Singalila national park-A trip to see the Habre Natures cutest animal

The Red Panda is the state animal of Sikkim is found in the Singalila national park. We stayed at the Habre’s Nest. This resort is on the Nepal side of the park. In Nepali the Red Panda is called a Habre. The eastern Himalayan birds are also fascinating. On this trip some of my friends were also lucky to spot the ever-elusive clouded leopard. They could not click photos but I think just seeing one in the wild itself is remarkable. We have to thank the efficient tracking team of Shantanu who find these solitary animals in these thick forests. It is like finding a needle in a huge haystack.

Every time the trackers sight a Panda we had to walk around 5 kilometers to reach the spot. All along the track each of us would be praying that the Panda stays. Of the three times it was spotted in the 5 days we were there only once could we photograph one on the other two occasions he had disappeared before we could reach.

 

Some facts on the Red Panda

The Red panda is a very unique animal. It is amongst the few living fossils.

There are 7 living fossils and they are

1) SOLENODON (Caribbean islands of Hispaniola and Cuba)

2) AARDVARK (Africa)

3) MONITO DEL MONTE (Chile and Argentina)

4) LAOTIAN ROCK RAT (Laos)

5) CHEVROTAIN (southeast Asia)

6) AMAMI RABBIT ( Japanese islands: Amami and Tokuno)

7) RED PANDA(China, India, Nepal, Burma, and Bhutan)

What is a living Fossil?

There are lots of animals still around that are remarkably unchanged from millions of years ago. These are popularly called “living fossils,” though that phrase is not usually used by scientists, and often give us insight as to the basal, or primitive forms and evolutionary history of other, more recently evolved animals. They also give us significant insight into the geologic history of the planet; animals survive when they can reproduce at a stable rate, simple as that. But these animals plateaued early, finding a way to breed, often in isolation (on islands, for example), at a stable rate, and remained successful without changing much, physically. We don’t really understand why this happens to some animals and not others, but the facts are pretty clear: they were doing fine, so they pretty much just stayed the way they are.

RED PANDA

The red panda is a total oddball, evolutionarily speaking. It’s the sole member of its family, Ailuridae, not closely related to, well, any other mammals in the world. It’s distantly related to the giant panda, but that split happened tens of millions of years ago. It’s been classified as a bear, a raccoon, and a weasel in the past. Current consensus is that it’s the sole living representative of what was once a powerful and wide-ranging group of animals. There were red pandas in North America, about 7 million years ago; lots of fossils were found at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. They’ve also been found in Europe and all over east and Southeast Asia. And yet today there’s only the one, absurdly adorable creature, bounding around trees in China, India, Nepal, Burma, and Bhutan (this is a smaller region than it sounds).

Link to full Album

https://photos.app.goo.gl/izFQxuFVEdpBKEKG7

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A series 1 Land Rover Ride

The trip to see the red panda was amazing for two reasons one the eastern Himalayan forests and second the drive in the well preserved 1954 & 1957 Land rovers series 1 models. At Manebhanjan the entry point to Singalila national park one can find a lot of these jeeps parked to take tourists into the park. I started a conversation with my driver Tashi and he was a wealth of information as he was very passionate about these jeeps.

He owned 2 of these cars. I asked him about spare parts and he said it is difficult to get them, as the originals are difficult to find and have to be imported from UK. Most of these jeeps are modified and are fitted with Mahindra bolero engines.

Tashi said these vehicles are very sturdy and relatively maintenance free and things like wiring, oiling and other things expect work related to the engine are done by the drivers themselves.

These vehicles are relics of the British era. The British left behind most of them and they had donated them to UNICEF. Later UNICEF. Sold them at scrap value and the locals bought them to use as local taxis. There are around 46 of these series 1 Land rovers left in Manebhanjan. All expect 6 have been modified to run on Mahindra engines. Was proudly told by Tashi that the bodies of these vehicles are aluminium and most of the parts like doors windows and windshields are modular so don’t crack unlike the new vehicles where it is all  moulded and develop cracks easily.

These vehicles that were available for around 17000 in 2000 and  is costing anything between 8 to 15 lakhs depending on their condition today. Tashi also told me that there is a collector in Mumbai who owns 30 of these Series 1 vehicles.

