Sunday, November 13, 2016

Gujarat Trick or Treat!

Greetings All,
After our epic trek in Nepal we shifted gears to wildlife watching.  We booked a 3-week safari with our good friend, Avijit Sarkhel, and were able to do the inaugural tour of Vana Safaris, a new company he started with his wife, Monika.  We flew into New Delhi on October 22 and were warmly greeted by Avi.  We were invited to his home where we met his wife Monika and his sister who prepared us a delicious Bengali meal.  

The following morning we flew to Rajkot by way of Mumbai in the Indian State of Gujarat.  A 3-hour drive brought us to our first destination, Gir National Park.  The draw here is the Asiatic Lion and Gir is the only place in the world they live.  The park is dominated by teak forest and grassland.  Due to an unusually heavy monsoon, the vegetation was dense and the grass tall.  It would be difficult spotting wildlife.

Dense Vegetation at Gir

We arrived just in time for the afternoon safari.  We encountered some of the Park's herbivores such as Spotted Deer, Nilgai and Sambar but the lions remained elusive.  We'd try again the next day.  Around 8:30 the following morning we came upon a few jeeps of Indian tourists.  They had just seen a leopard but it had disappeared into the forest. We drove off disappointed but I heard someone shout.  When I turned back one of the jeeps flashed its lights.  We went back and the leopard had been spotted again.  Most of the other jeeps had given up the search and moved off but we waited and were rewarded with a beautiful sighting of a female leopard! 

Female Leopard!

She vanished into the tall grass and I looked back to see a second leopard cross the road behind us!  It turned out to be a male.  We followed both cats for about 40 minutes.

For our afternoon safari we were assigned Routes 4 and 7.  We missed the lions again!  They were on Route 6 in the morning.  The next day we were determined to find the lions.  We requested Route 6 but it was closed for road work.  Bummer!  We were hoping that the lions would cross onto Route 5 but they didn't.  As dusk was falling I heard the characteristic "sawing" of a leopard.  Leopards make a call like someone sawing wood to allow territorial neighbors to keep out of each other's way and also allows males and females to find each other.  We found the leopard, a magnificent male, not far away and we rewarded with a great view.  

Male Leopard!

Sadly our 5 safaris in Gir did not yield any lions and it was time to move on to our next destination, the Great Rann of Kutch.  It was a long 9-hour drive but we were humbled when we passed a group of pastoral nomads on their way to Rajasthan. Here we were in our comfortable air-conditioned vehicle while the nomads were on foot at noon leading their camels carrying all their worldly belongings.  

Desert Nomads on the Move

The Great Rann of Kutch is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar Desert near the border with Pakistan. It is reputed to be one of the largest salt deserts in the world and its so big it can be seen from space!

Rann of Kutch, photo from NASA Earth Observatory

We were the guests of Jugal Tiwari, the founder of the Centre for Desert and Ocean (CEDO).  He has worked tirelessly in the region since 2005 to protect the area's unique wildlife and we were privileged to spend a few days with him.  To learn more about CEDO and how you can help go to:

We searched day and night for wildlife but sightings were few and brief.  There are many pressures adversely affecting this fragile ecosystem including habitat loss for agriculture, livestock grazing and commercial wind farms.  The use of agricultural pesticides, roadkill, hunting and predation by domestic pets are also threatening the wildlife.

Shepherds on the Road

We did encounter several colonies of Indian Desert Jird.  Jirds are closely related to gerbils but lack the long hind feet and the characteristic erect posture of a gerbil.  In addition, the Indian Desert Jird is diurnal, in comparison to the three common gerbil species found in India which are nocturnal.

Indian Desert Jird

We also sighted Asiatic Wild Cat also known as Desert Cat, Jungle Cat, Asiatic Jackal, Indian or Bengal Fox and this adorable Pale Hedgehog.  When threatened the hedgehog curls inside into a ball exposing only its spines, staying like this for hours.

Pale Hedgehog

The Great Rann of Kutch is also an important area for migrating birds.  The diverse habitats including wetlands, grasslands, tropical thorn forest and the coast all provide staging, feeding and roosting grounds for 375 species.  We saw many specialities such as White-naped Tit which is vulnerable and endemic, Painted Sandgrouse, Desert Warbler and MacQueen's Bustard.  This species is listed as vulnerable because of a population decrease by 20 to 50% from 1984 to 2004 due mainly to hunting and land-use changes.   In January, 2014, Saudi prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud shot 2,100 MacQueen's bustards during a 21-day hunting safari in Pakistan, shocking in this day and age!

