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First sighting of tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Now I am back in Sydney I can’t quite believe I saw this tigress in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan a week or so ago!  She has been nick-named Arrow head and is 2 years old.  Apparently she recently fought with her mother and is the age when they go off and live on their own.  Our attention was drawn to the several jeeps with tourists that had parked quite near her as she rested in rushes beside a lake.  All of us were thrilled – to be fortunate enough to sight a tiger (we had been unsuccessful on our first safari in the morning), and to just stare at the beauty of her markings and her magnificence.

I am feeling very blessed by the animal world after this recent visit to India where I was fortunate enough to see several Bengal tigers – in the wild – at very close range, and two leopards. India’s wildlife is as exciting as Africa’s – it is just sometimes more secretive, mysterious or requiring more patience.  This can lead to disappointments …or bliss.  A few years ago I only saw a tiger paw mark in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, but the compensation was seeing many elephants and rhinos on beautiful plains.

First sighting of tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

There was great excitement as the tigress got up and moved closer towards us and settled in the rushes again, perfectly camouflaged.  All their markings are distinctive – and we can see why she has been nick-named “Arrow head”.  It was mid-afternoon and still quite hot.

I spoke at the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations conference in 2014 in Jaipur, and at the Minding Animals Conference at Jawaharlal Nehru University last January – so I have an idea of how much work is being done on behalf of animals in India – from the front line work of animal shelters, to all the wildlife conservancy work and related issues such as habitat destruction, wildlife tourism, protecting wildlife corridors, animal-human co-existence etc. In India and elsewhere, the academic field of Animal Studies is generating essential, diverse and often fascinating research work.

I am on the Committee of Working for Animals  which administers animal shelters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong.  Founded by Christine and Jeremy Townend, I am full of admiration for what the shelters achieve – for animals, and for the local populations.

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‘Domestic’ chained elephant, Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

I was fortunate to have lunch with Vivek Menon, Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India, who was about to fly to London as he was nominated for The Economist’s Inspiring Innovator of the Year.  He is the first wildlife conservator to be nominated – specifically for his work in securing, restoring and expanding corridors for elephants to prevent their accidental deaths and human-animal conflict.  These corridors are traditional migration routes.  Vivek also told me that as a result of the Minding Animals Conference last year that the WTI co-hosted, JNU is now offering an Animal Studies course.

Second tiger sighting, Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Second tiger sighting, Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

After the first tiger sighting recently in Ranthambore National Park, we then drove to a lake where there were many animals and birds.  This second tiger appeared unexpectedly.  With the imminent danger of a tiger, animals and birds quietly disappeared, except for a few wild boars.  This male tiger is also about 2 years old although he was bigger and heavier than the tigress we had seen earlier.  He passed quite close to us and was striking looking.  I felt quite vulnerable in our open jeep, although the tiger could not have been less interested in us. He was hunting.  We watched him for half an hour, as he quietly moved closer and closer to an oblivious solitary wild boar knee-deep in the lake.  As dusk was falling we had to leave the park and I’m glad I didn’t witness a grisly end to a magical afternoon.

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Getting closer. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

I travelled with friend and wildlife photographer Avi Gupta who took these photographs on my new Sony A6000 and familiarised me with the camera.  As these encounters with tigers are relatively rare – and often fleeting, I didn’t want to miss “the moment” of actually seeing a wild tiger – or mess up the photographs. I did take some photographs with my trusty Lumix and I’ll share these next blog.

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Wild boar and tiger. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Last year I visited the Asiatic lions in Gir, Gugarat and was lucky to see several handsome young ones.  We also saw a stunningly beautiful leopard that suddenly crossed right in front of us.  The lions have now spread out of their sanctuaries, and according to a May 2015 census, an estimated 1/3 are now living outside, establishing new territories. This obviously creates problems for villagers and their cattle.  I saw one tribal village at Gir that had been relocated to a safer position within the sanctuary – with a solar panel for a light above a well.  Fortunately, the numbers of lions continue to increase, and currently stand at 523 in the region.

