SANCTUARY ASIA (June 2011)
By Shivang Mehta
An early morning safari in February at the Kaziranga National Park. Within 20 minutes of entering the eastern range, a pair of one-horned rhinos capture my attention. As I visualise an angle to photograph the magnificent armour-coated mammals, three vehicles park themselves behind me. Within seconds I smell a familiar whiff and then see a piece of burning matchstick on the roadside. The driver in the vehicle behind me has lit his bidi and within minutes a couple of tourists are puffing their cigarettes. After the tobacco break, the driver conveniently chucks the remains of the nicotine stick on a patch of grassland just next to the road.
Cut to early March. I am in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve – a forest which is still coming to terms with the increasing tourist influx in recent years. My evening drive in the park is made memorable by a young male tiger right next to the road in the Tadoba zone. Slowly a chain of vehicles line up behind me. Since the road is cramped for space, one of the drivers goes off the road and parks in a small patch of the meadow to get a better view of the tiger. I could overhear the tourist in this vehicle asking the driver to inch closer to the cat and the guide (supposedly a custodian of the natural park) dutifully trying to comply.
These are just few of the many instances that I have witnessed during my forays in the forests of India that highlight why ground staff have to be sensitised to wildlife conservation needs as well as empowered to take stern measures against indisciplined visitors. Commercially viable and mature forests such as Corbett, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore have a significant number of guides and drivers who over the years have interacted with tourists from all walks of life and can hold their own against tourists and exercise control over them on a game drive. A sensitive or ‘evolved’ wildlife afficiando would rightly consider the behaviour of the boorish as disturbing, even irritating. It is imperative therefore that the Forest. Department and tourism professional link up to impart high quality training to their tourism-related staff on a regular basis.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, experienced guides and drivers must be used to train the fresher, less experienced lot. Training is critical for building the intellectual capacity of this cadre, which is why many professionally-managed private wilderness properties are increasingly hiring their own naturalists to improve guiding standards.
The quality of ground staff in national parks also has a direct impact on conservation. Ironically, a fragmented approach toward conservation seldom works. The need of the hour is for the authorities of all national parks to be guided by uniform code of conduct and rules that must keep protection at the core and enhanced visitor experience a part and parcel of wildlife tourism objectives. Such simple steps would deliver us nature guides who see themselves as custodians of India’s natural heritage and this can only be good for conservation.
I had visited Pench National Park in the month of October in 2011. The park had just opened post the monsoons and denizens of this beautiful central Indian park were still coming to terms with the vehicular traffic inside the forest. The taste of the early morning tea I just finished at the local tea shop right outside the gate was still fresh and within a few minutes a cacophony of cheetal alarm calls attracted my attention. The langur monkeys on the tree tops reciprocated their grounded friends as I strained my eyes for the predator who had taken these folks by surprise.
Sudden movement in the grassland and through my binoculars I looked at the direction in which the guide pointed his finger. A jackal pair emerged out from the grass and headed towards my vehicle flashing their furry coat that was shining brightly in the soft morning light filtering through the tendu leaves. As the pair moved closer to the road, a couple more from this family gushed out in the open from behind my vehicle. Within minutes the youngsters from the clan had a playful fight right on the small patch of light that was acting like a spotlight on the theatrical drama happening in front of my vehicle.
I thought this was the best of jackal action that Pench could offer me and 4 months after the incident I headed back to Pench again in search of the famed collared tigress and her extraordinary 5 cubs who had battled the jungle dangers for more than a year and are shaping up to become the fine young torch bearers of the Mowgli land.
With the family of 6 in mind I kick-started my 10 day endeavor in Pench. The forest offered me much more than the 6 I was looking for and with Mother Nature showering her blessings; my total count was an astounding figure of 14 odd sightings during the entire period. This however will not be the reason why Pench will be edged to my memory forever…
It was my 6th drive in the park. The freezing chill of the morning dramatically went down as the sun went up. Post a dry morning round, I entered the park in the noon with light at its harshest best. I decided to quickly find a nice cool area in the forest for a breather and wait till the light and weather was a bit conducive for photography and safari respectively.
As we neared Baghdeo Tiraha (Baghdeo crossing) I noticed an injured cheetal fawn lying on the edge of the road. My vehicle stopped to inspect the cause of death and before we could react, the murderer sprung out of the grassland.
A slight warning snarl, a thick golden coat and with a bold and agile attitude the jackal stood besides its prized trophy. But this was just the beginning of this action packed afternoon.
