Birding India: The Express Route

Guest post by Yoav Perlman

A few of weeks ago I returned from an express trip to India. In this short piece, I will provide some of my insights on the planning stage of the trip and on the trip itself. I first visited India in 2001 when I spent about eight months birding, trekking, and backpacking on a shoestring budget. My recent trip was a bit more comfortable experience, and well worth the trouble and time to get there. The birding, of course, was incredible.

India is known as a land of startling contrasts, between extreme poverty and majestic wealth; between breath-taking wildlife experiences and heart-breaking human experiences. It’s the kind of place that gets under your skin – and haunts you long after your return home. Assuming readers already understand the incredible benefits of a wildlife watching trip in India, I want to instead discuss some of my darker thoughts about wildlife watching and travelling in this intensive and complex country.

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Our group of four birders spent nine days on the ground in total, but because this included travelling between opposite corners of India, we only had about six days of wildlife watching. Our main target was to see a rather large bird – Bengal Tiger. Therefore, our priority was to visit the reserve that would give us the best chance to see tiger. After some research, I figured out that Ranthambhore National Park (NP) in Rajasthan, not too far away from Jaipur and Delhi, is probably the only reserve in India where one can ‘guarantee’ seeing a tiger, as much as wildlife can guarantee you anything, and is rather easily accessible.

Travelling between sites in India takes much time, whether it’s by ground transportation or by air. Therefore, due to the short duration of our trip, we decided to plan only one more reserve to visit. I have never been to northeast India before, but had heard many amazing stories about Kaziranga NP and Kaziranga has tigers too – so we decided that our second reserve would be Kaziranga NP in Assam.

When I travelled in the Indian subcontinent in 1998/9 and 2001, I was young and stupid, and national park regulations were not as strict, so I must confess that I did sneak into national parks on foot, and it almost got me killed. In Nepal’s Chitwan NP, a rhinoceros became startled by a group of tourists riding an elephant and it ran straight towards me. I had nowhere to escape in the tall elephant grass, but luckily I managed to climb up a tree before getting squashed by the rhino. I never knew I could climb trees as fast as a cat…

Now I am older and wiser (?), and national park regulations are much stricter. Nowadays, one can visit almost all national parks in India only in a registered jeep, driven by a registered driver, and a guide. This does limit the wildlife experiences and is obviously very expensive. For most large parks in India, expect to pay around $100 to $150 per day per person for a permit, jeep, and guide/driver.

When I started planning the trip, I tried to obtain national park permits online, but failed; likewise, train tickets are also impossible to buy online. Sadly, the online systems in India are terrible and discourage tourists from using them (perhaps as a way to retain clerical jobs). So, in order to secure permits to national parks, accommodation, and travel, we figured out that we need to use the services of local tour operators. This is not uncommon practice in the world’s most exceptional national parks.

I consulted friends and received two recommendations. We used the services of Vikram Singh for our Ranthambhore leg and Peter Lobo for our Kaziranga leg. Both of them were very efficient in securing permits to the parks, and arranging accommodation and transportation. The permit issue is very important, as needs to be sorted out at least three months ahead. Both Vikram and Peter were very responsive to our questions and requests, and I strongly recommend them. Potentially we could have worked with only one operator, but for various reasons it worked better for us to work with Vikram and Peter separately.

One short note about visa to India: visitors from most countries require a visa to India. Nowadays it is possible to obtain online a 30-day tourist eVisa. The process was surprisingly efficient (contrary to park permits and train tickets). The only issue is that the eVisa option opens up only 34(!) days before travelling, and leaves no flexibility in travel timing.

Ranthambhore

Our team assembled at Ranthambhore separately, after travelling from Delhi (by train) and from Jaipur (by shuttle). We were all picked up by representatives of Wild World India, and met up in our hotel – The Ranthambhore Bagh (the hotel was really nice but see below).

We had our first tiger observation within four hours of entering the park, and shortly after we had an amazing encounter with one of Ranthambhore’s most famous tigers, Arrowhead, a beautiful 3-year old female. Over the next couple of days, we saw Arrowhead again and spent good quality time with her.