Leopard in Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Leopard in Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

We next visited Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh in central India where we were lucky enough to have another tiger spotting…this time more fleeting.  The number of tigers in India is estimated to be 2266 – and I have seen 3 of them!  Jeeps materialised from nowhere and the tigress aged about 4 years old strode quickly across the track.  Later, in another location, this male leopard (above) also crossed the dirt track.  Next day we saw a very similar leopard, or it may have been him again.

As tigers and leopards are solitary and elusive, the safari guides rely on hearing the warnings of danger from other animals to each other.  Spotted deer screech in a birdlike way, Sambar deer stomp their hooves, and langur monkeys cry out clamorously.

We saw many other animals including blue bulls, crocodiles, a sloth bear, and many birds, especially peacocks.

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Tree Pi bird. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

As we stopped to photograph some vultures, I asked Avi why he loved birds especially?  He said “because they are everywhere”.  The Tree Pi bird actually acts as a tooth pick for tigers – a dangerous job!  Over 300 species of birds have been identified in Ranthambore National Park alone.

A small temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. Photograph Ace Bourke

A small temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. Photograph Ace Bourke.

We also visited Panna National Park and stayed at the beautiful Ken River Lodge – overlooking the mighty river.  A proposed dam would flood this tiger reserve where 32 tigers have been introduced.  As it was raining I didn’t go on safari at 5.30am!  On the way back to Delhi we visited the famous and magnificent Hindu temples at Khajuraho some dating from AD 900.  The often erotic carvings have miraculously mostly survived intact.  Near Agra I glimpsed the shimmering Taj Mahal which I have visited several times before.

Tony the tiger

Tony the tiger

TONY THE TIGER: Tony the tiger was never far from my mind in India and I have a renewed commitment to Tony the tiger in 2016. The Animal League Defence Fund say “our advocacy for Tony remains positive and strong” but time is running out.  Please spread the word and have friends and family sign the petition to save Tony.  There are many more tigers in private hands in the USA than there are in the wild in India, and this in no way ensures – or benefits, the long term survival of these truly magnificent animals.

The tiger replaced the lion as the National Animal of India in 1973 as part of a national tiger protection programme.

David Bowie

David Bowie

VALE: David Bowie (1947-2016).  His emergence in the early 1970s had a huge influence on many of us and we are shocked by his death.  I saw him as Ziggy Stardust (above) in 1972.  We arrived in London from Australia in 1969 and this was at the tail-end of the “Carnaby Street” and “Kings Road” eras.  Bowie’s genius, originality and imagination helped change and set the tone for the next decade and beyond.  See this tribute in the NY Times here, and I liked his Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie here.

I enjoyed The Australian Tennis Open (although shocked by the match fixing allegations – even in tennis!), mid-flight I finally saw Blue Jasmine with the riveting Kate Blanchett who I had seen in A Streetcar named Desire, and I read Island Home by Tim Winton where he beautifully describes his relationship and growing awareness of our unique environment in Australia, and how it has influenced his ideas, writing and life.  We too grew up surrounded by bush and I was horrified to recently hear “children playing outside” referred to as “unregulated nature time”!  Tim Winton concludes “Aboriginal wisdom is the most under-utilized intellectual and emotional resource this country has”.

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In Ranthambore National Park, 10th Century Fort in background. Photograph Ace Bourke 2016.

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India

December 4, 2010

Mount Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world, as seen from Darjeeling

I have had a long love affair with India, and had many adventures there.  However, I had not been back to India since I organized a cultural exchange and exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings for the Australian and Indian Governments at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi in 1999.  Michelle Obama visited the Museum recently and loved it, and I was also very pleased to see it remained one of the great cultural institutions in India.

I had been asked to India by Christine Townend (who founded Animal Liberation in Australia in 1976) to visit two animal shelters she and her husband Jeremy started in the foothills of the Himalayas at Kalimpong and Darjeeling, a “hill station” I had always wanted to visit.

Kalimpong with mobile phone tower- there are supposedly 710 million mobile phone users in India

KALIMPONG: Kalimpong Animal Shelter (KAS) was built on an acre of land on the outskirts of the town in 1995. It is an incredibly beautiful setting with lovely trees and views.  The various buildings sit discreetly throughout the site  – the clinic where people bring their animals, shelters for animals being treated, and a variety of  accommodation for the vet and volunteers.  After the heat of Calcutta/Kolkata, the temperature was very pleasant.

