Mumbai:Predator’s eyeWatching wildlife in their natural habitat is exhilarating. So every time I’m amidst nature, I look out for anything that flutters, moves, crawls or slithers, and most of the time, it’s rewarding. Just 2km into the 9.5km nature trail at Sri Lanka’s Horton PlainsNational Park, I heard a river rushing somewhere on my right. While I couldn’t see the river thanks to the trees obstructing my view, I couldn’t help but soak in its soothing sound in the quietude of the forest, eyes closed. Zen! With a smile on my face, when I opened my eyes I spotted the ever- so-charismatic colour-changing chameleon camouflaged in brilliant green scales, blending perfectly with the large dark green leaves it was sitting on. The way it had parked itself on the leaves, I could see chameleon’s side profile and its most attractive feature, its eye, which was unblinkingly looking skywards. I tried moving lightly to grab my camera lest it should move away, but just as I did, its eye moved a little. My hand froze mid way. I kept looking at it to gauge whether it saw me as a threat and soon enough its eyes moved—right, left and upwards again! I had only read about how chameleons can move their eyes 360° and can have clear vision even whilst moving each eye in a different direction, but seeing it for real was truly intriguing. I couldn’t be more ecstatic. After a quiet moment of staring at it, I realised it’s not moving anymore, an indication that it wasn’t feeling threatened. So I pulled out my camera and captured that moment forever.
I’ve never had THAT jungle experience—of tigers drinking at the waterhole or cheetahs stalking an antelope. Nor have I experienced the pin-drop silence one associates with forests known to be disturbed usually only by the chirping of a bird or the rustling of leaves. Instead, at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (one of the two forests I’ve visited in my life) the cacophony had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with people, who were swarming the sanctuary’s ticket counter. And yet, I returned with a unique sighting.
Accompanying us in the queue were monkeys, who came towards us with a mischievous glint in their eyes. Fearless of humans, they managed to intimidate their ‘more evolved’ descendants into giving them a lot of food, despite several signs saying ‘Do Not Feed The Animals’.
In the midst of all this mayhem, I noticed a baby monkey learning the tricks of disruption from an adult. The older primate was holding a faucet as if he was about to turn it on so that a fountain of water would hit the visitors. Luckily I had my camera with me and managed to click them in action. It also taught me a valuable lesson: act like the animals do when you’re in the jungle. Be silent! If you won’t, you’ll miss out on seeing the bigger animals and instead be left to watch monkeys—who are experts at aping—use your tricks on you.
Ghost of a leopard
Vipin Sharma, India Nature Watch
The sun was yet to rise, the sleep hadn’t left our eyes, but we were seated in our safari jeep, eager to greet the animal kingdom at Jim Corbett National Park. We saw a few deer, elephants and bison, but nature lovers that we are, what captivated us just as much was the lush environ and the stories regaled by our guide about how most creatures were harmless to human beings and the fact that many could be seen from our resort at night. We missed the tiger cub that a group just ahead of us spotted, but not being tiger-obsessed meant that we still left the park in high spirits. The result? Law of attraction set in motion. My personal experience has been that when you run behind things, they will forever elude you, but when you learn to enjoy the moment, the world comes to you. So it was to be. The park was only the beginning of our 11-day Uttarakhand trip that ended in Garhwal.
Trying to pack a lot in one trip, we found ourselves being driven down from Auli to Rishikesh late one night. Not the best idea on Uttarakhand’s curvy bends, more so given the time; we were there just a few months post the 2013 floods that had ravaged the ranges with a lot of rubble waiting to roll down. But it didn’t hinder our journey. Instead, what brought our car to a sudden halt was a rose-spotted Indian leopard that leaped onto the road, right in front of our car. Before I could blink, just like that it leaped off the road to descend the hill. “Did you see that!,” I exclaimed. The driver could only nod. At least that assured me my mind wasn’t playing games.