Arrowhead the Bengal Tiger ©Yoav Perlman Arrowhead the Bengal Tiger ©Yoav Perlman

In total, we saw three different tigers, but the encounters with Arrowhead were the most impressive. Ranthambhore has abundant wildlife, and we saw huge numbers of deer of three species (spotted deer, sambar, and nilgai), plentiful wild boar, several mongoose species, black-faced langurs, etc. There are animals everywhere in the park, and it is no surprise why tigers are so happy there.

Black-faced Langur ©Yoav Perlman

Birding was more difficult in Ranthambhore. Our driver/guide knew very little about birds, and didn’t really ‘understand’ birders. He was a very good tiger tracker, but we felt that if we had a guide who was also a birder, our bird list would have increased considerably. After almost 20 years away from India, my memory of Indian bird calls was rusty. Additionally, birding out of a jeep is not the ideal way to bird, because of the constant engine noise and movement. But, still we saw good birds and reached around 95 bird species a day, a passable number just the same. Check my eBird checklists from Ranthambhore: day 1, day 2, day 3.

Brown Fish Owl ©Yoav Perlman

We chose to purchase 2 full-day permits and another half-day permit, all which allow unlimited access to all zones of the reserve. It is also possible to obtain permits for short 2-hour morning or afternoon trips, and these are pretty cheap. Most visitors to the park take these short tours, and the first 2-3 hours of the day and the last couple of hours before dusk can get VERY busy. The full-day permits allow visitors to stay in the park during the quieter midday hours. The park opens up at 06:00, so between 09:00 and 15:00 we had the park to ourselves, as most tourists don’t pay the ridiculous price for full-day permits (about $900 per day per vehicle for full-day, or $500 half day, including fee for guide/driver, jeep, and food). Despite the high costs, I strongly recommend the full-day permits, especially if you want to increase your chances of quiet and close wildlife encounters.

For example, this allowed us to spend a couple of lovely and quiet hours with Arrowhead. We spotted her ourselves, and for the next two hours it was just us and one other jeep. Then it was 15:00, and the park gates reopened. We were very close to the main track leading in from the gate, and within few minutes about 40 jeeps and safari lorries surrounded us and ‘our’ tigress. The behaviour of the literally hundreds of tourists, and especially their drivers, was appalling. Drivers yelling and blocking each other, tourists screaming, carnage would be a good word to describe how it felt there. Despite being exceptionally tolerant to human presence, Arrowhead was clearly unhappy with the extreme attention and huge crowd, and retreated into dense cover. We were unhappy and ashamed of the other’s behaviour too, and asked our driver to pedal it out of there immediately. We knew that the rest of the park would be empty as all tourists were concentrated around poor Arrowhead.

Frankly, I hope the Forest Department finds a way to make the experience in Ranthambhore more pleasant both for wildlife and humans. At the moment, Ranthambhore offers a problematic trade-off for tiger watching. Clearly, this is the only place where you can safely ‘tick’ tigers. But if you’re looking for a wilderness experience, try elsewhere. Ranthambhore is certainly not a remote place and the experience felt exploitive of the wildlife. When you see a tiger at stroking distance, it almost feels like a zoo. I got some nice portraits, true, and I got to hear Arrowhead’s breaths – that’s how close we were to her. But I wish I wasn’t surrounded by another 300 noisy tourists. I would easily settle for views from 20 m rather than 3 m, if I just had some peace and quiet.

After two and a half days in Ranthambhore, we were ready to move on. We were not seeing many new birds anymore and the chances to see other mammals – Leopard and Sloth Bear – are random. It seems that tiger trackers in Ranthambhore don’t know enough about these two species to track them down like tigers. Despite our permit granting us access to all zones of the park that are open to the public, eventually we spent all our time patrolling the same tracks. It is possible that if other parts of the park are accessed more diversity can be seen, but it was not easy for us to explain this to our guide. It would be advisable to arrange that ahead.

