Parvathi K. Prasad
In the winter of 2016, I was assisting a team carrying out biodiversity surveys in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka. The district is known for being the origin of India’s coffee story, and for its scenic, biodiverse mountains, that form part of India’s Western Ghats. Lesser known, however, are the plains of Chikmagalur, that are spread across a substantial portion of the district, and also harbour a wide range of life forms. In winter, the numerous lakes that dot these plains turn into seasonal abodes for several migratory birds.
One morning, I was out birdwatching with a small group of people. Amongst us was a student from Chikmagalur with a keen interest in natural history. The student claimed to have seen a fox in the area, during recent birdwatching trip. Unlike most carnivores that I had seen up until then, foxes are not forest-dwelling species. Grasslands and scrublands— typical habitats of the fox— enjoy little conservation attention. Often labelled ‘wastelands’, these habitats are easily diverted for infrastructure development, and are fast-disappearing in much of India’s countryside. During previous interactions with farmers in Karnataka, I had heard of occasional fox sightings in agricultural lands, but I had never seen a fox myself. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the prospect of seeing one– the pointy ears and bushy tail were certainly an additional draw!
It was mid-morning when we headed to look for the fox. The area comprised of vast stretches of agricultural lands, mostly vegetables, while many a farmer was busy tending to the crops. We walked along a narrow pathway separating the fields, looking out for any signs of the animal. To me, it was remarkable that these canids used and navigated such dynamic spaces, likely feeding on rodents and keeping their numbers in check. A dried water channel meandered through the fields, and we walked up to it to casually. There, curled up in bundle was the grey, furry form of an Indian fox! It was resting in the channel, looking smaller than I had imagined it to be, the black tip of its bushy tail clearly visible.
I remember my hands trembling with excitement as I slowly reached for my binoculars. We spent some time quietly looking at the fox and clicked a few photographs, all the while grinning from ear to ear. The fox then looked up at us with its beady eyes, not moving, but seemingly aware of our presence. Not wanting to disturb it, we walked away, extremely gratified with the encounter. To this day, it remains my only sighting of the beautiful animal.
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.
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.