He also proudly told us that last year some media people had driven down in the new Land Rover discovery model to do a film on these series 1 beauties.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Rover_series

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Sarus- The gentle and caring flying giants

 

The elegant and beautiful Sarus cranes are amongst my favorite birds. They fascinate me a lot. After a long wait this year went to try and photograph their chicks. It is unbelievable that such large birds (the adults are more then 6 feet) have chicks that are so tiny.

These cranes make their nests on the ground in shallow water bodies or flooded fields to keep their eggs safe. It takes about 32 days for the eggs to hatch. In this period the female stays on the nest incubating the eggs. She feeds close to the nest. The cranes protect their nests very aggressively. Also The pair nests in the same area every year.

Once the eggs hatch the chicks start to swim immediately after the parents clean them. Normally if there is a second egg then it takes around 36-48 hours for it to hatch. When the female is incubating the second egg the newborn chick is taken care by the male.

After the first few hours of the eggs hatching the parents take the chicks into tall grass to hide them from predators. Like Dogs and raptors.

This year there has been unprecedented rains in UP and most farmers have lost crops. Good thing is most people in Rajasthan and UP revere the Sarus . when we were talking to a farmer in whose field the sarus had built its nest he was very tolerant of the Bird. The same was the case of another farmer who said the bird does not do much harm the crops as along with the little grain it eats it also eats up a lot of insects. But unfortunately all farmers don’t show the same kind of tolerance towards these birds. There is still great amount of ignorance and this leads to some throwing away nests with the eggs others shift the nest and the Birds abandon it. Also these birds are very aggressive in defending their nests and sometimes this leads to a confrontation between the farmer and the bird.

A female aggressively defending its nest as a farmer whose field it had built its nest in is trying to clear his field of rain water that had flooded his field and had destroyed his crop. But he still tolerated the bird.

A small video clipping to show how much damage the rains have caused to the paddy fields and how one has to wade through knee deep water

 

 

 

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Hidden fears -so back to Hiding

I delivered my first talk as a wildlife photographer at the annual wildlife festival held by Nature in focus in Bangalore. The event was a big eye opener for a person like me who has always avoided stages.

I would by lying to the world and myself if I say I don’t like adulation and recognition. But with adulation comes added expectations & responsibility. Even though I have been basking in all the attention I was getting. I was also terrified as I was not too sure of my ability to meet future expectations.

Some questions that came up in my mind

  • Am I good enough to deserve this?
  • The small selection of photos that I showcased and which had this Impact is it a true representation of my ability or is it a one off lucky occurrence

As much as I liked the recognition and attention I would have no answers to these questions so I will want to go back into hiding.

Now to the festival and the speech. The festival was a well-organized event. It had a great mix of speakers. The work done by the photographers and researchers was amazing. Also the audience was a well-informed one. Seeing some of the work done by the photographers in the audience on their phones was one reason for my question number 1.

I had to improvise my talk at the last minute and had to shorten it as the program was running behind schedule and on the request of the organizers I had to do my bit to help them. I felt as a first timer I did ok. I am giving a link for you to judge how good or bad I was.

 

A very good friend of mine who is an accomplished public speaker sent me a list to analyze my talk

  1. What I prepared
  2. What I delivered
  3. What I wish I delivered
  4. What the audience understood
  5. What was reported

I hope I am able to think and improve myself

The festival itself

Sitting through all the presentations and talks helped me learn a few things. For an impactful talk one does not need an amazing PPT or great education. All one needs is clarity of thoughts

For me the Three-standout talks delivered were

  • Will Burrad-Lucas the way he spoke about how the Beetlecam was born. For someone who has been a leader in his chosen field he had no airs about himself and was very approachable and humane
  • Kulbhhushansingh Suryawanshi he made his talk about his research work on Snow leopard highly informative and interesting without throwing a lot of numbers or technical stuff at the audience.
  • The best of talk was by C R Naik a deputy RFO from the Kali tiger reserve. (Wished there was a translator as there were people in the audience who did not understand Kannada) he delivered a talk that came straight from the heart. He knew what he wanted to convey and he kept it simple. Probably the most impactful speech.