A deep cut in the stomach of the cheetal made it immobile but the young fawn was not short of courage. He lifted his head up and saw the killer approaching. With his head up he watched the jackal using his muzzle power to rip inside his belly and the feast had begun. A couple of jungle crows and the white backed vulture was waiting patiently for their turn.
In the next 25 minutes, the initial dressing was done and the jackals tore apart the intestines of the cheetal and while I thought the young prey had seen the last of Pench, his tail wagged again. In the wild the line between life and death is very narrow. The 45 minutes struggle was hard to shoot at times for looking at a painful death was not easy.
Such moments are a part of the daily happenings of any forest… though disturbing at times it’s the law of the jungle.
In January 2012 Nature Wanderers was awarded with an exciting project called OASS. OASS is a commercial international film which has been shot in Delhi and Uttranchal around the child trafficking racket in India.
It traces the journey of a 11 yr old girl who was smuggled from Nepal and was sold multiple times at a young tender age. It talks about the brutality towards a girl child in India. It talks about the hypo critic society of our country that worships Durga on one hand and exploits an 11 yr old girl on the other. NW was appointed as the official photography consultants for this project which essentially had the best of international film technicians and Indian artists. NW gave the opportunity to 4 of our participants to handle the stills for this film. These stills apart from being used for the promo and marketing of the film will be used for exhibitions at 7 major cities across the globe included the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012.
The proceeds from the exhibition sale will go to these 4 participants and will also be donated to an NGO that is fighting for the cause of child trafficking in India.
Presenting the OASS team of still photographers:
- For Nature Wanderers
- Aneel Stanley
- Anindo Dey
- Sunny Yadav
- Shovna Upadhyaya
The heat had just begun to be an irritant at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. All morning I went dizzy circling the Telia lake in search for the Waghdoh hunk (the dominant male tiger of the region). Frantic alarm calls, the hustle of common teals, the odd raptor hovering over the lake for an early morning feast kept me busy for those crucial 3 hours. The king made a quite appearance and disappeared in the mysterious bamboo within seconds.
Tired of the hide and seek, I decided to move away from the lake and grab a bite for I had hardly eaten anything since morning. As I parked my vehicle on the side of the main Moharli road and started munching my sandwich, a beautiful Indian Roller (blue jay) landed right next to me and perched beautifully in morning light. A common bird in the forests and open fields of India, the roller looks attractive because of its colors.
I continued the munch admiring the colors shining brightly in front of me. Apart from the colors, a roller according to what I had observed in the past fed on insects like ants, cicadas etc. The flight of a roller was another reason why this bird always attracted my attention. However, when in the wild, all subjects should be taken seriously from a photographer’s perspective. Ignoring these basics, I continued munching and buttered another slice for myself.
Little did I know that this pint sized colorful beauty would display some extraordinary predatory skills that would sweep me off my feet. As I was half way through my munching act, this Indian Roller of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve took off from the branch and grabbed hold of a field mouse.
I gobbled and with butter fingers picked up my equipments and started shooting. What I was wondering while looking through the lens was “how on earth would he treat this special prey?” The roller tossed the field mouse multiple times. A million thoughts were gushing through my head – would the mouse be torn apart to pieces? was this an accidental catch?
For the next 5 minutes the act of tossing was on and finally the roller decided to gobble the mouse just like I had finished the last bits of my sandwich.
It’s been an year since I witnessed this extraordinary act of an Indian Roller. Till date I always stop for a while and closely observe an Indian Roller in any forest of India… you never know what the next prey is!!!
With just 9 days to go for my second Blue Whale expedition in Sri Lanka, I am pleased to share this exclusive article I had written for Sanctuary Asia in the current issue of the magazine. Special thanks to my friend and Sri Lankan partner Mevan Piyasena for introducing me to these majestic creatures.
SANCTUARY ASIA (Feb 2012)
It had been a phenomenal trip thus far. I had seen a dozen leopards and had had some great elephant moments in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. I could hardly believe anything could top these encounters. So when a friend suggested that I head off to the southernmost tip of the emerald isle, I was just expecting great beaches and delicious seafood.
The coastline around Mirissa did not disappoint. It was spectacular, studded with sparkling beaches almost everywhere. I would have been quite content lazing around, enjoying the scenery, but then someone mentioned the possibility of seeing blue whales! Convinced they were mistaking sperm whales for the planet’s largest mammal, I discounted the possibility but arranged for a fishing trawler to take me out to the reported blue whale area anyway. The sea was rough and the turbulence made me question the wisdom of going out in search of a phantom. And with every nautical mile we travelled away from shore, my doubts multiplied.