My quarters and washing!

I was adopted by 3-legged dog Lolly

Kalimpong Animal Shelter Clinic with staff and vet (right)

Patient, post operation

It can sometimes be exhausting just posting a letter in India, so how Christine and Jeremy Townend have purchased land, built all the facilities, secured funding, and set up and staffed two shelters, leaves me in absolute awe, and I want to help them in any way I can.  Most importantly, with their dog programs in Kalimpong where KAS operates, the incidence of human rabies has been almost, if not completely, eliminated.  However, in the remote villages rabies remains a serious problem. The ABC (animal birth control program), has resulted in fewer but much healthier dogs.

The 'camp' set up at a village out of Kalimpong

Local patients, and their owners

One day we visited one of the “camps” that KAS routinely sets up in outlying villages where people bring their animals for examinations, treatments, sterilizations and vaccinations.  They are advertised in advance, and the vet and staff work all day.  In the towns on an ongoing basis KAS catch roaming mangy dogs, treat, spay and vaccinate them, and drop them back where they found them.  We went on several lovely walks, and Christine was always on the look out for mangy or neglected and as yet untreated dogs.  Many people bring their animals into the clinic, and there is now a much better respect and care for animals.

In India, people outside of the big cities seem to maintain a strong sense of community in their villages which many of us have lost, and they also seem to be less alienated from nature and live in close proximity to their animals, many of which they utilize – goats, cows and farmyard animals and birds.  Of course it is easy to romanticize their lives – the splash of brightly coloured saris of the women in the field, but the reality is they work extremely hard for little return, many young people leave for the cities, and lives in the villages seem untouched by the extraordinary economic progress of the last decades.

The Teesta River on the road from Kalimpong to Darjeeling

Christine Townend and me (photograph by Jeremy Townend)

After a few days in Kalimpong we drove for several hours through spectacular mountain scenery and precipitous tea plantations to Darjeeling.  Both towns are perched on ridges and steep inclines, and roads, laneways and alleys are narrow and congested, and many of the people are Nepalese and Tibetan.  I read a fascinating book that explained much of the history of this still very contested Northern Frontier region – the biography by Patrick French of the British soldier Francis Younghusband, who amongst many extraordinary explorations and exploits enthusiastically led a not very successful British invasion of Tibet in 1904.  The book was a great history lesson on India and Tibet, and the imperial ambitions of Britain, China and Russia.

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Darjeeling Animal Shelter

DARJEELING: The Darjeeling Animal Shelter (DAS) which opened in 2007 is on the outskirts of town, smaller and in a more urban environment, but again, an attractive site with views of the mountains and valleys.  It was Diwali (Festival of Lights), and this particular day was Kukur Tihar – Honour a Dog Day  – and all the dogs (and cats, so they didn’t feel left out) -were garlanded with marigolds and pink tikas on their foreheads.  Isn’t that a beautiful idea and celebration?  It was just so gorgeous and I fell in love with several puppies and kittens, most of whom were trying to sit on Christine’s lap at the same time.  Again, all the staff were so friendly and the animals so lovingly and beautifully looked after.

HOW CAN WE HELP?: The resident vet is leaving after several years and going to the USA, and Christine and Jeremy Townend will soon need a vet urgently.  Does anyone know a vet who would like to volunteer?  I can assure them it would be the proverbial experience of a lifetime!  The Animal Shelters have the most loyal international supporters and donors.  Animaux Secours (Arthaz France) have provided core funding for Help In Suffering (HIS) and KAS since their inception, and One Voice (France) funded the building and running costs of DAS.  But any donations are most welcome, indeed necessary!  I’m going to make a donation to feed some of the dogs not adopted out that live at the shelters, like three-legged Lolly.  To view Christine’s Working for Animals Inc see: www.workingforanimals.org.au . 

Christine was Managing Trustee (and later Chair of Trustees) of the HIS Animal Shelter in Jaipur, and she and Jeremy Townend lived and worked there for 17 years.  They are now involved in the founding of the HIS Camel Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Jaipur, and I hope to visit next year. 

