This is the trip report of the 2023 STARLING India trip I guided over the last 2 weeks.
As you can see, this trip was mainly aimed towards seeing and identifying as much plant species as possible:
Now, where to begin… there is so much to tell about India’s wildlife.
First of all, I have never seen a country that divides opinions more than India does. So many people tell you “I WILL NEVER GO THERE” or “I WILL NEVER GO THERE AGAIN”, and are very adamant as to why they think that way. Persons I spoke to consider India a very crowded place, with open sewers and too much garbage everywhere. And when you travel there, most of the journey is being spent on the toilet, creating something that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.
Now you do see things that feel that way. Just two pics I took with my phone from the car as illustration…
But when you ask me about India, I think about my previous travels into the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, looking for Snow Leopards. I think about Buddhists being the most friendly people I have ever met. I think about the fact that India has more % vegetarians than any other country in the world, and why that is not a coincidence.
It is the country that houses more bear species and more cats than any other country. It is a country of many faces.
But mainly I think about conservation, and the fact India has truly done some remarkable feats to help bring back certain species from the brink of extinction.
When I was born, there were still more than 30.000 tigers left in the wild. In 2006 there were only 1700. Asiatic lion dropped to just twelve (12!) individuals in the early 1900’s and had their lowest numbers a century before tigers did. Indian Wild Ass dropped to 350 individuals in the mid sixties. We could give many more examples like this, just like in Europe, but what India did differently is what keeps mesmerizing me. They took hard action, and difficult action (sometimes relocating villages and thousands of people), but it had results: There are now more than 4000 tigers, 674 Asiatic lions in GIR National Park and more than 4000 Indian Wild Asses in the Little and Greater Rann of Kutch.
The purpose of this trip was not only to see and photograph these animals, but to try and learn about the Indian way of conservation. First day however we went to check out some historic New Delhi culture sites, in order to acclimatize…
We then visited two area’s: First the Northwestern part of India (Gujarat) with Little Rann of Kutch and GIR as national parks on our list. After that we travelled to Madhya Pradesh province in the center of the country, where some of the big tiger reserves are found. There we visited Satpura NP, Pench NP and Tadoba NP.
Cats are best found in dry seasons, so we opted for the very warm Indian Summer with temperatures regularly going over 40°C. It is not only warm, the light is also very bright and photography can only be properly done early morning and late evening. The picture below is not converted to Black-and-white but shows how hard the light can be at 9 am already. I was warned by many people about this: “forget landscape photography, and the light will not be what you want it to be. But you will love it!”
The trip started with a visit to the salt flats of Little Rann of Kutch. For centuries, people have been flooding the land with fresh water, allowing underground salt deposits to crystallize, dry out, and be harvested. The scenery shows these manually dug out dikes, flamingos attracted to crustaceans thriving in the salty water, and dozens of salt trucks carrying the salt through the desert. A scene none of the group had seen before.
But Little Rann is also home to some typical dry species: Desert fox, caracal, jungle cat, striped hyena and off course the wild donkeys
After this it was time to go to GIR, “only a seven hour drive” we were reassured…
In 100 years GIR 60 X’ed their lion population. In fact, this is the only remaining population of the Asiatic lion. GIR now has around 674 lions, 400 leopards and 200 striped hyena’s so it is a carnivore paradise. Lions are lions and never care about your presence, but the leopards were proving more difficult. Thanks to our good spotters, we found a male observing us from the bushes.
The spotters saw he was thirsty and decided to go to the nearest water hole and wait. And after a while, they were proven right…
Asiatic lions differ from African lions by having fewer manes, thicker tail end and a ventral skin fold on their bellies. They are just as lazy though, of the many dozens of lions I have seen in my life, none of them were running…
A brown barren landscape it was then, but occasionally there was a flash of colour, like this Black-rumped Flameback.
Also very special were the first ghost trees, of which we would see many more.
One night I saw the biggest bat I have ever seen. Turned out there was a roost of Indian Flying fox nearby. Such cool animals to spend time with.
In Gujarat, we also saw the first of three Jungle cats whilst spotlighting. Following, we travelled east towards three tiger parks. The first one, Satpura NP is big and has approx. 50 tigers. So the statistics of seeing tiger here are rather low, but it is a greener park and I wanted the best chance to see sloth bear.
