Book Review: The King and I, Travels in Tigerland

Book review: The King and I – Travels in Tigerland, by Prerna Singh Bindra

Rupa & Co, 2006

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For some strange reason, half a dozen chapters into the book, I was distinctly unimpressed. Maybe I was coming at it from the perspective of A.J.T. Johnsingh’s masterpieces (Field Days and Walking the Western Ghats) – books that drip heavy with information and insights from a naturalist’s perspective. That was probably unwarranted. Prerna Singh Bindra is no naturalist. But she is a conservation journalist and a skillful wordsmith. She therefore approaches her topic from the perspective of the conservation journalist – with a fine blend of impassioned eco-zeal, and sensitivity to the beauty around her. And she certainly writes well. I warmed to the book eventually, and had concluded by the end of it that it was indeed a very good read.

The King and I profiles some twenty prominent PAs – mostly tiger reserves with a couple of exceptions in Hemis and Gir. Bindra’s personal impressions of each wildscape provide some very readable context to the larger discussion around conservation and anthropological issues specific to the PA. And she blends a fine mix of the two, which is a good thing – tales of her personal experiences and her evocative sense of wonder enliven what would otherwise be a starkly depressing account of almost-lost causes.

Notwithstanding the title, the book does not confine itself to the tiger alone. There is a chapter on Gir, a discussion on conservation issues specific to the leopard, a lament on what we did to the cheetah in India, an essay centered around Billy Arjan Singh and Tiger Haven, and another around Tusker Trails in Bandipur.

Five of the chapters are especially outstanding. Bindra’s account of hunting for the snow leopard amidst the barren slopes of Hemis makes for a fine read. The chapter on Bandavgarh paints a very effective picture of the ugly commercialization of tiger tourism. Her account of visiting locations immortalized in Corbett’s books makes for some engaging reading – interestingly, Johnsingh has authored a book on this very topic, not that this detracts in any way from the effectiveness of Bindra’s story. The book closes with a powerful and wide-ranging discussion of conservation issues specific to the tiger – one of the hardest-hitting pieces I’ve read on the topic.

My personal favorite by far however, is the little account of Bindra’s brief visit to Cheetal Walk/Jungle Trails. Like many admirers of the eponymous book by E.R.C. Davidar, I have itched to visit this now-inaccessible house. Bindra was fortunate enough to sit on the verandah we have all read about, and to watch an assortment of hyenas, sloth bears and other creatures, all door-delivered. I read the chapter with a mixture of envy and fascination in equal measure.

The book is peppered with multiple photographs in every page. The credits for these are atypically not footnoted with the photographs themselves, but massed at the end of the book. Which is not a bad thing from the reader’s perspective, considering the reduced clutter. I should also mention that there is a fantastic bibliography at the end of the book. If Ms. Bindra has all the 120-odd books listed here on her shelf, she’s one very lucky person.

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Trip report: Galibore, Oct ’16

Trip Report:        Galibore Nature Camp

Dates:                   10-11 Oct 2016

Who:                     P and H

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A single night at Galibore planned on impulse. And an interesting trip it turned out to be.

My good friend and ace birding guide Thomraj had been convalescing after a kidney stone procedure and returned by forenoon the same morning I reached. Meanwhile Govind and I took a walk down the road eastwards after paying our customary respects to the resident Brown hawk owl. Greenish warblers called from virtually every tree – thousands of them must have migrated into our southern forests at this time as they were all over the place here, in Yercaud, and doubtless elsewhere too. The weather was cool in the shade but mildly uncomfortable in the sun. We found a quiet spot by the river to sit in. A Sirkeer malkoha flew past rousing us and we tailed it to where it settled. On the way back, we spent a while watching a White-rumped shama which posed for us, while a flock of Tawny-bellied babblers foraged in the thickets around it. Govind meanwhile delivered a little lesson on the nuances of chital pellets. The stags evidently drop elongated ones while the does’ tend towards the spherical. We spent some time picking pellets off the forest floor to assess them.