A couple of logistical notes:

If you are staying at the Ranthambhore Bagh or other hotels nearby, choose to stay in rooms and not in tents. Adjacent to the hotel complex is the main wedding venue complex of Sawai Madhopur, the nearest city. I stayed in a tent that offered nice facilities, but was certainly not sound-proof. It was a happy wedding that night. The unbelievably loud music played ALL night long. After a sleepless night of BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, at 04:30 I had enough, and sat down to write a blog.

Make sure to bring warm clothing for the early hours of the day, if you visit in winter (December – February). The mornings start chilly, though they warm up considerably by afternoon.

From Ranthambhore we travelled by train back to Delhi, and were transported from the train station to a generic airport hotel. Next morning, we took an internal flight to Guwahati in Assam.

Kaziranga

At Guwahati airport, we were greeted by Rofikul Islam, our guide. We headed out straight away in two vehicles. It’s a long four and a half hour drive to Kaziranga. Right outside Guwahati is Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary, that is certainly worth a visit, even in the midday sun and heat haze. We had a quick scan there – it was exploding with waterfowl (check out our eBird checklist). If you visit the site, make sure you bring a scope. Scopes are also useful inside Kaziranga to scan the wetlands.

Most birders choose Wild Grass Lodge. It is also the only hotel in Kaziranga with WiFi. Unfortunately, when Peter booked for us, Wild Grass was fully booked. So, we ended up at Bon Habi Resort which was just fine, the lack of WiFi being its only drawback.

In Kaziranga, you have a choice of only a 3-hour morning or a 3-hr afternoon permit. The park opens up at 07:30, so the best hours of the morning are off limits for visitors. We managed to stretch our hours in the park slightly, so we made the best of our days there.

Kaziranga was truly brilliant. Mammals are plentiful and the diversity is terrific, dominated by giants – Indian One-horned Rhino, Asiatic Elephant and Buffalo. These huge beasts roam in the open grasslands and on the lakesides. Kaziranga has the highest density of tigers in India, but they are not as easy to see there as in Ranthambhore. Compared to the dry, open woodland of Ranthambhore, tigers in Kaziranga favour the tall elephant grass and lush forests, and are not easy to spot. We missed a sighting by few minutes, and several friends of mine have seen tigers well there, but you probably need more than a few days here to increase your chances to see tiger.

Indian One-horned Rhino ©Yoav Perlman

Indian One-horned Rhino

Buffalo ©Yoav Perlman

Buffalo

Birding was nothing short of spectacular. Kaziranga has beautiful and diverse habitats: wetlands, grasslands, meadows and forests. In the three days we were there, we explored only a small part of the park, which is a pity. This is a result of the short-term permits that don’t allow exploration of the deep sections of the park. But still, we saw tons of birds. Our guide, Rofikul, gets credit for the brilliant birding. He is a real expert, and is possibly the best birding guide in Kaziranga. He knows bird calls very well, has a keen eye, and knows where to find the tricky species. And he’s a great guy, too. Here, too, you may only bird from jeep, except for the few lookouts and observation towers. We ended up with a respectable 160-165 species a day, which is pretty good for three-hour shifts in the morning and afternoon.

Pied Harrier ©Yoav Perlman

Pied Harrier

Great Hornbill ©Yoav Perlman

Great Hornbill

It felt like three days in Kaziranga were too short a visit. To cover the park properly, an extra two or three days are necessary. This extra time in the park would allow exploration of the western range that we didn’t visit at all. The western range is the only range that still holds the Globally Critically Endangered Bengal Florican, and holds ‘hill’ bird communities – as I was disappointed to find out while driving past on my way back to Guwahati airport. We kept recording new birds continuously during our time in the central and eastern ranges, and there were many ‘regular’ birds we did not see. So, I’m sure an extra few days in Kaziranga would add many birds and maybe a tiger encounter. Additionally, weather in Kaziranga is less stable and monsoon-like rain did affect our birding one afternoon and one morning. I suggest planning five or six days for a thorough visit in Kaziranga. This will also allow proper exploration of the sites outside the park (e.g. Diring Tea Estate for Blue-naped Pitta) that can be done before the park gates open up.

Diring Tea Estate ©Yoav Perlman

Diring Tea Estate

Our eBird checklists for Kaziranga: day 1 morning and afternoon, day 2, day 3.

