Like a number of India’s sanctuaries, Keoladeo National Park (formerly Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) started off as a hunting reserve for a maharaja. Today, the 29-sq- km park in eastern Rajasthan is a Unesco World heritage Site. Over 360 bird species in 29 square kilometres make Keoladeo National Park among the world’s finest spots for birding. Some of these avian guests come from as far away as Siberia, Turkmenistan, China, and Afghanistan. Sarus cranes, which grow up to six feet in height and are the world’s tallest flying birds, frequent these manmade mudflats. Steppe eagles, pale and marsh harriers, and ospreys make their way here. Sambar, nilgai, and chital usually congregate by the lakes early in the morning. The wetlands are also inhabited by reptiles like the Indian rock python, common wolf snake, monitor lizards, and turtles. Depending on the water level, visitors can take a boat safari between November and February. The best time to visit Keoladeo National Park is between October and April.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Flights Of Fancy”.
Black bucks have always fascinated rulers of India. The graceful antelope has survived thanks to one-time game reserves like Tal Chhapar, which is now a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to saving the species. Situated in Rajasthan’s Churu district, Tal Chhapar is a small sanctuary spread over an area of only eight square kilometers. Its modest square footage, however, guarantees sightings, especially in the months following the monsoon, when the animal population swells. There are no safaris and visitors can stroll through the park on foot or drive through in their own vehicles. The park is open throughout the year.
In addition to the black buck, Tal Chhapar is also inhabited by the desert fox, Indian desert jird, desert cat, and the chinkara. But it’s the sanctuary’s bird population that attracts most visitors, from the laggar falcon, greater spotted eagle, and red-headed vulture, to legions of beautiful demoiselle cranes, which fly in from over the Himalayas in September every year, drawn to the warm, sultry climate of Rajasthan.
Appeared in the March 2014 issue as “The Buck Stops Here”.
Hemis National Park in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, is one of India’s largest national parks. A visit here involves a lot of walking, camping, and extremely cold weather that goes down to -30˚C in winter. The national park’s landscape has great variety: snowy peaks, barley fields, narrow gorges, rocky cliffs, and turquoise water bodies. Being a high altitude park, Hemis does not brim with wildlife and vegetation at every step. But it is still home to a lot of animals including the Tibetan wolf, red fox, Eurasian brown bear, Ladakhurial (wild goat), lammergeier vulture, snow cock, and Himalayan griffon vulture.
Snow leopards are undoubtedly the biggest draw here and seeing one in the wild is the holy grail of wildlife spotting. Only around 300 of these graceful animals survive in the wild in India. Snow leopards descend to slightly lower altitudes in winter, making it a bit easier to spot them from November to March. Treks around the Husing valley, Ganda La pass, and Khardung are recommended to spot the snow leopard and other animals. There are several homestays in Rumbak that offer clean rooms with very basic facilities.
Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Ghost On The Mountain”.
In eastern Assam, the floodplains of the Brahmaputra River are a cradle for around 380 bird and 36 mammal species, many of which are endangered. In 1999, a section of this region was declared the Dibru Saikhowa National Park to protect species that thrive in these swampy habitats. Apart from the feral horses, the Gangetic dolphin and endangered birds like Jerdon’s babblers, black-breasted parrot bills and great pied hornbills are high on most visitors’ viewing wish list.
The park is open throughout the year. Visitors can stay in Tinsukia, which has several hotels and tea estate homestays. The eight-kilometre trek from Guijan to the Kolomi anti-poaching hut is a day-long excursion through meadows, forests, and streams. Take a boat trip around Maguri Bheel, a wetland near the reserve, during the monsoon from May to October.
Appeared in the November 2012 issue as “In The Marshes”.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the Sundarbans mangrove forest is the largest in the world. It extends over 10,200 square kilometres, of which 4,200 sq km is in India and the rest in Bangladesh. There is only one way to navigate the complex network of rivers and estuaries in the Sundarbans: via boat. Tour guides point out the rich mammal and marine life of the swamp, but to see the elusive Royal Bengal tiger you’ll have to be perched on a watchtower deep inside in the jungle.
During the winter months, most animals can be spotted sunning themselves on the banks of the Sundarbans’ numerous waterways. Expect to catch a glimpse of the fishing cat, leopard cat, rhesus macaque, wild boar, Indian grey mongoose, flying fox, pangolin, and chital. Winter is also a good time to spot the saltwater crocodile, the king crab, and monitor lizard. The reserve is home to small pods of Gangetic and Irrawady dolphins that often swim next to tourist boats. Ophiologists would be happy at the large variety of snakes, including the king cobra. Over 200 bird species have been recorded here; a large number of birds can be seen during low tide, as fish get trapped on the mudflats and are easy pickings.
The best time to visit the Sundarbans is from November to February. Travellers are advised against going between May and October, when the area experiences heavy rainfall (and resultant flooding) and oppressive humidity.
Appeared in the January 2014 issue as “Swamped By Nature”.
In 1998, as the depleted tiger population and rampant debarking and smuggling of its cinnamon trees took their toll, conservationists stepped in and worked out an eco-tourism model to save the park. The men of the local communities were weaned away from poaching and trained to be forest guards and tourist guides instead. Many have never attended school but can talk in detail about the feeding patterns of the tiger butterfly, the ideal time and place to spot the grey headed owl, and the frequented trail of the closest tiger.
Periyar offers an extremely immersive forest experience, allowing visitors to walk, raft and camp in the forest. The most thrilling experience is the Tiger Trail with the opportunity to camp in the forest for one or two nights and join the armed forest guards on their night watch. Also try the three-hour late night hike through the forest with a guide. This is a rare chance to experience the stillness of a forest at night. Since the tigers live in the core area of the forest where tourists are not allowed, it’s quite rare to spot one of the 36 big cats that live here. Despite this, their presence can be felt through pug marks, bark scratches, and a healthy ecology.
Periyar is open throughout the year. November to March is great for cool weather and a bright green canopy. Visit between April and October to avoid crowds and see more wildlife, but be prepared for heat and humidity.
Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “Saving Stripes”.
A group of 15 islands in the Bay of Bengal form an unusual sort of national park—an underwater one. The Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park at Wandoor in the Andaman Islands has over 135 species of corals, hundreds of species of fish, and is a hub for nesting turtles including the leatherback, hawksbill, green, and the smallest of all, the olive ridley. The dense vegetation, rock caves, and granite cliffs, also provide refuge to crocodiles, king cobras, and birds like the whistling teal, and white-bellied sea eagles.
Visitors don’t need to be swimmers or divers to enjoy this park. Non-swimmers can see the rich variety of species through the transparent floor of glass-bottomed boats. Those with basic swimming skills can snorkel. The protected reserve is packed with rare fish and plants, so views underwater are quite different from the rest of the island. Those who are confident in the water can learn to dive just outside the reserve, at the Lacadives Diving School (www.lacadives.com).
From February to May, the sea is very calm and visibility is excellent. The park is closed during the monsoon months of June to September. Turtle nesting and hatching takes place from December to March, and the shores are filled with eggs and hatchlings making their way to sea.
—Natasha Sahgal & Zahra Amiruddin
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “Sea Spectacle”.
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