MacQueen's Bustard

From the Great Rann of Kutch we drove to the Little Rann of Kutch stopping at the 10th century Pereshwar Temple dedicated to Shiva.  While Marc and Avi were photographing the roosting Greater Mouse-tailed Bats, I watched a Pundit perform a puja ceremony.  

Pundit Performing a Puja Ceremony

The guys were allowed to go into the inner sanctum but I was not.  When I asked Avi "why not?", he replied that "women were too much of a distraction for the gods".  Me, a distraction?  Yeah, right!  Besides, gods and pundits should be above temptation.  

A sanctuary has been created at the Little Rann of Kutch as the World's last refuge of the Indian Wild Ass.  Spread over 4954 km², it is the largest wildlife sanctuary in India.  The sanctuary is one of the last places on earth where the endangered wild ass sub-species, Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur), can be spotted.   The main threat faced by the sanctuary is the illegal salt mining activity in the area from which 25% of India's salt supply comes.  It didn't take long to locate a scattered herd of about 25 Indian Wild Ass.  We could actually approach quite close on foot for photos.

Indian Wild Ass

Other mammals such as the Desert and Indian Fox, Nilgai or Blue Bull, Wild Boar and Indian Hare live here.  The following morning we found a sleepy Desert Fox curled under a thorn bush.  He grew tired of us watching him sleep and trotted off across the salt pan.

Desert Fox

That evening a group of local women treated us to a song and dance performance in celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.  It spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.

Diwali Song and Dance Performance

We were up very early to leave at 3:30 for Blackbuck National Park at Velavadar, our last stop in Gujarat.  We wanted to get there for the morning safari.  Today was Halloween.  Would we be tricked or treated to something special?  Upon entering the Park we immediately spotted Blackbuck, Wild Boar and Nilgai.  Ramjan, our local guide, saw something on the road ahead.  We could see White Storks but there was something else.  Could it really be a pack of Indian Grey Wolves?  Yes!  We tried to get closer but they ran off into the tall grass.  We drove around and Ramjan told us to get out of the car and get ready to photograph them as they crossed the road.  Sure enough they did and Marc got great photos!  

Indian Grey Wolves

There were 7-8 wolves in the pack.  I was so excited I forgot to count.  Ramjan said he had not seen a pack this large in 12 years!  We watched them far out in the grassland but could only see their heads.  

Blackbuck and Wolf

We left the park and went to the main road where Ramjan said they would cross after a few motorcycles went by.  He was right again!  They crossed and Marc got more great shots, including one of a wolf crossing behind a motorcycle!  It amazes me how predators and people in India tolerate each other.

Indian Grey Wolf Crossing a Highway

We returned to the Park and turned our attention to the Blackbuck.  This antelope is native to India and is found mainly in this area.  There are approximately 3500 Blackbuck in the Park congregating in herds as large as 500 individuals or in smaller bachelor herds creating a sea of spiraling horns.

Blackbuck Herd

It was fun watching them pronk like the Springbok of Southern Africa.  They leapt into the air with an arched back and stiff legs, typically as they crossed a road.  

Pronking Blackbuck

There were also numerous Montague's and Marsh Harriers, Common Crane, White Stork and Greater Flamingo.  The Harrier roost found at the park is one of the largest in the world.

Sparring Harriers

After lunch we returned to the Park where we encountered two massive Blue Bulls engaged in a fierce battle.  They locked horns, dropped to their knees and pushed each other with tremendous force.  This went on for about 20 minutes before the victor chased off the loser.

Dueling Blue Bulls

That evening as we were leaving the park we spotted one last wolf crossing the road.  Seeing the Indian Grey Wolves was the best Halloween treat ever!

Indian Grey Wolf

Our last safari in Gujarat the following morning yielded no wolves so we realized how special yesterday's sightings were.  We drove to the city of Ahmadabad where we would fly to Jaipur in Rajasthan State for the second half of our safari.  Stay tuned to see what surprises Avi has in store for us!  
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Our route so far:

Places visited in Gujurat

1 comment:

Avijit Sarkhel said...

Lovely reading about it - I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and you were the perfect guests to launch the inaugural tour for Looking forward to reading about the second half of the journey and having you back in India.