Brimming with biodiversity, the Western Ghats have fascinated me for the longest time. When I had the opportunity to work in this landscape, I took it up without giving it a second thought. In January 2016, I found myself travelling to Hewale, a small village nestled in the Western Ghats in southern Maharashtra. I was working on the habitat use of dholes in this mosaic landscape of tropical forest, agriculture and plantations (cashew, rubber, banana among others). I would walk along trails and note down signs of dholes, their prey species– sambar and barking deer, and livestock. On most days my surveys looked like this- walk, walk, walk and more walk, and then utter delight at finding a dhole scat or a pugmark. On other days, it was just tramping without much luck in finding any dhole signs. For a researcher studying shy and elusive canids such as dholes, patience is key for a reward of fresh steaming smelly poop!
It was almost the end of my field surveys and I had been sulking over the fact that I hadn’t directly sighted dholes as yet. Luckily, this spell was broken one fine morning, while on a survey close to the Tillari river. The trail was lined with bamboo along either side. Kusum trees (Schleichera oleosa) added a splash of red to the otherwise green patch. The earthy smell of the forest hung in the air. Narayan Kaka, our field assistant, walked ahead of us to scout the place. Excitedly, he signalled us to come ahead near the river. Across the river, on a rock, lay a freshly hunted sambar deer. Two adult dholes were busy feeding on it. Aware and a little wary of our presence, they kept an eye on us while still eating. In a couple of minutes, a little dhole pup walked out of the nearby bushes. We were excited and my heart was racing. But what followed stunned us even further. One by one, out came six more little ones– in front of us was a pack of nine dholes devouring the sambar. We sat there for a good half hour watching these incredible animals.
Later on, we learned that the sambar kill had been taken away by some villagers. This disheartened me. It was then that I realised how the survival of such species is intricately dependent on the goodwill of local communities. In such human dominated landscapes, the persistence of endangered carnivores also depends on how people perceive these carnivores who share space with them. There is a need for many of us researchers to create a better image of these species in the minds of local communities. My research gave some hope, as I found dhole signs in abandoned agricultural lands and horticulture plantations. It was interesting to find that plantations embedded within forests also served as habitats for the species. Although my findings are very preliminary, they do shed some light on how plantation areas can be made more wildlife-friendly.
It was the month of August, and it had just stopped raining for the evening. We were in the town of Tezu in the resplendent Arunachal Pradesh, returning to our rest house situated inside the Tezu Botanical Garden.
Raindrops lingered on the leaves, glistening in the vehicle headlights. As we trundled up the path to the rest house, a small brownish dog-like creature with a narrow muzzle, short tail and closely set blinker-like eyes trotted across our path and disappeared into the undergrowth. It was a golden jackal! Wide-eyed and thrilled at this finding, we rushed to the rest house balcony with our cameras. We had waited for about an hour or so, when finally, a pair of jackals emerged from the undergrowth and onto the path. Our cameras were ready, but they managed to thwart us. After sniffing around a bit, they vanished and refused to make a reappearance. We decided to call it a day and retreated into our quarters.
The next day, in great anticipation, we set up tripods in various places in the hopes of getting that perfect shot. As twilight drew close, the jackals did not disappoint us; this time the pair was accompanied by a third, smaller individual, possibly a pup. In the semi-darkness, they ran about the grass, play-fighting and chasing each other in the botanical garden. The location was pretty close to a busy highway and barely a kilometer from the town centre– whose sodden paths hosted walkers and cyclists in the morning and much to our surprise, jackals by night.
As the hours passed, more jackals sprung up from the undergrowth. Along with the two adults, there were eventually five smaller-sized individuals, likely their pups. We caught fleeting glimpses of them and then we couldn’t see them anymore. A yelp at a distance was then countered by a chorus of howls; the song of the jackals. Whether it was a warning to intruders or a welcome note for others of their kin, or, just a reminder to those listening that the night still belonged to the wilder kind, I could not say. But it was nothing short of magical. The canid acapella continued for a while, only to be interrupted by the barks of dogs from the habitations nearby.
And then suddenly, the night fell silent.