The others were no less but I have picked my favorite three.

The Sharks by Anup J Kattukaran and the underwater macros by Nanda Kumar. Was amazing!!!! it was a new world to me.

It was fascinating to hear the story of how the award winning series of the Orangutan was shot by Jayprakash Bojan

The researchers, Scientists, Journalists, movie makers would make great role models for their single minded pursuits of beliefs in a cause

The story of the journey of urban wildlife rehabilitator Abhisheka was fascinating she conveyed how dealing with abandoned animals and birds bring both joy and Bitterness to those doing it.

Learnt about a new profession called botanical Illustrator

The wonderful coffee table book “Leopard on the Rocks “ by a dear friend Dr. Mangat was worth taking home.

Not to forget the lovely collection of images displayed and to see some thoughtful, skillful award winners in various categories of the photography competition

Over all the three days spent at the festival interacting with like minded people was just wow!!!!

A big thanks to the NIF team for having stitched together such a wonderful show.

 

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6th Year of travel and photography

Six years back I decided that I wanted to do something different for the rest of my life, Since then have been  pursuing  my passion for travel and wildlife photography.I am associated with  Saucam Foundation a NGO working for rural girl child welfare and also making efforts  to improve  hygiene amongst people of rural India. This experience of working for the NGO has made me realise that the greatest joy in life is the joy of giving.

I held my first photo exhibition in September 2017 to raise funds for Saucam foundation .Exhibition (3)

Contributed a small video clip to this documentary telecast on Animal Planet Gyamo PosterIMG_4547

Managed to reduce my “Bucket List ” by one

Bungee Jumping has to be one of the most challenging, terrifying, crazy things i have done in my life till now. I did it from the Victoria Falls Bridge which marks the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I did both the platform and Bungee Jumping  from this bridge and the jump was from 111 meters above the river.

Me doing the Bungee _43A7872

The Platform Jump

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. I am happy and completely satisfied with the journey thus far. These six years of freedom from the rat race has taught me a lot.

The first and foremost thing is the realisation that neither I am a rat nor was there a race on.

People ask me are you happy with your decision?

And when I answer “ never was I happier”

they ask what has changed?

So I borrowed these lines that i read somewhere to convey what has changed in me in the last 6 years

  •  Have realised that I am not “Atlas”. The world does not rest on my shoulders.
  •   Stopped bargaining with vegetables & fruits vendors. After all, a few rupees more is not going to burn a hole in my pocket but it might help the poor fellow save for his daughter’s school fees.
  •  Stopped telling the elderly that they’ve already narrated that story many times. After all, the story makes them walk down the memory lane & relive the past.
  • I give compliments freely & generously. After all it’s a mood enhancer not only for the recipient, but also for me.
  •  Learnt not to bother about a crease or a spot on my shirt. After all, personality speaks louder than appearances.
  • Learnt to walk away from people who don’t value me. After all, they might not know my worth, but I do.
  •  Learnt that it’s better to drop the ego than to break a relationship that I value. After all, my ego will keep me aloof whereas with relationships I will never be alone.
  •  Learnt to live each day as if it’s the last. After all, it might be the last.
  • I am doing what makes me happy. After all, I am responsible for my happiness, and I owe it to me.
  • Stopped reading News papers and seeing 24X7 news channels.
  •  Quit of all Social platforms

Sharing a selection of photos from this years travels  that I think are worth sharing again.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/EiQX2ynKPjDWmRQN9

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A memorable Journey to Mongolia to find Zen

How this trip came about

On 3rd Nov as I reached Mandal a small village at the base of Chopta and a place where you get connectivity I received a PM on Instagram asking me to call my friend Ismail the moment I get into range. I called him and he told me that he was going to Mongolia and  if I would join him? I asked him what were the dates and he said he was planning to leave on the 10th of Nov. I asked him for a  days time to revert. When I told Srikanth who was travelling with me what the whole conversation was about he told me  if you are not doing anything you should go. I immediately called back Ismail and told him I am on for the trip and asked him what documents he needed for the visa and also told him I would be able to provide him with everything on that weekend as I would reach Mumbai only then. He said  it was fine as he was planning to go to the embassy in Delhi on the following Monday.

