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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.

Goa. Photograph by Fionna Prins.

                      Goa. Photograph by Fionna Prins.

INDIA: Having returned to India again for a second conference with people concerned about animal welfare, animal rights and animal studies, it was lovely to see some of the same people again. One was Fionna Prins and I love this photograph of the front steps of her house in Goa.  She and her partner seek out dogs in need, and don’t believe in cages and rules. They house up to 30 dogs. See www.strayassist.blogspot.in.  I also love this photograph of the dogs on a daily walk.

Walking with the pack. Photograph Fionna Prins.

             Walking with the pack. Photograph Fionna Prins.

If it weren’t for the summer heat and the monsoon, and my family and cats, I’d move to India too! I have just loved spending the last few weeks there –from attending a very interesting Animal Studies Conference in Delhi, to seeing Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park, southern Gujarat, lolling in a lovely hotel in Mumbai watching the Australian Tennis Open and catching the Delhi Art Fair before flying home.

Ace and Yuan Chih at MAC3 New Delhi

                  Ace and Yuan Chih at MAC3 New Delhi

MAC3: Minding Animals Conference 3 in Delhi was co-organised by Minding Animals International and the Wildlife Trust of India and hosted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The campus itself stretches over 1,000 acres and hosts an astonishing array of wildlife, including rare and endangered plants and animals, many birds, and packs of dogs that reminded us of why we were there. People came from all over the world, most with academic backgrounds, and there was a strong Australian contingent. Very valuable information was exchanged, important links were made, and global networks expanded.

Over 8 days we had many choices of a wide variety of presentations, discussions and debates with Animal Studies now a large field. Topics ranged from discussions about concepts of sentience in animals (see sentiencemosaic.org and D.M. Broom’s Sentience and Animal Welfare), to the prominence animals in Indian life, religion and, mythology – also in Jainism,Confucianism and Buddhism. Softies like me were all at the presentation by Jessica Walker from New Zealand on Behavioural Responses of Dogs and Cats to the Loss of an Animal Companion.

Yuan Chih (above), a great fan of Christian, spoke about Beast Film – in 1930s Shanghai in Chinese cinema.  See her blog (in Chinese here).  Margot Decory spoke about the work of AAP Rescue Centre for Exotic Animals which is about to open a centre in Spain primarily for lions and tigers and other animals rescued from the exotic pet trade.  This a subject close to my heart!  TRAFFIC India report that keeping wild animals in India is rising steeply.  AAP endorse a Positive List of animal species that are suitable as pets. See here and here.

The Earthfire Institute in America is “nestled” on 40 acres in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Wildlife corridor.  They rescue and save the lives of animals such as bears, wolves, cougars, bison, coyotes etc.that can never be released into the wild. See www.earthfireinstitute.org.  Possumwood Wildlife also run a self funded recovery centre and sanctuary outside of Canberra, Australia, for injured and traumatised Australian Native animals.

While I loved listening to these people that work directly with animals, I was also fascinated by the valuable and fascinating research so many academics are doing.  I especially love the way so many at the conference now speak not only about the exploitation, rights and welfare of animals, but are now seeing the animal’s point of view and asking – how can their lives be enriched?

There was a great deal of information about Asian elephants.  There are approximately 35,000-50,000 Asian elephants in the wild and range over 13 countries. 13,000 are in captivity.  Co-existence and human/animal conflict was a recurring theme of the conference.

Kim Stallwood spoke about the extremely tragic story of an elephant called Topsy who was publicly electrocuted in New York in 1903.

Topsy

                Topsy

I finally met Australian vet Andrew MacLean, renowned from his work with horses.  He spoke about his Humane Approach to Captive Elephant Training. Andrew now conducts workshops in India and has worked closely with Elephant Experts and their President, Helena Telkanranta.  Helena spoke about her experiences in Nepal in Facilitating changes in public policy in relation to training and management of captive elephants.  She illustrated how changes to behaviour can be introduced with tactful community consultation.  Helena said she loved Christian’s story when she was young, but it was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man which inspired her to also work in the field of animal studies.

Christine Townend, Andrew Maclean and I also attended a talk by Peter Singleton on the use of whips in horse racing in NSW, Australia. If padded whips are not cruel, why is their use restricted? Andrew pointed out to us that most race horses extend their stride as they battle to the finishing line. The use of the whip actually makes horses tighten up, and their stride in fact shortens. Why not ban the whips and have a completely level playing field?

The ABC has just shown a program with undercover footage showing the use of “live baiting” to “blood” greyhounds.  This has led to a huge public outcry at this very cruel practice, and will now no doubt be part of the debate over the attempt by the government to introduce “ag-gag” laws.