To see a striped hyena in the wild is always a challenging task. Hyenas are nocturnal and highly elusive. In 2018, I was doing my research on dietary patterns of leopards in Jhalana Leopard Conservation Reserve, Rajasthan. Jhalana is India’s first leopard conservation reserve. With an area of around 30 sq. km, Jhalana is rich in biodiversity with a healthy population of leopards. Other than leopards, striped hyenas and desert foxes also thrive the reserve.
Before commencing my research work I had visited this place a few times but wasn’t lucky enough to get the glimpse of a striped hyena. I started my research work from mid-May when the forest is dry and has greater visibility. On my very first day, after an excellent sighting of a leopard I had my first striped hyena sighting. I fall short of adjectives to describe that moment. The hyena was resting near a water hole, hardly bothered by the 3–4 gypsys around it. It was the first time that I was able to photo-document it. I had seen a hyena crossing the road in Rajaji National Park earlier that year. But that was during night time and I could not photograph the animal. After the first day’s sighting in Jhalana, hyena sightings became a regular event.
A subsequent sighting which would be hard to forget was during the monsoons, when the forest becomes lush green with thick canopy. It is a little more difficult to spot animals during this season. Although leopard sightings were frequent, the same can’t be said in case of striped hyenas. After searching for nearly 2 hours in evening, we had hardly seen anything. There were no herbviore alarm calls to suggest presence of leopards. So I told my driver to wait near a water hole till dawn arrives. It was at this moment that I saw a gypsy standing 200 metres away from us and the tourists clicking pictures one after the other. Upon reaching the location I realised it was a hyena. The grey body with black stripes amidst a lush green background was simply amazing. It is probably the best sighting I have had of a hyena till date.
There was the usual hustle-bustle in Rampura camp that cold February morning. Five researchers and fifteen local assistants were getting ready for fieldwork in Bandipur National Park. The placid morning vibe was broken by a loud and audibly painful call of an animal. I ran outside, out through the room and across the yard to the edge of the trench that hemmed the camp area.
A pack of dholes –the ‘Rampura pack’– was pursuing something in the Lantana bushes on the other side of the path, at about 30 meters from us. I tried counting the dogs with great difficulty as they ran around haphazardly. The eight members had managed to bring down a medium-sized Chital doe and were presently devouring it. With blood-smeared muzzles, they ran around in a kind of finicky fashion. A cacophony of snarls, yip-yaps and short whistles formed a part of their breakfast conversation. Every now and then, two of them would get into a little spat. But soon this would resolve and they would continue carving layers off the ungulate. One of them, perhaps the sentinel, would repeatedly jump out of the huddle, run across the path and with ears pushed back and tail held erect – make a whistling noise at the bushes. After a few minutes three or four of the individuals strenuously dragged the carcass to a smaller path that ran perpendicular to the one where they were currently feasting. The rest of them hopped and ran around creating an illusion of the pack being larger than it in fact was.
I waited for them to move out of view and then slowly inched towards the junction of the two paths. The vegetation on either side of the path was dense. They had abandoned the carcass in the middle of the path. I wondered for a bit if I had spooked them off. My wonderment was broken when three or four of them would make quick visits to the carcass to tear off parts of the flesh and scoot into the bushes. This continued for about six to seven minutes, and soon enough there was almost nothing left of the doe. Slowly and quietly, barefooted, I made my way to the place where I last saw them disappear. I crouched low hoping to catch a glimpse of them through the thorny Lantana thicket. They sat scattered in a pile amidst some bones and insignificant remains of the doe. They seemed indifferent to my presence. They ran around playfully with one or more of them stopping to giving me a cock-eyed stare every few seconds.
It had already been around half an hour since I was tracking the activities of the Rampura pack. I left them in peace and headed camp-wards. “Today will be a good day”, I said to myself. It already was.
It was a chilly December in 2004 when I landed up in a “heritage village”–Tera– in Kachchh, about 90 km away from Bhuj, Gujarat. I was studying resource-use by Indian foxes in this landscape as a part of my Masters dissertation. My initial field days started with looking around for fox dens with Vilji Bhai, a member of the Koli tribe (a hunting tribe) who had a remarkable sharpness to detect animals. Once an active den was identified, I would find a suitable place about 200–300 meters away and observe the den site from dawn to dusk. Since it was the breeding season, foxes actively used dens for raising their young.
