Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tigers on the Edge

Greetings All,
After leaving Manus National Park we drove about 7 hours east to Kaziranga National Park.  I couldn't believe the heavy truck and bus traffic along National Highway 37 which parallels the southern boundary of the Park.  All along the route were signs telling motorists to slow down as they were approaching a wildlife corridor.

Road Sign on National Highway 37

Speed bumps or breakers were also installed to slow vehicles down but the buses just cruised over them.  Elephants do leave the park to travel into the forested hills in the south.  I couldn't imagine hitting an elephant while traveling in a car.  Along such a busy highway Greater One-horned Rhinos and Swamp Deer were peacefully grazing.

Greater One-horned Rhinos and a Swamp Deer along NH 37

The next morning we headed out on our first safari into the park.  Kaziranga is a vast expanse of tall elephant grasslands interspersed with tropical moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests.  There are many bodies of water in the park including the mighty Brahmaputra River which defines the northern boundary of the Park.   Kaziranga boasts the highest density of tigers  in the world but they were proving to be difficult to spot in the tall elephant grass.  Our driver Nekib and guide Gajendra spotted one slinking through the grass but Marc and I could not see her.  We drove down the road hoping to see her as she crossed.  We parked on a bridge and waited.  Marc and Gajendra were looking to the left and I to the right.  Nekib went behind the jeep to take a pee break and as he was returning he exclaims with a muffled shout "Tiger, Tiger!".  She crossed the road right in front of us but we didn't see her.  I couldn't believe that we missed her twice!  We continued to wait hoping she'd show herself a third time when Gajendra spotted her going back across the road.  Finally we all got a good view.

Female Tiger Crossing the Road!

Amazingly, she revealed herself a fourth time while crossing a small wetland.  What luck to get two views of one of Kaziranga's elusive tigers!

Female Tiger Crossing a Wetland

It was getting dark and it was time to leave the park.  Just outside the entrance gate is the bustling town of Kohora.  It's hard to believe that a tiger was on the prowl just a mile away.

Town of Kohora at the Entrance to the Park

The next morning we went on an elephant safari.  It's a great way to see the sunrise and to get close to some animals.  We did encounter two wild male elephants but they wanted nothing to do with their domestic cousins and hightailed it out of the area.


Wild Asiatic Elephants

The Greater One-horned Rhinos were much more tolerant.  They allowed us to get very close.

Viewing Rhinos from an Elephant Safari

One of the other mahouts or elephant riders took my camera so he could photograph us photographing the rhinos.

Us on an Elephant Safari

Kaziranga harbors a staggering 2300+ rhinos, an amazing accomplishment since they were all but extinct by the early 1900's.  Rhino poaching still occurs today but on a much smaller scale.  Nekib told us that 23 rhinos were poached last year.  Rhinos are poached for their horns and the more recent demand is being driven by an unsubstantiated rumor that rhino horn cured cancer in a high ranking official of Vietnam. 

At the end of our elephant safari I got to make friends with one of the elephant calves accompanying his mom on safari.  He was more interested in making friends with Marc who was trying to take his picture.

My New Friend

Little did we know that just on the other side of the road another tiger encounter would take place later that morning.  Right now the area was chaotic with people, elephants and jeeps.

Crowd at the end of the Elephant Safari

We were doing a jeep safari after our elephant ride when we got the call that a tiger had been spotted by the entrance to the park.  We raced off to the location but by the time we arrived he had already moved off.  We decided to wait along the road listening for deer alarm calls to alert us to the tiger's presence.  We heard some calls near a dam that was just across the road from where the elephant safari had ended earlier that morning.  Amazingly a large male tiger appeared on a dirt track just above the dam!

A Male Tiger Emerges
 
We waited for him to come out but more jeeps passed by and scared him back into the forest.  We returned to the area 25 minutes later to see if he would show himself.  Lo and behold, he gingerly crossed the water behind the dam and disappeared into the forest on the other side!

Male Tiger Crossing a Pond
  
We waited for him to reappear and Marc spotted him along the road looking for an opportunity to cross.

Male Tiger Wanting to Cross the Road

He finally got up the courage and crossed the road with a snarl!

Male Tiger Crossing the Road!

On the drive back we stopped at a lookout tower and two jeeps full of high school students from Gujarat (a state on the northwest coast of India) pulled up.  They were very excited.  Had they spotted a tiger?  It turns out they were excited about seeing us!  Each one wanted their photo taken next to us.  This is the first time on safari that I was photographed more than the animals.  Marc went up into the tower and left me with the kids.  They waited to look through my binoculars.  It was a bit unnerving as I feared they might drop them in their excitement to get a turn.