Make sure you bring a short or zoom lens on this tour. I carried loads of gear, so decided to carry only one camera body and only my 500mm lens. I regretted this deeply, as almost always mammals were too close for my 500mm – hence my tiger portraits, but almost no photos of a full tiger.

The Burst of the Bubble

India is an extreme country regarding inequality and social dysfunctionality. When I backpacked through India in the late 1990’s, I witnessed the weakest and darkest sides of the country, by travelling in the cheapest public transportation and staying in the worst guesthouses. This trip, we managed to focus on the wildlife havens of the country. We met educated middle-class Indians, saw beautiful habitats, and enjoyed the rich wildlife. The only encounters we had with ‘real’ India were out of the train window, where we could observe the untouchables living besides the tracks, in deepest poverty and disgust, sewage, rubbish, and dirt. Because it was a blurred picture out of a fast, air-conditioned train, it is not difficult to detach oneself from these sights. This feels wrong somehow.

When I was driven back to Guwahati, I asked my guide to take a quick detour through Guwahati rubbish dump. On our first visit there a few days earlier, we saw large numbers of the Globally Endangered Greater Adjutant, the huge Asian counterpart of Marabou, crowded on the distant rubbish dump. I wanted to improve my views of this impressive beast, and get some photos. I was hoping for distant record shots from outside the perimeter fence of the rubbish dump – from home I was used to fenced-off rubbish dumps. However, suddenly I found myself deep inside the rubbish dump, where hundreds of people, including young children, were rummaging through the garbage, shoulder to shoulder with cows and Greater Adjutants. This threw me into a state of shock and confusion. I walked out of the car, carrying my expensive photo gear and optics, dressed in clean clothes before a flight. I had this strange feeling that I was on a ‘mission’ to document these adjutants, but I couldn’t ignore the people there – clearly living in the rubbish dump. There they were, people just like me, but considered the lowest life-form in India, less sacred than cows. I watched my step not to get my boots and clothes dirty before boarding a flight, while they were sharing food scraps with Greater Adjutants and cows, or looking for something to sell for a couple of rupees. I don’t think they had even noticed me, at least they did not show a sign of acknowledging my presence. They just continued to rummage, hundreds of anonymous people in the dark shadows of India. I was distressed and felt so horrible with myself that I asked my guide to leave quickly.

Greater Adjutant ©Yoav Perlman

Greater Adjutant

Greater Adjutant ©Yoav Perlman

Greater Adjutant

Guwahati rubbish dump ©Yoav Perlman Guwahati rubbish dump ©Yoav Perlman Guwahati rubbish dump ©Yoav Perlman Guwahati rubbish dump ©Yoav Perlman Guwahati rubbish dump ©Yoav Perlman

This brief visit to the rubbish dump of Guwahati exposed me to the worst of India that I did my best to ignore during the entire trip. This last leg of my trip burst the bubble that we had created during our visits to Kaziranga and Ranthambhore. That rubbish dump was the real India, not Kaziranga or Ranthambhore. And I did not really understand back then what I was doing there. Looking back, a few weeks later, I start to understand a bit more how lucky I am, sitting in front of my desk in the UK. I still don’t know what I can do to make this world a slightly better place, and whether I can actually do anything in this cynical global-market world.

Maybe I am naïve but perhaps, just perhaps, my article, these photographs, will plant seeds in the minds of a few readers, that will reinforce the understanding that we need to do the only things we can do as Citizens of the World – shop responsibly, reduce our carbon footprint, vote responsibly (is it possible?).

I hope that one day India, and other third-world countries, will find courage and vision to step out of this crippling caste system. I don’t think I understand even a tiny part of the complexity of India, and certainly I am not in any position to give Indian leaders advice. I just hope for better days for the untouchables of India, and appreciate even more my comfortable life in the west.

You can read all my blogs on India here.

A birder since childhood, Yoav grew up in Israel where he was exposed to birding on the migration highway from a young age. He works for the BirdLife partner in Israel, Israeli Ornithological Center, as director of the national bird monitoring scheme. Currently he lives in the UK, doing a PhD in the University of East Anglia in conservation ecology.