One of the den sites in Kakribet was ideally located amidst small hillocks. I positioned myself atop a hillock with a spotting scope, a bag full of field supplies and a flashlight. The field station coordinator was instructed to pick me up by 6 pm since my teammates were heading off for a vulture survey and would be late. Contrary to my expectations, the level of activity at the den was minimal. The fox went for a short stroll and once back, it did not venture out from the den. As dusk approached, there was still no sign of the vehicle to pick me up. Through the curtain of darkness, all that I could see were the silhouettes of hillocks and acacia trees around me. I tried to find my way out using my flashlight, but realized that the beam was not powerful enough. As soon as the sun went down, the mercury dipped and the only thing that made me anxious was I may not be adequately equipped with warm clothes. But there was nothing much that could be done since the vehicle that was supposed to pick me up had still not arrived. I convinced myself that Kachchh was safe since there are no large carnivores (except the Indian wolf, which was a rare sighting).
As darkness descended, the landscape came alive. I could distinctly hear mating calls of foxes. This was intermittently broken by faint dog howls from faraway villages. At 9:30 pm it was pitch dark, and there was still no sign of the vehicle. A rustle in the leaves close by made my senses taut. The movement drew closer and after sometime I felt heavy breathing sounds around me. It was as if someone was sniffing me! I sat there, not moving an inch and trying not to breath. The rustling stopped and after a few minutes of eerie silence came a train of deafening howls. It was a group of jackals (may be 4 to 5 of them) that had come to inspect me. They were perhaps within 5 to 10 meters away when they all decided to howl. After some time the rustling died down and I presumed that the jackals had moved on.
I was eventually picked up around midnight. Though my body was numb with cold, my mind was racing with the fascinating acoustic experience! For the next couple of months in field, I observed jackals to be extremely wary of humans. My closest encounters have been at least 50 meters away. That night was the closest I could see (or rather hear) them, and perhaps the closest I have been to jackals in all these years.
Dusk was settling over the grey waters of the Chambal. The sky, which had been clear and bright up until thirty minutes ago, was now settling into deeper shades of blue and purple. As my field assistant would say, the hunting hour was fast approaching. He was talking, of course, about the Indian wolf. It was in these ravine systems where I had a rather nerve-wracking encounter with wolves.
It began when our driver deserted us in the ravines. The jeep was cranky and old and refused to traverse the narrow sandy ridges. So he stopped the jeep and told us to go along the transects. My field assistant and I walked for over an hour through a system of confusing ravines, marking GPS points, marking scats, pellets, signs, and pugmarks. We eventually found ourselves on a sandy bank with the Chambal river sprawled out before us. That was when I noticed the pugmarks by the water, right where we were standing. “Wolves,” I said, nudging my field assistant. He came over to look. “We should call the driver,” he said nervously. Wolves do not have a positive reputation with many of the local tribes in this region. Pacing along the riverbank, I looked up at the darkening ravines looming above us and made a decision- to retrace our steps to where we left the jeep.
My field assistant was less than pleased. Retracing your steps with a nervous field assistant continuously muttering about bad omens in your ear is hard. “Madam, are we lost?” my assistant asked feebly, when I stopped and puzzled. That was when the howls began. My assistant couldn’t help the shriek that left his mouth as the eerie howling of wolves was picked up by two, three, five, six animals, seemingly surrounding the gorge where we stood. My eyes struggled to acclimatize to the shadowy darkness. I heard rustling from above, where the low sandy cliffs nearly met over our heads and tried to slow the thumping of my heart. The howls grew in volume and intensity.
