iconimg Saturday, August 01, 2015

Ajit Eusebious
New Delhi, December 12, 2012
The Royal Bengal Tiger is vital to Indian wildlife and is a major crowd puller in the wildlife tourism segment. A sighting of this majestic beast in its natural habitat can have a spellbdingi effect.  Not surprisingly then, it occupies prime time space on television with special programmes dedicated to it, such as ‘Tigerthon’ and ‘Save our Tigers’.


Indian wildlife and parks offer such a  panorama view with their raw, uncut and contrasting perceptual beauty. With an accumulation of dry deciduous, tropical wetlands, riverine woods, deltas, deserts, salt marshlands, and highlands with sub-zero temperature, they provide a natural contrast that harbours a wide variety of flora and fauna.

The photographer in me, would jump at the prospect of shooting the Barasingha or the Dholes, the great Indian Bustard, Indian Rhinoceros or the Wild Ass. A dream shoot however would be the Snow Leopard or Bushy Marmots in the Himalayas.

Every park has its own attraction, be it the landscape, forests or the fauna. A park is a park, ever enticing, beckoning to refresh, pump in oxygen or just submerse in its beauty. So, while the bigger better known wildlife parks are featured any way on fancy tourist itineraries and tour offerings, here is an introduction to some of the lesser known parks, which offer as much fun, challenge and opportunity to shoot, marvel and bring home some wonderful memories.

The Changthan region of Ladakh: The trail to this high altitude (14000 ft above MSL) region of Ladakh on way to Pangong Tso from Leh, is dotted with grasslands, marshes and high snow bound passes. It is intriguing to see the terrain change dramatically from one point to another, as this is one of the few green pastures in Ladakh. There is no demarcated core or buffer zone of a Tiger Reserve or Wild Life Sanctuary. The terrain itself divides the area into grasslands, natural vegetation alongside watercourses, and high rough snow clad mountains, forming boundaries of one of the most majestic valleys of the region.

The high altitude zone is home to endangered species like Black Necked Crane, Tibetan Wild Ass, Yaks, Chukkar partridge, Blue Sheep, Asiatic Ibex and hibernating Marmots of the squirrel family. The Snow Leopard remains the main draw but is elusive, presenting itself occasionally to one of the most sought after sightings of the cat family around the world. And when it does, it is pure white magic. The Changtan region, and more so Ladakh, has its own rich bird life with almost 225 species including the Brown Headed Gull, Rudy Shelduck, Bar Headed Goose, Finches, Tibetan Snow Cock and the more common ones like Robins, Redstarts and Hoopoes. The region shelters wildlife which is not found elsewhere in India and is unique, much like the landscapes of the Great Tibetan Table land.

Samaspur Bird Sanctuary, Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh: Serenity, tranquillity and the beauty of the hinterland can all be put together to tell a tale of Samaspur. At a driving distance of about 120 km from Allahabad on the Lucknow road, one cannot miss the railway crossing of Unchahar and the turn towards NTPC. Surprisingly, the road you take after the right turn is better than the Allahabad – Lucknow highway and this is through the rich Indo Gangetic fertile plains of Uttar Pradesh. There is another left turn after about 15 km and after navigating through some not so bad dirt tracks,  the area opens into a large wetland which is at once quiet, peaceful and inviting. 

Samaspur Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the Salon tehsil of Rae Bareily district of Uttar Pradesh. Salon wetlands were renamed as Samaspur Bird Sanctuary in 1987. There are five connected lakes namely Samaspur, Mamani, GorwaHasanpur, Hakganj and Rohnia covering an area of 8 sq km. The sixth lake Bissaiya is closeby but not connected to the main water body. It also forms a part of the sanctuary. These wetlands are included in the list of wetlands identified under the National Wetland Conservation Programme under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

During winters (October to March) migratory birds from lands as far as Siberia and Tibet flock here for breeding, nesting, hatching and rearing, till they start flying back at the onset of  the Indian summer. The best way to get close to the birds is a boat ride which can be organised by the Forest Department. It’s interesting to note that to cut down pollution and the noise, the boats are pushed and guided by a thick long bamboo pole, which comes with practice and precision.

Samaspur is one of the few bird sanctuaries carved out of the Wetlands. There is no thick forest, grassland, cliffs or crevices. Rather, it is a wide expanse of marshy land and lakes covered by Hyacinth weed (locally known as Jal Kumbhi )which is a grave threat to the ecosystem). It’s the quietness of the place which embraces as you immediately fall in line with the rules of the game. The Sanctuary is listed as one of the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in India.  Almost 250 species of resident and migratory birds find shelter here - Egrets, Painted stork, Purple Moorhen, Purple Heron, White Breasted Water Hen, Whistling Teal, Pheasant, Egyptian Vulture, Jacana, Little Grebes, Cormorants, Kingfisher, Bronzed Winged Jacana, Darter, Common Teal, Brahmany Kite, Black Drongo, Green Bee Eater, Indian Sarus Crane and Pintails.