Now based in Australia, Clive Phillips from the University of Queensland gave a very definitive paper on the The Animal Trade, a topic very relevant to Australians with our controversial live cattle exports.

There was a fact filled – and alarming – paper by Chaitanya Koduri of PETA (India) titled Fighting Climate Change With Vegan Foods in Our National Climate Change Policy. Koduri writes “Animal-based products (meat,milk,eggs and leather) are highly resource-intensive, inefficient and polluting.  Their production requires massive amounts of water, land, and energy.  Land is being cleared for farmed animals and the crops to feed them”. Meat is the new coal!

An estimated 51% of worldwide gas emissions are attributed to agriculture.  Many people see going vegan as now essential, and a vegan diet “can reduce the amount of green house gases your diet contributes to climate change by 60%”.

My transition to vegetarianism has been relatively easy (and enjoyable), and the all-vegan food at the conference was delicious!

Asiatic Black Bear aka 'Moon Bear'. Photograph courtesy Animals Asia.

Asiatic Black Bear aka ‘Moon Bear’. Photograph courtesy Animals Asia.

BEARS: It was great to finally meet Jill Robinson of Animals Asia Foundation who has rescued over 400 bears so far from the torture of bear bile farming in China and Vietnam. She has worked and campaigned very effectively against all animal cruelty and is creating sanctuaries with the help of 300 enthusiastic staff. She attracts a high level of celebrity (and other) support, and advocacy and activism were another theme of the conference.

Although I often doubt that photographs of animals in distress or bloody operations are conducive to soliciting support, I think I make an exception with photographs of the bears caged for bile extraction. I think these images can only galvanise necessary action. Incidentally, I was interested to know that the bile (unlike rhino horn used as a supposed aphrodisiac) is actually beneficial for some ailments. The bile can be replicated by equally effective alternatives such as herbs.

In her talk Jill remarked that “all wild animals are unpredictable”. I’m not sure George Adamson would entirely agree.  Of course all humans are unpredictable so why should animals be any different? But George loved lions for their capacity for love and trust – rather steadfast qualities. He created a neutral space around him where lions and humans could co-exist peacefully. I can only remember him saying (or writing) that lions can be “unpredictable” (and most dangerous), during the frustrations of adolescence. This was apparently true of Christian in Africa, although when younger we found him very predictable. He had a very even-nature and was not easily spooked. We tried to anticipate any potential trouble, disguise limitations, and minimise any frustrations. Elephant Experts’ Helena Telkanranta told me “elephants are not unpredictable if you know them”.

Christian the Lion. 1972.

                                 Christian the Lion. 1972.

I showed the 2009 documentary made by Blink Films A Lion Called Christian. You can watch a clip of it here. I’m always a bit shy in the company of very bright academics and wildlife experts, but Christian’s story usually dissolves my reservations. I was also part of the After-Dinner concluding night entertainment – tasked to leave the conference on a high note! This was quite a responsibility out on a cold windy concourse on a wintry Delhi night. I spoke after a singer of Bollywood songs. I was introduced by Christine Townend who is so highly respected for her work for animals over a long period of time in India (Help in Suffering in Jaipur and now Working For Animals who run shelters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong). I showed some photographs of Christian and told a version of his life with a different emphasis to the documentary many people had seen days before. There was a power break-down – and, shock horror, I had to improvise.  However, I had complete faith in Indian ingenuity and within minutes we were back on track. I was followed by traditional Indian dancers and I was enjoying them until they drew me into their dance. I’m sure I was all over Indian Facebook looking ridiculous.

Diu: harbour shot

                               Diu, southern Gujarat

To visit the Gir National Park to hopefully see some Asiatic lions, I avoided a long train trip and flew via Mumbai into Diu (Jet Airways).  Although smaller and poorer than Goa, Diu shares  a Portuguese history and is also attractive. It was a major port from Africa in the 14-16th centuries, and a little inland, there is still an entirely African community.

Diu – laneways shot

Diu

The beaches in Diu were quite beautiful but the water looked brownish.  Australians are spoiled for beaches and I don’t lie in the sun!  I stayed in the old town on the harbour with moored fishing boats flying colourful flags, marvellous Portuguese-influenced colonial buildings and houses, crumbling mansions, garish new ones, and mysterious small laneways. I asked a driver why there wasn’t one interesting shop (ie antiques, jewellery, textiles etc), and he said people only come to Diu from “dry” Gujarat to drink! There are acres of land covered in stagnant sea water which does not augur well for the future.