My assistant suggested we play loud music and sing along! “The wolves will hear the songs and think we are a large group of people. They will stay away from us.” I was already worried about finding our way back to the jeep, so I gave in. Singing along to racy Hindi songs while running away from wolf hunting grounds was definitely not part of my internship contract. It was when I looked up at the dark sloping ravines above us that I saw their glowing eyes. We were intruders in their habitat, but they were keeping a distance from the cacophony we were causing. After that first glimpse of the wolves, I kept a lookout for more of those elusive canids. After half an hour of wandering blindly through wolf country, we heard faint shouts and saw flashing lights. My teammate and the driver had found us! The howls of the wolves faded away, and as we reunited with our teammates, I looked back at the shadowy ravines from where I had emerged.
The wolves had vanished, melting back into the shadows. All that was left were pugmarks and the echoes of howls in the night wind above the Chambal.
It was a crisp January morning in 2017 in Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. My family and I drove slowly by, soaking in the beauty of the forest. Amidst the the canopies bustling with bird activity, we got glimpses of Malabar pied hornbills, crested serpent eagle and racket tailed drongo amongst other birds. Giant wood spiders sat motionless, squarely in the middle of their large, intricate webs that were suspended off trees along the road. We heard the asyncronous symphony of barbets in the distance, while rays of sunshine streamed in through the thick canopy. Dandeli is a stunning mixture of dense deciduous forest interspersed with bamboo and ancient teak plantations. We were traversing through a relatively undisturbed patch of forest, teeming with a myriad of life forms.
As we trundled along the path, we chanced upon an unsuspecting Indian fox trotting through the shrubs by the side of the road. Fascinated, we watched it do this for a few minutes before we drove past the little canid and went our way. The fox seemed rather unperturbed by the vehicle and moved at a pace that almost made it seem like it had some urgent task to tend to!
The Indian fox is found across large parts of India. In fact, it is among the most widespread carnivore species in India. Most field guides suggest that Indian foxes are mainly found in open dry habitats such as grasslands and scrublands. They are also found in agricultural fields, having adapted to a diet predominantly composed of rodents. I had no idea at the time of my sighting that it was in an atypical habitat for Indian fox. It was only while reporting the sighting on Wild Canids–India Project that it came as a pleasant surprise. This sighting of the fox is one that is clearly etched in my mind, and it is all the more fascinating to realize that the one stray incident offered some new learnings, nearly two years later.
An ordinary agricultural landscape in the arid peninsular India and there is nothing much one notices apart from people, farmlands and livestock. Only with a closer look do you realize that there are hidden elements here, and the most enigmatic of these is the Indian grey wolf. It doesn’t have a spine-chilling growl or stripes and rosettes or even the ability to take down very large prey. But you may be just a few metres away and it knows how to disappear into the agricultural fields and you would never know. It would be panning the landscape from an elevated mound or moving across some rare patches of grasslands, but so well-blended that you may never get to see it. Wolves have the ability to appear and disappear at unexpected times and this is what makes them magical. They are not like the European or North American ones – grey, furry and large. They are some shade of taupe, just about mildly furry and rather lanky. They are social animals, i.e. they live in packs and generally one pair amongst them gives birth to a litter of pups during the colder months. All members of the pack help in raising the litter, and the pups start moving with the pack after they are above 7 to 8 months old. While they are known to prey on antelopes and livestock, they don’t mind some vegetables once in a while. None of us know how many wolves currently roam peninsular India and what the future holds for this extraordinary animal.
There are some special people in the arid areas of peninsular India who know these lands and the wolves very closely: the nomadic pastoralists. These groups move from one harvested field to the other, tracking fodder and water. One might chance upon them herding thousands of sheep along the roadside, carrying their entire household on horseback, and collared dogs moving amidst them. They can be distinguished from local pastoral groups by the womenfolk who move along with the horses and young children, and men herding livestock wearing brightly coloured turbans and gold in their ears. Wolves often take their livestock. But there is something unique about their relations with them, evident from some cultural narratives that one gets to hear. Some say that wolves are brothers and some say they are maternal uncles (Sodara mava in Kannada). As a family member, the wolf deserves a small share of the livestock. The story goes that wolves bless livestock through the occasional visits and the herd prospers if wolves take livestock on certain instances. So has the need for taking livestock recognized and valued by the people? And does this foster acceptance in these landscapes? At least the next time we hear stories about ‘the big bad wolf’, ‘the cunning wolf’ or ‘the wolf in sheep’s clothing’, we might remember this story from the heart of the Deccan peninsula. It reminds us that there are such beautiful, positive relationships between humans and wildlife, right here in India.
