard several calling - with a distinctive 'squeaky wheel' kind of a whistle - along the road up to the village. The squirrels apparently live in the thickets at the base of mature stands of bamboo and we heard at least 3 in this habitat in the space of 20 minutes.We got a brief look at one zipping around inside a thicket. They are small, shy and hard to photograph which perhaps explains the paucity of records. Plus few people have been looking I imagine.
After finding the squirrel so quickly Sasi decided we ought to move to the Nellyampathy Hills, in the western buffer zone of the park for the second night as it was a good area for Indian Mouse Deer (a species much less common than its cousin in Sri Lanka). We could also take a night drive there, something prohibited in the park itself. The area is also good for Lion-tailed Macaques.
It took a couple of hours to get to the government hotel (whatever your views on privatisation and nationalisation I don't think I've ever stayed in a nice government hotel...but the food at least, and as always in Kerala, was good). We set out as soon as it got dark for what turned into an excellent 4 hour drive. My first Indian Mouse Deer, great views of 5 Indian Giant Flying Squirrels, a few Sambar, a Black-naped Hare and a prolonged look at a youngish (but still 2m long I would guess) King Cobra that was slithering back and forth trying to find an escape route from under the tree root we'd baled it up into. We stopped half way at Pakuthipalam, the tiny village Sasi grew up in and had a cup of tea while his cousin expressed considerable concern at the amount of blood stains on my trousers and the amount of blood flowing from my arms (having taken the best bits of my legs the leeches were moving to higher ground).
The next morning there were Cooke's Mice and a Hill Shrew in the traps, and Malabar Giant Squirrel, Muntjac and Bonnet Macaques around the hotel. Another top park and one that should be on every mammal watcher's itinerary.
Wayanad & Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuaries
It took most of the day to get to Wayanad. I wanted to visit here primarily to see Black-footed Grey Langurs, one of the several species (though some people aren't sure its a full species) that the Hanuman Langur was split into. Wayanad was a convenient place to stop. Its rather more disturbed than the other parks I'd been too and more touristy too. I stayed at the Rain County resort which was more luxurious than the other places I'd stayed but I didn't like it so much: I saw my first western tourists here. A short spotlight walk along the drive to the hotel produced another Indian Giant Flying Squirrel and a small mega-bat, presumably a Cynopterus species.
Sasi had never seen Langurs near the hotel so after breakfast we decided to head to Nagerahole National Park, probably the easiest spot to see some, and also en route to Bangalore, our next destination. As we got closer to Nagerahole we discovered the park is only open for a couple of hours at dusk and dawn so we decided to try nearby Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. That too was shut during the middle of the day (I've no idea why) but there were Black-footed Grey Langurs in the trees near the park gate. Problem solved. They certainly had rather different colouration to their Tufted and Southern Plains relatives.
We continued on to Bangalore for my last night. Half of Bangalore appeared to be under construction. The other half was stuck in traffic. I am not in a hurry to return.
Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary (Karnataka)
I'd seen Sloth Bear only once, and poorly, in Yala National Park Sri Lanka, so decided to change my schedule to spend our last day at the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, 300kms north of Bangalore. Now 300kms in India is usually a full day's drive but once you escape Bangalore traffic its a fast 3 lane toll road for the first 200km so it took just 5 hours to reach Hospet. Our driver certainly relished the chance to drive on a fast road. The man has no fear and our trip made Death Race 2000 look like Driving Miss Daisy. But we survived. And, after some lunch, and a local metal shop repaired my bear damaged traps, we drove the last 26km to the sanctuary.
There have always been Sloth Bear at Daroji but in1994 the community decided to set up a park, put a wall around - and revegetate - some good habitat. Visitors head to a watchtower overlooking some rocks where food is put out out each afternoon (I think to make the bears easier to watch rather than because they need the food). The park opens at 13.30 and shuts at 18.00. We arrived at 2.15 and had to wait for about 10 minutes before a mother and cubs came trotting down the rocky hill side for a late lunch. They mooched around for 45 minutes before one of the staff's dogs turned up for a feed too and the bears trotted back to their cave. There was a Three-lined Palm Squirrel here too, and I think I saw a Wild Boar briefly. I've heard reports of Pangolins in the park and the habitat looked good. We set off back to Bangalore in the hope we could drive a little more slowly to make my flight. We made the flight. We drove no less quickly.
So over 40 species including just about all of my targets. I'd normally have tried to have done the trip a bit more quickly but the extra 3 or 4 days paid off to make for a very enjoyable and a successful 12 days. This was largely thanks to Sasi's great efforts. A big thanks to him and to Anil at North West for organising it and looking after me.
Stuff I missed
Nilgiri Marten: they are probably not as hard to see as people would have your believe. Most people I spoke to who lived around Munnar had seen them albeit rarely and I think if you spent a week up there driving the road from Munnar to Watavada you'd have a reasonable chance. The bad news is that they are rare. The good news is that if you see one they seem both fearless and curious and may well walk up to you.
Malabar Civet: I didn't even ask about this species. It may well be extinct.
Malabar Hedgehog: strangely only one person said he'd seen hedgehogs and that was at Top Station where he reckoned they would often come to the restaurant looking for scraps of food. I'm not sure if that's accurate.
Travancore Flying Squirrel: the only place people knew about these was Thatekkad where we allegedly heard several. I imagine they would have been present in some of the other parks (especially Chinnar which was lower in altitude than the other places I visited) but there is probably very little spotlighting done in those places.
I was also keeping an eye out for Fishing Cats (no one reported seeing these), Pangolins (they are around but as always very hard to see), Malabar Spiny Dormouse (they had a stuffed one in Thatekkad that they had found after a fire but you'd realistically only have much chance to see one in a trap I think), Madras Tree Shrew (no one I spoke to had seen one of these) and White-tailed Woodrats which are probably common and I may even have seen one or two in Chinnar on the night drive but I can't be sure.
Trip List (lifers prefixed with an F)