I was all excited and a little fearful. Excited because was going to an exotic destination that most of us have read about and know only because of Genghis khan. Fearful because I was breaking my own rules of financial discipline.

Once back in Mumbai I try finding the best way to get to Ulaanbaatar and find that travelling through HK is the best option. I block the tickets and send all documents to Hyderabad and on Monday the visa is done and in flat four days a plan to visit Mongolia the land of the blue sky has been finalized.

I arrive in Ulaanbaatar (UB) and was greeted by Bayasaa a very nice gentleman who is the head of the local travel company. They had provided the invitation. He took me to the hotel through  nightmarish traffic. Imagine I had just returned from Bangalore and then travelled home from Mumbai airport in peak traffic and still found it nightmarish!!!! The roads were filled with only Japanese cars and Bayasaa told me that they were one of the biggest markets for used Japanese cars.

Ulaanbaatar streetsOur Hotel room A view from our hotel room

They still use these in the Cars !!!!!

Food for a vegetarian is an issue in Mongolia. For all Mongolians the day begins with meat and ends with meat. So it took an effort to find a place that served veg food. On the dinner table I found a fortune telling game where the dice was made of Sheep bones. Each bone had four sides representing sheep, Goat Camel and Horse and each combination had some relevance. It is like a fortune telling game. Also tells you in what order they value their livestock

  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Camel
  • Goat

A little about the country

This land locked country sandwiched between Russia and China has wonderful people. It has rich mineral resources and livestock’s but they manufacture very little and also there dependence on imports for all food items is huge.

Population of the country is 3 million (Mumbai & Delhi has 6 times more population 18 million each) also the size of the country is 1.5 million sq. kms where as Mumbai is just 653 sq. kms

30% of the population lives in Ulaanbaatar. Unemployment is big and air pollution in the capital is also bad. As they still depend on the Soviet era central heating plants. A predominantly meat eating  Buddhist population (51% ). 38% have no religion .

Day 2

Was joined by my friend Ismail who travelled through Turkey. We went for a late lunch to a vegan restaurant run by the Hinayana society post that visited Gandantegchinlen Monastery (means “Great Place of Complete Joy”) the oldest monastery in the city. In the night photographed the Sükhbaatar Square in freezing temperatures.

Mongolia does not have very ancient buildings, as the concept of permanent structures was very recent about 200 years. They were Nomads who lived in mobile tents called Ger.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery Gandantegchinlen Monastery Gandantegchinlen Monastery

Sükhbaatar Square

Day 3

Left our hotel early morning to visit The Hustai National Park, which is home to the Przewalski’s horse. These horses became extinct in 1966. They were reintroduced into the wild some years back and now around 500 of them are there in this park. Also got to see the deer and red fox.

DeerPrzewalski’s horse Red Fox

 

Day 4

Checked out of the hotel to take a 4-hour ATR flight to Khovd.If they used a bigger font the Name of the airport would become longer then the airport building itself We had lunch at a local restaurant and encountered the biggest problem of Mongolia “Alcoholism” The society has a huge drinking problem and people especially the youngsters get drunk early in the day (probably unemployment could be one reason 30%). Had a very funny encounter with one such drunk attaching the video to view. Warning and disclaimer some words uttered by the drunk may not be exactly family viewing and are his own words and the writer of this blog is not responsible.

It was a long drive to the Altai Mountains and we got delayed and had to spend the night in a village house in Ullgi. The living room tells you how the Mongolians revere Gangiz khan. The storeroom outside the house would not be a pleasant sight for vegetarians

Living roomStore Room

Day 5

Left early morning for Altai Mountains, which was going to be our home for the next five days. The journey itself was a great adventure where we had to cross-frozen rivers. A few kilometers before the camp a group of horsemen were waiting for us to lead us to the camp. They also acted as icebreakers on some streams so that the SUV could crossover. The last 2-kilometer we had to walk to the camp. Thankfully there were no altitude issues like in Ladakh even though it was freezing cold. After reaching the camp and putting our gear in the Ger (traditional Mongolian tents) we went to wander around our camp and take a few evening pictures. We were told about a horse kill on the mountains and the plan was to head for it the next day.