It is one of the cleanest and most well kept parks where the bird lover/ photographer can spend an entire day spotting, shooting (with the camera), and viewing without disturbance. The forest department is helpful and well stocked with information on local and visiting flocks. The wetlands are away from the mainland, so no noise and traffic, just the melodious call of a Koel or cackle of geese. It has  few nature enthusiasts visiting the place but for me as a first timer, it offered a lot more than I had come looking for.

Rajamalai Sanctuary, Kerala: Rajamalai is at a driving distance of 15 km from the tea capital Munnar in the state of Kerala. The park consists of a high rolling hill plateau with a base elevation of about 2,000 mts that form a part of the Western Ghats. It is the small brother of the bigger Eravikulam National Park. This place is famous for its mass flowering of the shrub Neelakurinji (Blue plant) endemic to the grasslands that carpet the mountainside every 12 years.  Last it bloomed was in 2006, which means the next bloom is actually this year. Opulent with unique species of flora and fauna, the park is amidst high mountains and shola valleys (expanse of stunted evergreen forests), offering breathtaking views. What sets Rajamalai apart, is that, it is not a park with thick sal, teak or bamboo forests. Rather, it is the rising and falling terrain, covered with dark slaty and jagged mountainside, dry shrubs, flowers and grasslands, which makes it different from other Indian parks.

The undulated topography of craggy rocks, shrub land, green valleys and  perennial streams makes it the preferred habitat of the much endangered Nilgiri Tahr (mountain goat) where just a few hundred survive under perpetual threat. The sight of this mountain ungulate against the backdrop of the blue rich mountains is truly gracious. The gait, sure footedness, rich texture of the coat, dreamy eyes and its two sets of horns is absolutely spellbinding. This beautiful mountain antelope is a national treasure, much like the Tiger and all efforts should be made to protect it from becoming extinct. Other wildlife found in the area are the Dhole, Indian Wild Dog, Leopards and rare sightings of the Tiger, Nilgiri Marten, Asiatic elephants, otters, squirrels, mongoose and snakes.

Avian attraction is of about 125 species with Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Pipit and Kerala Laughing Thrush being the main attraction. The shola grassland eco system is also home to some 100 odd butterflies. Rainfall is heavy and winter is cold with the temperature dropping to freezing points. The highest peak is Anamudi (2690mts). The vast grasslands interspersed with sholas are the last remnants of the unique ecosystem that was once prevalent in the upper reaches of the Western Ghats. Best time to visit is from October to April.

Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Mysore: One of the few hidden jewels of South India is the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary (RBS),15 km from the historical city of Mysore. Nestling on the river Cauvery, spread over an area of 1 sq km, it is a slow section of the river, with many little islands forming nesting sites for migratory birds. The riverine is dotted with trees on these islands that form the landscape, embraced with marshland, thick forest and bush. One can say it gives an impression of a nature crafted private abode of some of the most beautiful water birds endemic to the terrain and rich in variety. Not only that, it also has its share of wildlife which is typical of a marshy land and thick undergrowth.

Ranganathittu though small in area has an advantage of spotting birds from close and is a photographer’s delight. It is the nesting and breeding centre for birds, mainly the Spot Billed Pelicans Kingfishers, Partridges, Egrets, River Terns, Stone Plovers, Herons, Snake Birds, White Ibis, Cormorants, Darters, Open Billed Storks, Spoonbills, Painted Storks, Pintails, Brahminy Duck and so on. The list of mammals at the Sanctuary includes Bonnet Macaques, Fruit Bats, Palm Civets, mongoose, otters, marsh crocodiles and an occasional sighting of the Indian leopard.

This sanctuary is unique as it offers a boat ride, right into the very private world of their procreation where you get a glimpse, from the twigs to nests and mating calls and the act of love. If one further probes, one can see the eggs, hatching process and feeding of  chicks, something like a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which is exclusive to the bird species. In the midst of this, the jungle law prevails with survival of the fittest. The birds of prey rule the roost with their favourite food being the young chick. If you are lucky and fast with the camera, many moments and actions can be caught and cherished forever. One of them can be a huge pelican in flight so close that the flap of wings can be heard with few droplets of water falling on the forehead from the wet underbelly. An experience of the kind one soaks in as a jungle book tale, and narrates to grandchildren as part of folk lore. Another one can be an unexpected swoop of a Kite into an egrets nest clawing away with a new born.

The captivating world of these birds is so engrossing, that one can easily miss a crocodile’s quiet slip into still waters to catch a fish. The stealth action of the reptile will make a heartbeat miss, and if the camera man is quick, the whole act can be framed for eternity.

The boat ride around the sanctuary is a must. If you are a photographer, then hiring a boat just for yourself or partner makes sense though the cost is much higher. Or else, just go with the tourist group boat that is a lot cheaper. Best time to visit is October to March. The itinerary could include Bangalore, heritage city of Mysore, RBS and the Nilgiri Biosphere. There is no lodging at the park, but you can stay in Srirangapatna, a few kilometres away, or better yet, Mysore. Stay safe and beware of crocodiles in the river.

Ajit is a wildlife enthusiast, with a passion for photography and cooking. He works in the social sector