Indian Mammals A Field Guide by Vivek Menon (Hachette India)

Indian Mammals A Field Guide by Vivek Menon (Hachette India)

ASIATIC LIONS: Vivek Menon, the charismatic head of the Wildlife Trust of India and renowned wildlife expert and author was alarmed when I said I hadn’t booked a permit online for a safari at the Gir National Park in southern Gujarat. The usually infallible Lonely Planet Guide implied you could just as easily get a permit once there, after an under two hour drive from Diu. This is not the case. After an anxious first day at my unhelpful hotel at Gir (luckily the Australian Open Tennis was on), I finally did secure a permit for a 3pm safari the next day after queuing for 3 hours from 12 midday for one of the only 15 permits allotted in person.

Asiatic Lions

                                          Asiatic Lions

Most visitors are there to see the Asiatic lions that once roamed from Syria to eastern India. By the late 1890s only approximately 50 lions remained. Now there are over 400 in Gir, an overpopulation for animals that range over wide territories.  This is just one of many complexities. Kausik Banerjee gave a paper at the conference on the Recovery and Future of the Asiatic Lion in India.  There are debates about relocating some of the lion population elsewhere.  However, many issues facing the local communities are being resolved – such as cattle loss compensation, the relocation of at risk tribal villages, and creating and expanding wildlife corridors.

I saw 2 lions!  I pretended to be blasé about any sightings – but it was exciting. They were about 20 metres away under a tree and one was stirring in the late afternoon after sleeping through the hottest hours of the day. They were about 3 years old and looked handsome and healthy. They have less mane than African lions. One had a look of intent on his face and stealthily moved out of sight. I hoped he wasn’t going to kill one of those pretty spotted deers.

Then I was extremely lucky when a leopard crossed the path of our vehicle about 10 metres away and wandered quite confidently down towards the river. The leopard was extremely beautiful and her “spots” included very distinctive circular markings.   Apparently she was about 2-3 years old and the guide said had not seen a leopard in his last 30 safaris. Other animals included monkeys, many deer, large horse-like blue bulls, a rare owl, coyotes and the quite fluffy mongoose with crimped looking finely spotted fur.

Bengal tiger

                                           Bengal tiger

TIGERS: It was very heartening to read that the numbers of Bengal tigers are increasing after approaching a very concerning low population estimated at under 1500 in 2006. A subsequent reintroduction program in Panna Tiger Reserve, for example, has seen a 30% increase in numbers to 2226 tigers.

Most of the usual factors are at play here: habitat destruction and competition for resources, human/animal conflict, and poaching, with 20-25 tigers lost each year. Villagers are becoming more actively involved in the conservation process.

TONY THE TIGER: Read the latest update here.  We are asked to “keep roaring” and to keep Tony in the public eye – especially by social media.

WORLD: ISIS still casts a long shadow on the world, and I thought Thomas Friedman’s article on Islam and Islamophobia in The New York Times (read here) was interesting. It seems so little has been done in European countries like France to integrate or provide opportunities for so many potentially disenfranchised  immigrant youths.

I watched Stephen Spielberg’s extremely sobering documentary on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Jews from Auschwitz.

I can understand why Jews are so determined to secure themselves in Israel, but after their own tragic history, I just can’t understand why they privilege themselves above Palestinians?

It was such a relief to not hear one word about our Australian government and PM Abbott while I was away. I was back in time to witness his leadership unravelling, even within his own party.  It is mostly his own fault.  Abbott is disastrously unpopular with the electorate after breaking so many election promises and trying to implement a manifestly unfair budget. I’d enjoy the Schadenfreude if our country wasn’t being so badly governed.

Bourke Parakeet

       Bourke Parakeet

BIRDS: When I booked into my hotel in Mumbai (where I watched most of the last week of the Australian Tennis Open), the staff asked how to pronounce my name. The concierge spoke up confidently “BERK”. I asked him how he knew and he said he bred Bourke’s Parakeets…”same name”.  I replied “it is actually MY name – the birds are named after my great great great grandfather”. (Richard Bourke was Governor of NSW 1831-1837). He showed me photographs of his Bourke Parakeets – now “mutants” come in bright yellow and fluoro pink!

Mumbai staged their 11th Bird Spotting Race.  Like many similar events now staged around the world, teams are sent out to help in the mapping of avian species, and invaluable data on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago is collated for research.

Marine Drive, Mumbai, from my hotel

               Marine Drive, Mumbai, from my hotel

GLOBAL MARCH FOR LIONS: Let’s support lions on March 14th.  In Sydney we are asked to meet at 11am Saturday outside Parliament House, Macquarie Street, to walk to the Sydney Town Hall.  In Melbourne, there is an event  in Federation Square on Friday 13th at 6pm that promises “a historic moment” and “night of celebration”!  See the details below.

Check your local details…let’s join others all over the world and do something to stop farmed lions and canned hunting.

global march for lions