High School Students Waiting to look through my Binoculars

Not all of Kaziranga's endangered inhabitants are as charismatic as the rhino or tiger but they are still great to see.  A group of endangered Assam Roofed Turtles were sunning themselves on a log in the river.

Assam Roofed Turtles

On our last safari Nekib spotted two Smooth-coated Otter pups before they disappeared into a small pond.  We drove to a lookout tower on the other end of the pond to see if we could spot them again.  Marc was trying to get my attention to let me know they had left the water and were walking along the base of the tower.  The park ranger accompanying us got excited.  He had never seen the otters so close.  They crossed the road and disappeared in the forest beyond.

Smooth-coated Otter Pups

Smooth-coated Otters are listed as vulnerable due to loss of their wetland habitat.   Near sunset we approached two elephant cows with a calf on the road.

Elephant Cows with Calf on the Road

At first they were curious but after a few minutes one of the cows became impatient with our intrusion and mocked charged us!  Time to leave the park.

An Elephant Cow Mock Charges Us

The last stop on our Assam wildlife quest was the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary.  Located about a 2-hour drive from Kaziranga, the sanctuary protects 7 primate species.  The most well-known is the endangered Western Hoolock Gibbon, India's only ape.  Unfortunately, it was raining and made spotting the Gibbons more difficult.  Not only are Gibbons less active when it rains but the leeches start to come out.  I was willing to brave the leeches to see this endangered primate but only after coating my feet, socks and sneakers with DEET.  It took a while but our guide finally spotted a lone male and then a family of five gibbons high up in a tree.


Male Western Hoolock Gibbon


Male and Female Western Hoolock Gibbons 

We were also fortunate to see Pig-tailed Macaques.  They braved the rain to feed on fruit in the trees.


Pig-tailed Macaque

What a fitting end to our one-week wildlife odyssey in Assam!  It's easy to see why Assam is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots.  We feel privileged to have the ability to visit such an amazing place and commend the Indian government for their efforts to protect it for future generations.

We hope all is well back home.
Marc and Peggy 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Trans-border Birding

Greetings All,
After exploring the Sundarbans we returned to Kolkata and flew to Guwahati in the Indian state of Assam.  Located in northeastern India, Assam contains some of the richest biodiversity in the world. We planned to visit two National Parks, Manas and Kaziranga, which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Our first stop was Manas National Park, a 4-hour drive from Guwahati.  Located in the Himalayan foothills, it is contiguous with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.  We set off in an open jeep to explore the forests and grasslands of Manas.  The park is famous for its population of truly Wild Water Buffalo.

Wild Water Buffalo Bull

Other large mammals found here include Asiatic Elephants, Gaur (Indian Bison), Tiger and Greater One-horned Rhinos.

Asiatic Elephants

It's not easy spotting wildlife in the dense forests or tall elephant grass but if you're lucky you can catch animals in the open like this Capped Langur and Malayan Giant Squirrel.

Capped Langur

Malayan Giant Squirrel

Manas is a birder's paradise with more than 450 species.  Again, it's not always easy to see them in the thick vegetation but our guide Gajendra was a master at spotting them and Marc did a great job photographing them.  Here are a few of our favorite bird photos.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

Scarlet Minivet

Male and Female Kalij Pheasants


Yellow-footed Green Pigeon

Common Hoopoe

Great Hornbill

The main road through the park actually crosses the border into Bhutan.  The border post wasn't manned so we entered Bhutan without a visa, let alone our passports.

Us at the Border Crossing into Bhutan

The birding in Bhutan was just as great including this spectacular Green-billed Malkoha,

Green-billed Malkoha


a Great Barbet

Great Barbet


and this beautiful Blue Rock Thrush.

Blue Rock Thrush


The wild orchids were also in bloom this time of year.

Wild Orchid

We didn't venture too far into Bhutan and returned to India to have lunch and resume our search for wildlife.  We caught this female Hog Deer in the open next to the road.


Female Hog Deer

Although common in Manas, the Hog Deer is classified as endangered.  Over the last 20 years or so the Hog Deer has suffered a 50% decline.  The decline has been the highest in the eastern part of its range where the population has dropped by 90%.  The Hog Deer is now one of the most threatened large mammals in Indochina and is believed to be extinct in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China and in most of Cambodia and Bangladesh.  Assam remains one of the last strongholds for this endangered species.  Threats include hunting, habitat loss and habitat degradation.  As we were leaving the park a small herd of Hog Deer were resting peacefully in the forest including this beautiful stag with antlers still in velvet.