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Lesser fish eagle

One of the most special things to do in Galibore is the walk back from the coracle alighting point at sunset. The walk through the forest in the fading light for a few kilometers offers potential for interesting encounters. A few days back, Thomraj, Govind and another staff member heard langurs calling, waited and were rewarded with a leopard sighting. Thomraj also related another recent story about a tusker that entered the water on the opposite bank on sighting them and swam across at alarming speed, causing them to abandon the coracles and scramble for the jeep. However on this day, all we did was to pause awhile to admire a brace of Painted spurfowl and a twittering Brown-capped pygmy woodpecker.

There are always interesting elephant stories to catch up on in each visit. Like the one about a lone elephant that approached the kitchen building one night not long back. Or the one about how Thomraj ran into a herd while on his motorbike, in the forenoon a few days back. He had to flee back to the camp and have a jeep escort his bike through the herd.

I had intended to sit on the promontory late into the night listening, but a crew was working on fixing a faulty water pump by the river accompanied by great noise and light. I went to bed after waiting in vain for them to finish, around midnight. Alarm calls erupted at 2 AM, but I was too sleepy to step out. Two animals were calling; one was a sambar. I had forgotten that sambar occurred here, but Thomraj confirmed this the next morning. The other was a call I struggled to place – Thomraj hadn’t noticed the calls themselves, but surmised (the next morning) that chital sometimes call with a hoarser version and that was probably what I’d heard. Incidentally, we also heard a four-horned antelope repeatedly calling in alarm during the evening coracle ride – first time I’ve heard one.

With some guidance from my pal VV, I’ve been doing some homework on butterflies over the past few days and found occasion to test my rank beginner skills in the green patch between the promontory and the river that attracts large numbers of butterflies. Commonly seen species were White orange-tip, Common wanderer, Common mormon, Common grass yellow, Yellow orange-tip and Tawny coster. There was also what I thought was the Indian skipper, but checking the coloration subsequently revealed that it was something else. Also identified, probably correctly, Plain tiger and Common jezebel elsewhere.

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Tawny coster

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Skipper sp.

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Yellow orange-tip

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White orange-tip

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Wrongly ID’d as Common wanderer. VV pointed out that this is probably a Common gull.

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This is the plant that attracts butterflies in numbers. Karthik (www.wildwanderer.com) subsequently helped ID it as Sida sp.

On day 2, just before we departed the camp, a juvenile Grizzled giant squirrel lost its grip and came crashing down from the canopy. It sat stunned for a while but otherwise seemed none the worse for its fall, and was soon racing back up the bole.

Three special sightings this time. Post lunch, a pack of four dhole trotted westwards on the opposite bank, walking in single file close to the water’s edge. They paused to stare at the camp and then continued their way upstream.

At sunset, the new manager Abhijit and I were chatting while I was idly gazing at a black object on the opposite bank. It took a while for the lights to come on, but I eventually realized that the object was a foraging sloth bear. As it often happens, the bear wandered out of sight shortly after this realization struck.

On the second morning, Thomraj and I walked westwards on the road towards the Hyra camp (which is what I remember it’s called) a couple of kilometers away. We were treading on fresh elephant spoor; a bull elephant that Thomraj figured was a known single tusker had passed not long back. Thomraj was on high alert, scanning the jungle ahead with utmost care while simultaneously trying to find birds. The spoor veered off into the jungle a short way before the FD shack at Hyra and we turned back shortly after that.

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Bull elephant spoor. Fore and hind feet. The larger print to the right is of the hind foot.

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Sloth bear pugmarks. Fore and hind feet. Print on the right is of the hind foot.

On the way back, we had a superb Southern tree shrew sighting. First time I’ve seen one in the Cauvery WLS. Thomraj also showed me a small, partially buried stone a short way off the track which purportedly shows ancient etchings in Tamil-like script.