In Satpura we saw higher numbers of Indian bison (better known as Gaur) too.
When you do Safari trips in India, it is much more regulated than in Africa. You get a dedicated jeep, with a dedicated driver and dedicated guide, to drive a chosen route. This means inevitably that some people in our group would see things the others wouldn’t. By doing around 20 Safari in total, I hoped observations would be plentiful for everybody and we would all see the top targets. Two big sightings were done by only one jeep: A rusty spotted cat in Satpura and the famous Blacky, the black leopard from Tadoba. I missed both.
Satpura was also on the to do list because it is the best place to find Indian Giant Squirrel, one of the largest squirrels in the world.
At first we only saw their silhouettes racing through the treetops, but afterwards we found an animal at a nest site.
It took us a couple of days, but then we also finally found sloth bear families.
Then things started getting serious as we arrived in Pench NP. Pench has more tiger sightings and off course tiger was the main target species so all was now directed towards seeing the big cat.
All throughout the trip we had many sightings of grey langur primates. Most mothers were carrying infants.
Lots of owls were seen:
After half of our stay in Pench, nobody had seen a tiger, so a healthy dose of stress was starting to creep up on us. Local people kept saying “no worries. you will see them”, but some people in the group thought it was about time the guides found them a tiger. No pressure…
So how do you find a tiger?
You find the tiger by listening to deer and monkeys their alarm calls. There are basically two big cats in the forest: leopard and tiger. Leopards are scared of tigers and move through the undergrowth with speed, implying alarm calls are short and quickly stop as the cat moves out of sight. Tigers run the show, and walk much slower, therefore alarms last much longer. Our spotters were 110% sure whether alarm calls came from tiger or leopard activity.
At some point a guide shouted and pointed to the trees. Hans saw a rather nice pattern in between two trees and pointed it out for me. For me the sighting of the trip followed:
The same evening, we heard some very nearby monkeys alarming, and then it became quiet. Our guide proposed to wait and see what happens. Ten minutes later he exploded and whistled -or better shouted- THERE! Tiger hunting!!!
It took me a few more minutes to find it, but there she was, stalking.
In the following days everybody saw tigers but it was only at Tadoba national park, where the sightings increased. Tadoba, Corbett and Bandhavgarh are currently seen as the three top tiger parks.
In Tadoba five years ago a woman tried taking a selfie with a tiger and fell from the jeep. Another jeep driver quickly blocked her off from the tiger but the park decided to ban smartphone use. So outside of the park you now have people renting out digital camera’s to take a picture of your tiger sighting.
Something else I noticed outside the park, were these graves. Graves of people, killed by tigers.
Also we noticed a guide saying that some tigers are not approached, because they have killed people already. I asked him where the limit was? And he indicated that when a tiger kills 5-10 people, he has to retire in a zoo. When they kill even more, the tiger can get shot.
I couldn’t believe that so many people want to extirpate our local wolves in Europe, because they have killed a couple of sheep.
In india Tigers kill between 100-200 people a year, whilst leopards are responsible for around 600 fatalities.
In Tadoba, there have been years with 40 people killed by tigers, when they go and collect firewood from the forest. I was astounded to hear people still want the tiger and tiger ecotourism in their surroundings. Respect to them.
A queen resting in the bamboo forest:
Whenever a tiger is found, people gather. In the following image you see more than 100 people looking at the same tiger. The tiger, strangely, does not care at all. Only 15% of these parks is open to safari tourism, and the carnivores are often more abundant in the tourist zone than in the quiet park zone.
On the last tiger drive we found a mother with four subadult cubs. She must be a formidable hunter to feed five mouths…
And this sighting concluded the trip. We saw wild nature, well managed parks, more than 30 tigers and 25 lions, sloth bears, unique smaller mammals and around 170 bird species. But above all we met the friendliest people on the planet, who might have less than we do, but seem to be happier. Next time Kaziranga?
I want to thank a few people:
First of all our local guide Gajendra: you were amazing. Thanks also to Iqbal and Mr. Mohit himself for all the local help by Asian adventures.
Thanks to Billy for managing everything on our side: STARLING delivered a very solid trip!
Thanks to the group of ten fantastic participants who wanted to skip sleep to find mammals. What more could I ask for? Lots of hardcore photographers also, we learned a lot from each other.