Two Puppies Thinking by Christine Townend

ASSAM: From Bagdogra I flew to Guwahati in Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park.  The well known Wild Grass Resort sent a car to meet me, but I don’t recommend the mad 5 hour drive on a congested National Highway in darkness.  The owner of the hotel is interested in many aspects of plant and wildlife conservation, the preservation of local customs and traditions (local villagers dance each night for the visitors), and he is even a poet!  His son is writing a PhD at Oxford University on elephant and human conflict.  A warning – they don’t take credit cards, and you are a long way from any ATMs!

Wild Grass Resort

KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK: Covering 1002 square kilometres, the park consists of beautiful grasslands, wetlands and woodlands.  For several days I was driven to the different sections of the park and saw the Indian one horned rhinoceros of which there are several thousand and the park has successfully conserved.  I also saw Asian elephants, wild buffalo, swamp deer and rhesus monkeys.  There are nearly 500 different birds and the park is a favourite with twitchers.  It was extremely pleasant there, but it is hard to compete with the more exotic animals of Africa.  However, as part of an Indian experience, it is definitely worthwhile.  I have recently been sent a gruesome video of rhinos with their horns hacked off, and poaching in the Park is a great problem.  Two poachers were shot dead just after I left.

Rhinoceros Unicornis

TIGERS: There are also approximately 30 tigers in the Park, and they are rarely seen.  A tiger footprint in the mud was as close as I got to one.  It was gratifying to read lately that Leonardo DiCaprio has pledged $1 million to save tigers.  There are 39 tiger sanctuaries in India, and 8 more reserves wil be set up over the next 6 months.  This comes at a price however. Leopards are usually displaced by tigers, and the Soliga tribal people, for example, who have always lived in the forests sustainably and harmoniously and are not frightened of tigers, are currently resisting offers of compensation to be relocated elsewhere.

Unfortunately, these elephants are tethered and used for riding

CHRISTIAN: Christian’s story is not well known in India, and I only mentioned it once.  My young guide was very knowledgeable about animals, and when I said I had been lucky enough to meet George Adamson in Kenya and spend time with him and his lions, he had never heard of George, and was completely uninterested. When I left I gave him my favourite book – Christian the Lion’s scrapbook, and shyly pointed me out, explaining it was 40 years ago.  He flipped through it in a desultory way in a few seconds and then, without commenting, rolled it like a newspaper, and that was it!  So I still don’t know how Indians would react to Christian’s story – although as many worship Ganesh the Elephant (amongst many other gods), Christian’s story could capture their imagination.

READING: While I was there I reluctantly began reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  My father had always loved him and I wondered what influence, if any, it had had on me and my sister as children.  It was riveting – what a storyteller!  I was very moved by Mowgli and his adoption then rejection by the wolves, then villagers, and absolutely terrified reading about Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and his battle with the cobras Nag and Nagaina.  I am now very curious about Kipling.  I know he spent his early childhood in India, but where did his extraordinary empathy for animals come from?

CLIMATE CHANGE: At first I saw no reference to climate change, now customary in our newspapers.  However, over the nearly three weeks I was there, I read references to the need to curb pollution, and for energy and emission efficiency.  There were reports about “unscientific” mining and related water contamination, and the bleaching of coral reefs.  The recent India International Trade Fair in New Delhi had as it’s theme “energy efficient technologies and green products”.

In Mumbai there was concern and promised government action over the ecological imbalance caused by the destruction of mangroves.  There are many animal welfare organisations, and in addition to great concerns about tiger numbers, there is the serious problem of elephant/human conflict, and the number of deaths due to shrinking habitats and the encroachment or blocking of traditional elephant corridors.  An elephant was killed and another seriously injured on a railway track where 7 elephants died a few months ago.  On a lighter note, Pamela Anderson arrived to appear in Bigg Boss, a controversial reality show.  The crowd at the airport “snowballed into a mob” which understandably terrified her.  I didn’t realise we were fellow animal activists – she is a vegetarian, is an advocate for PETA and clean water (she brought water filters), and had written to the Prime Minister about examples of cruelty to animals in India.

How India juggles so many such seemingly impossible obstacles so marvellously astounds me – more next blog!

The sun setting on Mount Kanchenjunga