A GerHorsemen breaking the ice

Our SUV getting across

Our Home for a weekInside the Ger

Day 6

The rangers took turns to visit our Ger to keep the fire going but we later found out that they were actually curious to look at people who did not eat meat. We headed out to the reach the horse kill at around 9 AM. The initial part was a steep climb and had to be done on foot. Post that we got on to the horses and after the initial few minutes my respect for the horse back conquers like Alexander, Gangiz Khan and Chandra Gupta went up a zillion times. After 15 minutes I was saying Alexander the great and my backside was saying Alexander was great.

As we proceeded deeper and higher into the mountains the climbs became steeper and the terrain rockier. Me sitting on the horseback was letting my mind drift so as to forget the discomfort of the saddle.

After about 2 hours of a combination of walking and riding we came to a very rocky area and I was thinking of Louis Lamours books in which the lonely rider breaks his ankle when a mountain lion spooks his horse. With those thoughts in mind I had loosened my right leg from the stirrup and then the horse slipped on a rock and fell on to the right side where there was a huge boulder and just managed to jump across as the horse was getting up. Even though the foot was caught between the horse and the boulder I escaped with no major injury. This was a case of the foot between a hard rock and a horse.

Click to check my camera lying on snow

I fell over and the first think I did was check my wide-angle lens and camera that I was holding in my hand. And then asked if someone had clicked a picture to lighten the moment as everyone were in shock. After that I refused to sit on the horse and climbed up and down the mountains with the painful right ankle. The day was disappointing as we did see some Snow leopard pugmarks but they were 2 days old. We got back to the camp and the locals administered a black tea wash for my leg.

I walk down a steep face after the fall.

 

Day 7

The day begun with the news that a snow leopard had taken a sheep from a nomad about 10 km from our camp and the Rangers were tracking the fresh pugmarks. Ismail and me guessed that there had to be 2 leopards as they had finished the sheep in one night. And then the rangers called to say they had visuals of the snow leopards and it was a Female and her sub adult cub. We asked the rangers to hang back and follow and inform when she rests. After nearly 3 hours the rangers reported that the cats had gone into a rocky area and were not seen coming out so they assumed they were resting and called us. As I was in no position to ride a horse my friend Ismail went up the mountain slope and we went around in the SUV on our way we say a family of Ibex and photographed them. We reached the other side of the mountain and climbed up half a kilometer to wait. Then we got to see the small group of horsemen heading back. The Snow leopard had given us the slip. That was the closest we got to see one. We got back to the camp and decided to shoot star trails, as the sky was brilliant.

Ibex

A disappointed Ismail Returns

Me limping down from the perch after seeing the trackers and ismail return

Day 8

As usual post breakfast we were making our walk of the 2-kilometer to the jeep to begin our day. And that is when we noticed that the people had stopped asking us to give them our bags to carry. We asked our English-speaking guide Bayasaa why this had happened? He said like all horsemen the Mongolians also hated walking. They were talking amongst themselves that we should be given more loads as they were finding it hard to keep up and wanted to slow us down. Day 8 post lunch got us the first sighting of a cat. Our guide spotted the Pallas’s cat, which was a lifer for us. We also saw the golden eagle and the Bearded vulture.

Pallas’s catGolden Eagle White throated Dipper lammergeier

Day 9

This was our last day in the mountains and we enjoyed it fully. After we got back to our camp our guide and the trackers decide to take us for a drive in the night. The drive under star filled sky was wonderful and freezing. We saw a couple of Red foxes and a few Ibex but no sign of the elusive Snow leopard. we came across a very old grave and wondered if it was of the great Gangiz Khan. whose death is shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that he did not want his grave to be found . he also wanted to be buried with his beloved horses. His close aides did that. to keep the secret of his grave they made a 1000 horses run over the entire area and also killed the people who helped bury Gangiz Khan. Still wondering how the people would react if the grave was ever found.