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Unidentified lizard in the forest

  1. Alexandrine parakeet (calls)
  2. Asian paradise flycatcher (calls)
  3. Black-hooded oriole (calls)
  4. Blue-faced malkoha
  5. Brahminy kite
  6. Brown-capped pigmy woodpecker
  7. Brown hawk owl
  8. Common iora
  9. Common kingfisher
  10. Common myna
  11. Common skylark
  12. Common tailorbird
  13. Common woodshrike
  14. Darter
  15. Golden-fronted leaf bird
  16. Great cormorant
  17. Green bee eater
  18. Greenish warbler
  19. Grey junglefowl
  20. Green imperial pigeon
  21. Hoopoe
  22. Indian grey hornbill
  23. Indian robin
  24. Jungle babbler
  25. Jungle crow
  26. Jungle owlet (calls)
  27. Lesser fish eagle
  28. Lesser flameback
  29. Little cormorant
  30. Egret (unidentified)
  31. Magpie robin
  32. Painted spurfowl
  33. Peafowl
  34. Pied kingfisher
  35. Purple-rumped sunbird
  36. Red-rumped swallow
  37. Red-vented bulbul
  38. Red-wattled lapwing
  39. Red-whiskered bulbul
  40. Rose-ringed parakeet
  41. Sirkeer malkoha
  42. Spotted dove
  43. Stork-billed kingfisher (calls)
  44. Tawny-bellied babbler
  45. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  46. White-bellied drongo
  47. White-browed bulbul (calls)
  48. White-browed wagtail
  49. White-cheeked barbet (calls)
  50. White-rumped shama
  51. White-throated kingfisher
  52. Wire-tailed swallow
  53. Yellow-billed babbler
  54. Yellow-crowned woodpecker
  1. Bonnet macaque
  2. Chital
  3. Dhole
  4. Four-horned antelope (alarm calls)
  5. Grizzled giant squirrel
  6. Tufted langur
  7. Mugger
  8. Sambar (alarm calls)
  9. Sloth bear
  10. Southern tree shrew

Trip report: Yercaud, Sep ’16

Dates:                   30 Sep – 2 Oct ’16

Camp:                   Grange Resort

Grange is a picturesque resort surrounded by acres of coffee and pepper plantation.  Accommodation is in cottages that have sit-outs with very pleasant views. The ambience was quiet and peaceful, the weather was superb and the walks through the estate were very satisfying.

This was an office outing, but I was looking forward to the birding. The birding was far from impressive though, with just around twenty species sighted.

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The best experience was from the sit-out itself. Greater and Lesser flamebacks were both very common, sometimes settling on trees very close by if we stayed still and quiet. A pair (each) of Greater racket-tailed drongo and Indian treepie were constantly seen close to the cottage, sometimes at close range. It didn’t occur to me to attempt a photograph and I realized this only when VV asked me later on.

The building areas were home to a large (and noisy) number of Red-whiskered bulbul. These were occasionally joined by flocks of Oriental white-eye. Greenish leaf warbler were everywhere, although more heard than seen. Velvet-fronted nuthatch was sighted a few times. A flock of Jungle babbler made an occasional appearance.

A Crested serpent eagle called once, and Jungle owlet a few times. The latter called from the same location over the two days but was too far off the track to be located. I heard a couple of bird calls which I could not ID.

I was listening for calls at night – Grey nightjar, Mottled wood owl, Indian scops owl or Spotted owlet, but the only things heard were insects – cicadas and katydids possibly.

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This picturesque trail began virtually from the doorstep of my cottage (No. 15). We did birding walks along this trail morning and evening.

The walks yielded Rusty-tailed flycatcher, Greater coucal, White-cheeked barbet and Flowerpecker (Plain I think). One of my colleagues caught a fleeting glimpse of what sounded like the Painted bush quail from his description. I saw what I think was a Black-headed cuckooshrike. Our view was from below the bird, and while everything else tallied, the black on the neck and head was paler than you’d expect. One especially busy tree had a series of visitors – Ashy drongo, Golden-fronted leaf bird, Purple sunbird andOriental white-eye. A Magpie robin called once or twice, but was not seen.

We visited the National Orchidarium and Botanical Garden once hoping for some birding, but saw no birds. The orchid collection is impressive enough for those that fancy orchids I imagine. Most visitors seem to only notice the caged insectivorous pitcher plant though.

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The Grange resort boasts of an incredible history, the estate having been established in 1820 by a certain M.D. Cockburn, who also introduced coffee in the Shevaroy hills. The original building, which incidentally also served as a summer residence of Robert Clive still stands, although it could do with some upkeep. We were very keen on checking out the interiors, but the resort staff told us that the owner’s relatives lived there and it should be available for visitors in a few months’ time.

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Pic by Alex R.