A beetle battle
Rafael Brix (CC BY 2.5)
South African safaris are all about the Big 5—the African elephant, leopard, lion, rhinoceros and buffalo. As they are all huge, ergo easy-to-spot, it is uncommon for Kruger National Park visitors to return disappointed. But other than these massive animals—rhinos, the size of a bus and elephants, even bigger—you’ll find the ever-so-graceful gazelles, magnificent giraffes, hypnotic zebras and possibly fleeting glimpses of hippopotamuses. But my most fascinating sighting didn’t involve them either. Instead it was to be two dung beetles in a combat akin to that of two gladiators in a face-off at the Colosseum. Our vehicle abruptly halted just a few feet from what appeared like a rolling ball; it was in fact elephant poop, being pushed by two black, thumb-sized male beetles in a conquest to win over the female, somehow managing to remain perched atop the poop-ball. Even as they toiled to keep her from toppling over, they were engaged in a territorial tiff. Our guide said the beetles were fighting as much for the poop as for the female beetle, as it would be inside a tunnel in the poop that the successful suitor would mate with her. The fist-sized battleground had us transfixed; the beetle offensive persisted for nearly 10-12 minutes until one of the males fell by the wayside.
Wild dog chase
We were driving through the dense bamboo forest of Maharashtra’s Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary one evening and suddenly heard a loud call. It had the distinct honk of a sambar with a high pitch, which indicated that it was a male. So we assumed a tiger or leopard was around because unlike the deer and some other animals, the sambar thanks to its bad vision only calls when a predator or mammal is very close. But seconds later, behind us about 10-12 dholes or Indian wild dogs started jumping and then raced towards the bamboo thickets to our left. Next we heard a loud splash, the barking of dogs and the cry of the sambar getting louder. Though we couldn’t see them, it made us picture the entire scene as it unfolded behind the bushes—wild dogs chasing the stag that must have entered the waterhole, which lay hidden by the bamboos, and then spreading across the small waterbody and cornering the deer. Surrounding their prey is the typical modus operandi of the dholes. As the dogs began squeaking and the sambar started wailing in pain, we could tell that it was slowly giving up and was being fed on by the dogs, who usually eat their prey alive. In a matter of minutes the stag went silent, indicating the dogs were feasting, the kill was complete. We realised the game was over.
As proof, a little later, three dogs from the pack reappeared and crossed us, this time from ahead, but the sambar never did.
The BEAR stare
Two days post my arrival at Ranthambore National Park, most of my conversations with naturalist Sunny Patil revolved around the sloth bear. Despite my trips to various wildlife parks, the reclusive bear, my favourite character from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, continued to elude me. In combat mode, this ferocious hunter can easily beat the tiger and though not conventionally beautiful, it has a charm of its own. So revving the gypsy’s engine, our driver prayed to the forest goddess to grant my wish.
We were in Zone 6; it’s rare among tourists, but Sunny was confident of seeing the bear there. Instead, perched on a forest board was a spotted owlet, happily posing for us. Soon it flew away, as if to say, better things await you. So we moved to a spot frequented by a young bear. After an hour, still nothing. Just when I was feeling resigned, our tires screeched as the driver braked abruptly, his hand pointing to something jet black, moving ten feet away. My heart skipped a beat. The driver killed the engine to prevent scaring away the bear. The young bear trudged from the right possibly towards its den (this nocturnal creature generally returns to its shelter during the day) leaving behind marks with its long nails. The only time I’d seen it was in my childhood with a leash tied to its nostrils, bells tied to its feet and legs dancing to the tunes of the ‘bhaluwala’, who held it captive. Watching it roam freely here in its natural habitat, I limited myself to a few clicks so I could soak it all in without disturbing the forest’s tranquility. “How I wish it turns and says hello,” I told my friends and as if it heard me, the bear stopped, glanced at us and let out a low growl. I was shocked. The driver smiled, “The forest goddess never disappoints its devotees”.