Malaika Mathew Chawla
My college friends and I were in Deussua, South Goa. Our field station was a cattle shed. The sky got lilac and then grey, full of birds and then bats. Grazing cows were heading back into their sheds and the poder (bread maker) with his horn entered the village on his bicycle. At sharp seven, the church bell rings. Almost immediately, the entire village erupts with sharp, piercing cries. The jackals have arrived. Just in that moment, every other being and sound become insignificant. Bhagrati bhaiya, a migrant worker employed at the cattle shed, remained cool and said in matter-of-fact manner: “Sham ke chaar baje, kutton ke jaise idhar udhar ghoomenge aur phir raat ko bahut awaaz karenge” (At 4 in the evening, they will roam around like dogs and then they make a lot of noise at night).
The golden jackal Canis aureus is found in many semi-rural landscapes of Goa. So much so that it finds a place in folksongs– mando and dulpod– and folktales. Children grow up listening to stories of kolo mama (Uncle Jackal) and kolo mami (Aunty Jackal). In one such story, the jackal climbs up the jamun tree to feed on ripened berries. The neighborhood children call out, “Kolo mama, kolo mama! Amkai thodi jamblam udoi re” (Uncle Jackal, please throw down some berries for us!). Instead, kolo mama has a good meal of the jamun and throws the seeds at the children. Other than sighting them, there is also hope and excitement with finding jackal scat. We learnt that the jackals fancied the same berries as we did– Syzigium caryophyllatum or ‘bhedsa’ in Konkani. I also recall being warned by neighbours about ‘foxes’ in the village. In Konkani, ‘kolo’– the term meant for jackals– is wrongly translated into English as fox.
Queries about jackals elicited a range of responses from residents of the village. Some were indifferent, some nostalgic, while some shared fascinating stories. One story, retold with relish, was that of a man who was circled by jackals in a field. Apparently, in an act of self-defense, he takes out his violin and plays a tune. Listening to this, the jackals take flight. Another story brought deep-searing pain, of a jackal pup, separated from his mother and sold, in the guise of a German shepherd dog. Day after day in our cattle shed “field station” we dreamt with open eyes. Of jackal packs with their pups, munching on jamun and living free. Not just in a village in Goa, but wherever they choose to be.
It was a chilly December morning in Buxa. Accompanied by Sitaram, my field assistant, we went to observe the Great hornbills at their roost site. We reached there before sunrise, and were waiting at a watchtower which was adjacent to the cliff where hornbills roost. While we sat there waiting for the sunrise, we could hear the calls of different birds. It was like an orchestral performance. Just when there was a hint of light pouring in down on the forest floor, tearing apart the dense canopy, we could see some movement in the undergrowth just opposite the watchtower. We were exhilarated to see a pack of dholes emerging out of the undergrowth and coming down to the waterhole in front of the watchtower. In the meantime, a wild boar had also arrived at the same place from a different direction. Seeing the pack, it bolted away! Interestingly till this time, they hadn’t noticed us.
The dholes went out around the waterhole, making sure nothing else was present near them. They looked at us for a few moments, then looked at each other, and decided to take a bath on that chilly winter morning! While they bathed and drank water one of them was keeping an eye on us. We sat perfectly still except for my finger which moved to click the shutter of my camera. Once they were done, they went into the undergrowth and sat consecutively like the formation of a railway coach, one beside the other, looking straight up at us. With all ten eyes gleaming at us, all I could think now was about those “shy” canids, and unaware of my surroundings. Almost 10–15 minutes passed with them staring at us. What they did after that was amazing. The one sitting the farthest from us disappeared into the dense vegetation inside, then another one and followed by the other two. But still, one individual was sitting there and looking up at us. Soon after, we heard the whistling sound of those individuals. We thought this to be the signal for the sentinel to join them, and leave us silly humans behind!