A lonely ancient grave. RIP

Day 10

Bid goodbye to the camp and the rangers and headed back to Hovd for the night stay.On the way we saw a pair of Black vultures. also spent time with a group of semi wild Bactrian camels.we also passed the Ulaan davaa highest pass in Mongolia  We reached Hovd late night and we checked into a hotel. I had heard of rooms with a view but what I got was beyond my wildest imagination. Have a look!!!!!!

we had the pleasure of paying tips by the lakh but in Tugrik  

Black VultureBlack vulture Bactrian camels Bactrian camels

A room with a view The drive back

Day 11

Early morning flight to UB. Went around the market trying to buy some local junk jewellery for my daughter and then had dinner and got ready to get back home.

some photos of the food we were served

The Team that was with us. I am with the horse which slipped and ended my career as a horseman

Day 12

Took the flight back home.

I feel two things played a big part in the sighting not happening one the animals are very shy, as they are not used to humans and two lack of snowfall made tracking them very difficult. Even though I am neither great landscape photographer nor a keen one but just looking at the place makes one want to shoot. These photos tell you why Mongolia is called the land of the blue sky. The Mongols used to practice Shamanism before Tibetan Buddhism became popular. In Shamanism they worshipped the Blue Sky. I can conclude that

This trip was possible because of my friend Ismail Shariff who specializes in exotic wildlife and adventure trips. his contact number is 9885008850

To find their Zen people do various things like visiting religious places, staying in ashrams, going mountain climbing in Nepal, Sailing the oceans but looks like I found my Zen just looking at the beautiful blue skies of Mongolia. I am at complete peace post this trip.

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P.s.

The need to shoot big cats is never ending so will leave on a tiger trip shortly and there ends my mental peace.

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A Day with a Leopard Mom

Leopards the near perfect hunters of the jungles are solitary and shy cats. To spend time with these beautiful animals has been a dream for me. Imagine my joy when I got to spend a whole day with a Leopard mother and her 3-month cub in Jungles of Botswana.

We were on safari at Khwai ,when our guide Jack said Kingfishers, which was the code for Predators. The excited occupants of the jeep asked him if it was the spotted kingfishers that climb trees? by the time he answered we saw a few jeeps at the spot . From a distance I could see some movement inside a bush against what looked like a big rock. Imagine my happiness when I realized it was a leopard but then there was more to it then just a Leopard when we got closer I saw that it was not a rock but a dead giraffe and the movement was that of a small cub running all over while his mother was trying to break the skin of the dead giraffe.

Mother Leopard trying to open the Giraffe’s BellyResult of nearly 2 hours of work

This leopard mom had found this oversized gift but then she was not able to open up the belly of the giraffe. For her it was a case of “food,food everywhere but not a morsel to eat”. She was desperate to open up and have her fill, as she knew that soon the smell of death would attract hyenas and lions. Once they arrive she would have to abandon this place and move to a safe distance to protect her small cub.

Meanwhile her young one oblivious to his mother’s tenseness was having a field day running all over the giraffe. He used to pose on the Giraffe proudly and we felt that he was showing off his mother’s kill and telling us what he and his mother could achieve together. He was getting into the mouth of the giraffe and trying to nibble at whatever he could.

My New homeMy Mom Greatest My Kill My Mom trying to open the belly me checking if there is a way from here See what I killed This is how i pulled him down

We decided to stay put and spend time with the mother son duo. In the time we spent with them we witnessed some amazing mother cub interaction. Also we witnessed how even the very shy leopard starts trusting humans when she does not perceive threat to herself or to her young one. In fact she left her cub near our jeep and went to investigate some noise and the cub was with us alone for nearly 15 minutes.

At one time while the mother was busy trying to break the skin of the Giraffe the little one wandered away and when the mother realized he was not around she started calling out but the small guy did not respond and eventually she had to go looking for him. When she did find him she first admonished him then as all mothers do she nuzzled him and showed extreme kindness.

Looking for her cub

Still Looking

Calling out

Reunited

The Scolding firstThen the Love

We left them in the evening when other vehicles started arriving . They were still trying to figure a way to eat.

Still trying

The next morning we heard that a pair of lions had taken over the dead giraffe. Felt sorry for the young mother who had tried everything in her power to open the Giraffe. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have witnessed this drama in the wild.

All photos from the trip

https://photos.app.goo.gl/41gIaMZq8kGAnpsl2

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