“Let’s turn back,” I suggested to the boatman, just as I saw the spout on the distant horizon! No words were spoken as the throttle was pressed and we moved purposefully towards the vision.
And then there they were just 20 m. away — not one, but four majestic blue whales.
Few people know what I discovered that day… Sri Lanka is a great blue whale-watching destination. When they pass the island country, the whales are on their east-west migration from the Arabian Sea, around the Horn of Africa to the oceanic waters of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. These gigantic mammals feed on krill – small shrimp-like marine creatures. The migration is triggered by krill in the top 60 m. during certain months. The south-west monsoon causes surface currents to move off the African coastline and currents from below then replenish this displaced volume of water to create an entirely new food chain that results in the seasonal mushrooming of the krill on which blue whales feast.
Scientists studying the migratory patterns of blue whales have discovered that their migration follows ever-changing seasonal currents. It is assumed that the whales are found commonly along the slopes where shallow, inshore waters of the continental shelf drop away steeply to the oceanic depths. Local upwellings typically occur in these belts, resulting in plankton concentrations in Sri Lankan waters that attract whales to the shores of Mirissa and the Kalpitiya Peninsula where the best sightings are to be had.
Resident blue whales Local reports in Mirissa suggest that December to April, when the sea is calmer, is the best time for people to avail of the services of fishermen and tour operators that readily transport you to deep waters for whale watching trips. Nevertheless, my visit in August in a highly turbulent sea was incredibly successful and made me wonder whether the whales were resident, migratory, or both?
Research papers and articles by Sri Lankan wildlife expert Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and marine biologist Dr. Charles Anderson suggest that blue whales may be present in Sri Lankan waters throughout the year. Wijeyeratne explains that the reason for plentiful sightings of whales in Sri Lanka is that a small resident group is supplemented by a large influx of migratory blue whales. Experts have compared local sighting reports with photographic records to conclude that the blue whale population soars during the months of December to April but some can be seen throughout the year.
This is great news for wildlife lovers across the subcontinent. But I do worry that a sudden influx of tourism and unregulated whale-watching trips could adversely impact these gentle marine mammals. Whale-watching in Sri Lanka is still at a nascent stage and experienced international conservation bodies should intervene to the advantage of both whales and their admirers in Sri Lanka.
Shivang Mehta is a wildlife photographer who organises wildlife photography workshops for Nature Wanderers. Visit www.shivangmehta.com for his online portfolio.
Unseasonal rains, misty mornings and extreme cold were making Kanha National Park a tough destination from a photography perspective this January. The cat action had gone done considerably so I had diverted my attention to landscapes and swamp deers (barasingha). I was particularly interested in swamp deers as I was yet to get that good perspective of a swamp deer stag in the ever beautiful and scenic Kanha meadows. Unfortunately in my previous visits to Kanha, a stag was something which I had missed.
Seeing the weather and shooting conditions, I decided to focus my attention on the meadows and grassland and the hunt for swamp deers were on. Every round in the park yielded some nice swamp deer perspectives and it was a smooth sail. That particular evening drive however had something different in store.
With minimal cat expectations and engrossed in the thoughts of capturing Kanha’s in its mystic and damp spirit, Kahini and I set out for the evening round. We were as usual chasing the evening light in the meadows as I wanted to work on swamp deers in the typical evening mood of the meadows. As our vehicle speeded through the narrow forest tracks, I nearly dozed off post the heavy lunch. The sleep was however short-lived for the driver gave me a big jolt by putting the breaks on. The jolt in front of me was bigger!
Munna – the dominant male of Kanha meadows – suddenly emerged out on the right of the road ready for an evening stroll towards the Kanha meadows. The giant male lazily did a scat marking on the side of the road and strolled in grand fashion in front of the vehicle.
Rather than picking up the biggest lens to shoot the mighty beast, I decided to experiment with habitat perspectives which is something I always like to do. Unfortunately, this was a Nature Wanderers event and the participants have the first right on my equipments. I had given away most of my equipments to the Canon Wild Clicks equipments and was left with just 1 camera body to shoot. So the choice had to be swift…
The decision was in favor of a Canon 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8 and I juggled between both these lenses to capture the king’s walk. Shooting big cats that have ventured close to your vehicle with lower focal lengths capture’s the mood of the forest. It differentiates a Kanha picture from a Ranthambhore image for both are different terrains with their own unique features.
A tiger is a tiger… from a photographer’s perspective it becomes imperative to think and create frames that transports a viewer to that particular forest. I have seen some superb habitat perspectives of tigers in the wild taken by my counterparts and I respect the instant creativity shown by those photographers.
For now, dedicating this note the charismatic Munna and his majestic forest…