Hog Deer Stag

It was great to see that the wildlife in Manas is thriving and is being protected.  In 1985 UNESCO declared Manas a World Heritage Site but in 1992 it was listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger due to heavy poaching and terrorist activity.  Thankfully, it was removed from that list in 2011 and commended for its efforts in preservation.  We hope this park will remain a safe heaven for the rare and endangered wildlife that depend on Manas for their continued survival.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Man-eaters of the Mangroves

Greetings All,
After our visit to Tadoba National Park, we drove back to Nagpur and flew east to Kolkata.  A bustling metropolis of over 14 million people, Kolkata is the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal and the staging point for our visit to the Sundarbans.  Every since seeing a documentary on the Sundarbans twenty years ago I have been intrigued by this vast mangrove forest along the Bay of Bengal with its legendary man-eating tigers.  Now, here we were on our way to explore the Sundarbans for ourselves.  We drove for about 3 hours from Kolkata to the town of Gadkhali where we boarded our boat for the trip down the Durga-duani River.

Marc on the Upper Deck of Our Boat

About 2 hours downriver we entered Sundarbans National Park.  Declared a National Park in 1984, the area encompasses 2600 sq km. We had to stop at the office to pick up our permits and while there saw an Indian Gray Mongoose chasing a domestic cat. "Oh no, I thought, that mongoose is going to kill that poor cat!"  Surprisingly, the cat did not run away and the two began to play.  What an unlikely friendship!

Unlikely Friendship

Two young Rhesus Macaques were also frolicking under the trees.

Rhesus Macaques

As we were leaving the dock I spotted some curious looking mudskippers on the shore.  They are completely amphibious fish that can use their pictorial fins to walk on land and they have the ability to breath through their skin.

Mudskipper

We took a short cruise into the park but other than some shore birds we did not see any of the Sundarbans elusive inhabitants.

Indian Pond Heron


White-collared Kingfisher

We returned to our lodge where some of the local villagers performed a folk dance for us.  The women danced while the men beat drums and played a flute.

Local Village Tribal Dance

After the dance, a "tiger" paid us a visit. The kids in the audience were frightened but their parents urged them to shake the "tiger's" paw for a family photo.

Shaking Hands with a "Tiger"

The next day we spent the whole day plying the waters of the Sundarbans in search of their most infamous inhabitants.  According to last year's census conducted via camera traps, there are 103 tigers roaming the Sundarbans.  Tigers here do hunt and consume humans that venture into their realm. Every year villagers are allowed into the park for two weeks to gather honey.  They wear masks on the back of their heads to trick the tigers into thinking they are being watched.  It is believed that tigers only attack from behind.


Back of the Head Mask

They masks aren't always effective and people are still being killed by tigers.  Last year 45 fatalities were reported.  This year the most recent attack occurred only two weeks ago.   A woman was fishing with her husband and son when she was attacked by a tiger.  She told them not to try and rescue her and put their lives at risk.  She sacrificed herself to save her husband and son.  We were safe in our big motor boat but the fisherman use small rowboats and go down narrow channels where they are vulnerable to tiger attacks.

Local Fishermen

There are several theories why tigers here are man-eaters while in other parts of India tigers do not hunt humans.  The most plausible is the low prey base in the Sundarbans.  The tigers only prey consists of spotted deer, Rhesus Macaques, wild boar and sometimes even fish and crabs.  The tigers are always hungry and people make easy targets.

Rhesus Macaques on River Bank 

Spotted Deer on River Bank

Other theories seem more far-fetched like tigers are in constant pain from drinking saline water which makes them more aggressive or that they developed a taste for human flesh by eating dead bodies washed up from people drowned during cyclones.

So why do people venture into these mangrove forests and put their lives are risk?  The biggest reason is to collect honey.  This time of year the mangrove flowers attract millions of bees.

Mangrove Flowers

Some were flying around our boat and landed on us.  As long as you stayed calm they did us no harm.  I asked if the locals ever considered placing bee hives in the villages so that they didn't have to venture into the forest.  The answer was some did consider village hives but the highest quality honey comes from the forest.

We searched all day for the man-eaters of the mangroves but did not spot any.  We had to settle for some pug marks onshore as proof that the man-eaters are more than just a legend.

Tiger Pug Marks

I felt somewhat guilty for desperately wanting to see a tiger from the safety of our boat when everyday people risk their lives in order to make a meager living.  The last thing they want to encounter is a tiger.  Yet, it's the tigers roaming these mangroves that have saved them from development and protected the local inhabitants' livelihoods.

As the sun set over the Sundarbans I knew the tigers would be on the prowl.  I hope that humans and tigers can somehow learn to coexist in this fragile and unique environment.

Sundarbans Sunset

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc