Monday, 30 May 2016

Wildlife in the 1970s

My first wildlife outing was in 1968 to Hazaribagh National Park. The two outstanding memories are the sighting of a leopard in the dusk while driving through the forest and, the huge size of the sambar deer in the Park, the males with equally huge horns. My first trip by myself was in April 1972 to the Palamau National Park, now designated as a Tiger Reserve. Palamau is in south-western Jharkhand and was then one of the richest wildlife areas in the country. Travel was cheap in those days, with rail fare being about Rs. 15-20 from Calcutta to Ranchi and bus fares only Rs.7/8  per person  from Ranchi to Daltonganj from where one had to go farther into Betla, the main tourist centre for Palamau. Accommodation in the Tourist Lodge in Betla was a princely  Rs. 25 per night while the Janta Lodge was Rs. 10 per night. There used to be hardly any tourists there: wildlife tourism had hardly started and most people were content to spend their holidays in Puri or Darjeeling. Therefore very often I had the whole of Betla to myself. At night I would lie in bed listening to the call of the deer -usually the rutting call - or that of a peacock, sleepily calling out to its friends, or on occasion the sharp squeal of a pig if it was cornered by a tiger in the Plantation Area that lay about half a kilometre from the Lodge. In the day time there were the deer, the langur, sambar and bison to see either on foot or in the evening drives through the forest and, in winter, wild elephants that added a special zest to any visit to the forest. And so the years from 1972 to 1985 were spent in visiting the many parts of Palamau National Park and viewing and photographing wildlife (I started with a manual range-finder camera with a 135 mm  lens) and just enjoying myself in the midst of nature.

My first "Lifers"  - When I first began to visit the forests in 1972, the consuming passion was to see tigers in the wild.. But within about a couple of years, bird calls and birds flying by caught my attention. My first "lifer" (in the common "short-hand" of bird-watchers) was a Paradise Flycatcher that flew in with its ethereal beauty almost over  head near the Naya Bundh in Betla in 1975. The next was a Scarlet Minivet that almost sat on my head near a bamboo thicket close to the Teno Grasslands near Baresand in Palamau; this was in 1978. It was in the same year and in the same place that I first saw the Blue-bearded Bee-eater,but it took some time to identify; although its long curving beak and the "bib" of shining blue feathers  were diagnostic.

I have always been fascinated by Hornbills, those large ungainly birds with huge beaks. They came out of the pages of the "Book of Indian Birds" (and later, the "Collins Guide") that I got in 1978 right in front of my eyes when I first went to Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in 1980. They were to be found in the forests below Mothanguri and, the hornbills (mainly the Great Indian Pied Hornbill) flew across the Manas River every other evening. But my feast of hornbills was somewhat later in 1992, at Nameri Wildlife Sanctuary (now a tiger reserve) that lies in the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh to the north of Tezpur in Assam. First would be heard a strange "shush-shush-shush" sound and one would look around to see the source of this sound, till overhead would be seen perhaps twenty five or thirty Rufous-necked Hornbills or the Wreathed Hornbill, flying to their roost across the Bhoreli River. At other times, they would be found roosting on a bare "bhelu" tree (Tetrameles nudiflora) at some distance from the camp, looking at the distance like so many large bee-hives on the tree.

This goes back to December 1969. My cousin and I were touring Rajasthan and had done Udaipur and Jaipur, when one winter morning we arrived at Bharatpur. It was foggy and the sun was just about brightening up when we took a cycle rickshaw and arrived near Shantikunj. We were wondering which way to go when a volley of gun-shots broke out near and around us. A huge cackling and honking broke out, together with a roaring sound as if several jet planes taking off: it was the sound of wings of thousands of the wintering ducks which had taken off with the gun-shots. By this time we had taken shelter under a spreading tree as ducks and geese fell from the sky with big thumps: the maharaja of Bharatpur was apparently entertaining his guests at a bird-shoot! Not wanting to get into the line of fire, we moved away to behind Shantikunj rest house and found ourselves in the midst of two or three tents. Much to our surprise, we were invited to a breakfast of omelettes and toast by some of the catering staff. While we were tucking in - my cousin in particular is a hefty eater - we saw at a distance a group people around a lanky, dark person with white hair, discussing something. We were to learn only later that this person was Dr. Salim Ali and that he was conducting   "mist-netting" trials at Bharatpur and was discussing some points about bird identification with his students around him. Later that morning we saw at a distance of possibly fifteen or twenty feet a group of five or six otters, besides quite a number of waders and ducks. But that was much before we had any books to refer to, and the birds remained unidentified.
But some years later, in 1976, I went back to Bharatpur, this time armed with a Pentax Spotmatic II with a 200 mm lens and took the picture of the Siberian Cranes that is shown above. That was another "first".


  1. Nice article for jungle lovers .... would look forward to more such travelogue ...

  2. Thanks for your views. Incidentally, the picture of the bird is that of an Emerald Dove - a very pretty creature that is found mostly in moist forests such as in Kerala, Odisha, and Kaziranga in Assam. Hope to keep up making posts.