Thanks to Ed Hutchings for this tale of travel in northwestern India.
If you were to sit on a bench in New Delhi’s Lodi Gardens and close your eyes, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Richmond Park, the sounds of Collared Dove and Ring-necked Parakeet filling the air. Even the evocative cry of India’s national bird, the ubiquitous Peafowl, may not seem out of place in these isles – a poignant reminder that the subcontinent was once considered the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
Indeed, this beautiful country has played host to successive empires for millennia. One of the best known to the world were the Great Mughals – the most colourful and flamboyant of all – who produced the most celebrated building in India, if not the world – The Taj Mahal in Agra.
The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife and is a potent symbol of love. Love had brought us to India, as my wife and I were on our honeymoon. I consider myself very lucky that my other (non-birding) half is most tolerant when it comes to my hobby, but to be honest you will see bucket loads of birds wherever you go in India. Delhi itself has one of the highest capital city bird lists in the world at 451 species, second only to Nairobi in Kenya.
Our itinerary, in a nutshell, was an anti-clockwise tour of Rajasthan, starting in New Delhi and finishing in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Rajasthan (“the land of kings”) is the largest state in India and is located in the northwest of the country. It is majestic in scale – a land of huge forts towering over a rugged desert landscape. The desert in question being the large, inhospitable Thar Desert, which encompasses most of this stateliest of states.
To get a flavour of desert birding one should head to the huge Desert National Park (3,162 km2) near Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan – only fifty kilometres from the Pakistan border. Despite the hassle of getting into the park (a complicated permit is required) you stand a better chance here than anywhere else of seeing the endemic Great Indian Bustard – the state bird of Rajasthan. Once common on the dry plains of the Indian subcontinent, today perhaps as few as 250 individuals survive and the species is on the brink of extinction, being critically endangered by hunting and loss of its habitat. Other specialties encountered in the park include the threatened Houbara Bustard, Indian Courser, White-bellied Minivet, White-bellied Bushchat and Plain Leaf Warbler.
I am a seasoned desert dweller, having grown up in the Middle East, but the oppressive heat and dust starts to become uncomfortable after a while. We were therefore glad when we headed south-east into a marginally greener landscape and one of the best places in the world to see the king of cats – the endangered Bengal tiger. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve wanted to see one of these fabled beasts in the wild and our excitement on arrival at Ranthambore National Park was palpable.
No Indian nature reserve can guarantee a tiger sighting, but at Ranthambore the odds are probably better than anywhere else: the park itself is relatively small(392 km2), and the resident tigers are famously unperturbed by humans, hunting in broad daylight and rarely shying from cameras or Jeep-
loads of tourists. The park covers one of the last sizable swathes of verdant bush in Rajasthan, fed by several rivers that have been dammed to form lakes, dotted with delicate pavilions, while the ruined 10th-century fort , towering above the forest canopy from atop a dramatic crag, is straight out of Kipling’s Jungle Book.
We had three chances to see a tiger (one morning and two evening drives), but were told not to get our hopes up. Fifteen minutes into our first drive, we saw her – a young tigress, resting under a banyan tree. It really is impossible to describe one’s feelings on seeing your first tiger. For me at least, they are unquestionably the most beautiful animal on the planet – the striped coat blending seamlessly into the grasslands of the Indian jungle. We saw her on our last drive too. Two out of three- we were very lucky, or perhaps I should say privileged.
The park guides vary enormously on their bird knowledge. The one on our first drive immediately clocked my bins and really knew his stuff. Thereafter, he pointed out each and every species when it came into view. Ranthambore has plenty of birds, both inside and outside the park, and I really didn’t know which way to look. Specialities include Jungle Bush Quail, Demoiselle Crane, Great Stone-curlew, Painted Sandgrouse and White-naped Woodpecker. The park has one Indian endemic in the form of Painted Spurfowl – a bird of the pheasant family found in rocky hill and scrub forests.
Apart from its star attraction the tiger, and the multitude of birds, Ranthambore is blessed with a wealth of other wildlife – other wild cats (jungle cat, leopard), deer (chital, sambar), antelopes (chinkara, nilgai), monkeys (gray langur, rhesus macaque), other mammals (ruddy mongoose, sloth bear) and reptiles (mugger crocodile) – all contribute to the glorious biodiversity of the park. However, Ranthambore is, like many other Indian reserves, an oasis in an ever-encroaching desert.
Since Project Tiger was formed forty years ago, there have been many ups and downs in the fate of this iconic cat. Increasing demographic pressure from a mushrooming human population and poaching (some of it internal) continue to push this beautiful beast closer to the precipice. Conservationists campaign tirelessly, as they have done for decades, but their efforts are hampered by an intermittently corrupt government. Panthera tigris tigris needs more friends in high places.
For the birder, the one place in Rajasthan (if not India) that mustn’t be missed is Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur (29 km2). There are so many birds here during winter that the wetlands appear to support more birds than seems possible in such a small area. Over 400 species have
been recorded in this oasis of shallow lakes, surrounded by woodland, savanna and scrub, which lies at the edge of the Gangetic Plain, and, in winter, it is possible to see around 180 species in a day, including masses of waterbirds, a fine selection of passerines and over 25 species of raptor. Specialties of the park include Sirkeer Malkoha, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Marshall’s Iora, Spotted Creeper, Brook’s Leaf Warbler and Large Grey Babbler.
Rajasthan is the most colourful state in the world’s most colourful country. Birders who like seeing a bag full of brilliant birds, who are prepared to see real poverty and squalor, who are unaffected by almost unbelievable hustle and bustle, and who enjoy overcoming bureaucratic barriers, will enjoy India. The country is a challenge to even the most seasoned travellers, but the people are immediately friendly and you can’t help but be caught up in the sensory overload of this contradictory, yet magical country. India’s spirit lingers long in the memory and in the heart.
This article originally appeared in Bird Watching (UK) magazine.