I had planned to make my second trip to India at the end of 2006. But thanks to the double incompetence of Charles de Gaulle airport (which like the rest of the country grinds to a halt when forced to deal with a crowd larger than what would fit into a Peugeot 206) and Air France, which despite some stiff competition remain the most unfriendly, unhelpful and unpleasant airline I have ever used, I missed my flight. But I rescheduled my trip for February 2007 which turns out to have been a good thing I think: it would really have been quite cold in December.
I wanted to see three species in particular: Gangetic River Dolphins (reputedly easy to see near Agra); Asiatic Wild Ass (for which you have to go to Gujurat) and a Striped Hyena (patchily distributed across most of the country).
I emailed a handful of ground agents before I went and only two seemed to know much about the wildlife. Arpit Deomurrai and North West Safaris. I used North West in the end, though at the time of booking there seemed little to choose between them and Arpit.
North West did a good job. The office is very knowledgeable about mammals (and not just the big ones) right across India, although some of their information was a bit out of date it turned out. They were generally very fast to get back to me with prices and the itinerary they helped me plan was a good one. Most impressive was their willingness to book and pay for my internal flights without asking for a deposit from me.
I spent just over a week in India.
I flew into Delhi at 1 a.m. on Sunday morning and met my driver and car (self drive car hire is pretty unusual in India and you would have to be intrepid or suicidal to try to drive yourself when the extra cost of a driver is negligible). We drove overnight to Agra, which should take about four hours but took us six because my drive stopped for “5 minutes”, and we woke up 2 hours later.
We rested in Agra and then we drove another two hours onto the Chambal Safari Camp. The camp is excellent: a nice setting, good food and great staff who were keen to help find me some animals.
Chambal National Park is a long thin strip of scrubby forest bordering the Chambal River. The camp offer boat trips along the river in the mornings and afternoons. And the stretch of the river they visit is home to a population of Gangetic River Dolphins that are very findable most mornings.
The boat trips leave from a bridge across the river a half hour drive from camp. The afternoon safari was picturesque with some nice birds, plenty of Gharials and Mugger Crocs, and a few turtles. But no dolphins. Perhaps they are not active in the afternoon or perhaps they spend their time elsewhere.
The next morning though we were on the river as soon as the mist cleared at about 9 a.m. and travelled the 3 km downstream to the dolphin spot. Within five minutes we saw the first animal break the surface. There were three or four animals feeding here for about an hour, though it was difficult to approach them. I had only fleeting glimpses as they broke the surface for a second every two to three minutes. The dolphins hang out near a small sand bar that was also home to a group of Indian Skimmers.
Some spotlighting around Chambal in the evening found a Common Palm Civet in the garden and Indian Foxes (a mother and two cubs) denning in the paddock (more like waste ground) outside the camp. They occasionally see Striped Hyenas here late in the evening.
Indian Flying Foxes were feeding in the garden at night, and Five-striped Palm Squirrels were common in the daytime. I set 15 Elliott traps without success.
Bharatpur: Keoladeo Ghana National Park
After lunch I headed back to Agra, and there were groups of Rhesus Macaques running around town. It was another 45 minutes or so on to Bharatpur Sanctuary (also known as the Keoladeo Ghana National Park). This small and busy park is well known among birders. At the entrance to the park you are encouraged to hire either a bicycle or a bicycle-rickshaw and perhaps a guide too. I had come here to look for Fishing Cats: Bharatpur is reputed to be one of the best places to observe this species – and also Indian Porcupines.
I didn’t see either species. The park – which ought to be a wetland – was pretty much dry. Failed monsoons last year and an argument over water rights had seen to that.
I couldn’t work out the current status of Fishing Cats in the park. My guide (Hemant Chansoria tel 94113919203) spoke pretty good English and seemed OK on the mammals. He insisted that he saw Fishing Cats every few weeks without making a special effort to find them. He told me he had seen one a week ago near the only bit of water in the park at that time. However, I had arranged my trip to Bharatpur to cross paths with an Australian mate, Steve Anyon-Smith on his own Indian trip: his guide, who Steve spoke highly of, said that he hadn’t seen a Fishing Cat in four years.
Porcupines, however, are present and apparently common. My guide took me to several den holes just off the kilometre long road that runs between the park entrance gates and the barrier to the core zone.
We saw quills and fresh tracks. But of course porcupines are nocturnal and there is no spotlighting allowed in the park. North West Safaris had recommended looking for porcupines by spotlighting just outside the park barrier. But the rules have changed: the guards don’t allow people to go through the entrance gate after dark unless they are staying at the park hotel, which is within the park and just outside the barrier to the core zone. Had I known I would have stayed at the hotel where I am pretty confident I could have walked around with a spotlight without much hassle and would have seen a porcupine: I was told one animal visited the small temple near the hotel looking for food each evening.
But in a couple of hours before dusk I did see Chital, Nilgai, Sambar, Jackal and Indian Hare (all common) together with my first Indian Grey Mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii) crossing the road. Both the Indian Grey and Small Oriental Mongooses are apparently present and common.
I spent the night in the fading glory of the Laxmi Villas Palace hotel. Steve Anyon-Smith had found a couple of bats roosting in a ceiling nook above a speaker. After climbing on top of a table and waving my tripod at them I saw their bright yellow bellies: Great Asian Yellow House Bats (Scotophilus heathii).
Little Rann of Kutch
After a short safari at first light in Bharatpur I drove five hours or so back to Delhi and flew on to Ahmedabad in Gujurat on Kingfisher Airlines (who were excellent). I arrived a bit later than expected in Ahmedabad and didn’t get to Dasada, and the Rann Riders camp, which istwo and half hours from Ahmedabad, until 8.30 p.m.
A late spotlight drive that evening into the Wild Ass Sanctuary was not particularly exciting. There were a lot of small mammals crossing the road, none of which the car slowed down for quickly enough to get a look at. I guess many were Indian Gerbils. In the sanctuary itself we saw a few Indian Hares and some Nilgai.