The Bazookas of Kabini

Visits to Kabini began in May 2012, initially as a one-off visit. Yesterday we returned from our 6th visit to that place. So much of it is the same, and yet so much different. We now know many of the naturalists, and they recognise us. Even then, every year it’s a different experience, bringing its own set of birds and animals. And even humans in the form of other guests. Sometimes even that trend is bucked and we start noticing people who had been seen in earlier trips, and their idiosyncrasies. And usually hoping we don’t end up with them in the same jeep.

Given its high density of Tigers and leopards, and that prized catch – the solitary Black Panther, Kabini sees a high density of ‘Bazookas’. A Bazooka is anyone, usually male, who has a camera attached to a large lens. The camera is usually a single digit Canon, or equivalent Nikon, and the lenses would be in 600mm usually. Despite the differences in brand, model or lenses, all Bazookas are united in one thing – they want to see big cats, and only big cats. They would be doing regular trips on forest safaris, but they always want big cats, and in different variations – a big cat sitting, or a big cat marking, a big cat posing with forelimbs on a mound, big cat in water, big cat drinking water, big cat resting on the ground looking at the camera with mouth open.

Continue reading “The Bazookas of Kabini”

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Water birds (Kabini stories – 3)

The thing about Kabini is the presence of the backwaters all over the place. This throws up interesting vistas and also behaviours.  Like the first evening, where there were herds and herds of spotted deer along the backwaters threading different points. And an imminent sunset.

Sunset, Kabini

Continue reading “Water birds (Kabini stories – 3)”

Leopard crossing (Kabini Stories – 2)

The morning of Feb 29th we were to report at the common area at around 6:15 AM. When we left our tent it was around 6.20 AM and none of the other tents had any lights on. Naturally, we felt that we were going to be the first to be there. Turns out it was the other way around and we were the last to turn up. IST did not apply here. This meant that we got split up in the jeep, with Anand having to sit in the back with 2 others who were clearly not happy to share, and me and Sharad having to split the couple in the front row and move the wife to the shotgun seat. We chugged along, but with split up parties and parties with strangers next to them, conversation was generally subdued.

There wasn’t much to sight, as we were in Zone ‘A’. There are two zones there – ‘A’ and ‘B’ split by the highway in the middle. You go to the right of the highway and it’s ‘A’ where there is no river or backwaters. ‘B’ is mostly along the river backwaters side and the sightings are higher. ‘A’ generally gets boring, but you can be surprised by a big one at times. Most people with big bazooka lenses like ‘A’.

Continue reading “Leopard crossing (Kabini Stories – 2)”

Elephant herds (Kabini Stories – 1)

It’s not often that you come back from a safari brimming with stories. There are elephants to report, or big cats, seldom both, and this time with birds added in. I don’t want to cause wildlife fatigue on my blog with just one post to cover them all, so will split them into multiple ones, 3, or maybe 4, in fact. Although, this might actually cause the fatigue am trying to avoid.

Feb-March is the time when elephants congregate at the Kabini backwaters from all around Southern Karnataka. They come from Bandipur, they come from nearby Nagarhole, they travel from Kodagu and Chikmagaluru, many from Hassan. The reason is the same why elephant congregations happen around the world – water. The Kabini backwaters become the main source for the next 3 months until the Monsoons arrive.

One could expect clashes and fights,  but this is mostly a getting together of old friends and relatives. A herd of elephants in the wild is typically just 3 adult cows with calves being reared. But here they form bigger herds, not one super herd, that stays together. So you see around 6-8 elephants together as one herd unlike the usual 3. I don’t know what’s the largest size recorded is.

The day we reached there though, most elephants had disappeared. Even the backwaters saw one lone majestic Makhna grazing by the river. A ‘Makhna’ is a bull that does not have tusks. Why they don’t have is not known, but given the way poaching works, elephants might evolve to having no tusks to survive. It’s not for no reason that no elephant poaching happens in Sri Lanka. They don’t have any tuskers at all, all bulls are Makhnas. It has also been seen that tusks don’t provide any advantage in fighting off rivals. The one in musth typically wins.
  
Anyhow, this bull stayed around us, letting us click some photos and also observe him for a while. His ears seem to have been torn, maybe some fight with another elephant. The way they graze is usually to pull up grass using their legs and then using their trunks to pull it to their mouths. That’s what he was doing too. When you see a bunch of elephants doing that, it looks like they are dancing.

Makhna elephant
Makhna Bull
Continue reading “Elephant herds (Kabini Stories – 1)”

The elephants at Kabini

The worst thing about Kabini is always the part about checking out. After my fourth annual visit, I almost feel at home there, knowing the schedule, those familiar faces, the paths etc. As were were heading by the river, I described to the naturalist where we’d seen the tiger, from where it had crossed, and where it had gone. “When was this?” he asked. “Feb 6th last year.” I answered without needing to consult any dates. Of course, I was slightly wrong on the dates and it was the 9th of Feb last year, but the point remains. I can say that the first visit was in May 2012, around the 15th, the second in Jan 2013, around the 20th and the fourth now, Feb 2015 on the 28th. Even with Bandipur, the dates are almost etched in memory, at least approximately – April 22 2011, Oct 25 2012, Dec 23rd 2013 and Nov 1st 2014.

This time around, we started out on the evening one, at 3:45 PM, me and Anand in the back row and a bunch of 4 guys, 3 in the front row and one sitting with us. “There is a call” said the Naturalist and stopped the jeep, looking for a big cat. “Elephants” I announced, having spotted them far away. After a few minutes of waiting for the Tiger to turn up, and noting that the deer in the vicinity were pretty chilled out, he announced that we’d be turning back and going to the other side of a river backwater. I was slightly disappointed at missing out on the elephants and was hoping this wasn’t going to be one of those safaris where you constantly chase big cats while ignoring every other mammal and at the end you end up with nothing. We approached the river backwater from the other side.

Again I announced “elephants.” and then almost cried out “And a calf!”. Am pretty calm during these safaris, keeping silent all the time, but for some reason I felt we were onto something. Right at the banks were standing 2 elephants, and a tiny calf. “Pretty tiny” I said. “Around a week old, must be” said the Naturalist. Younger, I felt. A few minutes later, he revised it – “3-4 days old” I think. The calf was too tiny, wide-eyed and with very little control over her trunk. All this made for some fun viewing. But later I had to agree with his estimate that she was around 4 days to a week old. She was able to use her trunk to suckle milk from her mother. (Am using ‘she’ as ‘it’ seems odd, and for some reason I kept referring to the calf as a she right when viewing, even without any idea of the sex of the calf.) The calf was around her mother and her aunt. The matriarch stood behind, with her back to these two. “She’s pregnant” I noted. The naturalist nodded. So there might be one more next visit?
Elephants Kabini

Elephant Kabini
The calf and the older ones drifted into the water, the calf keeping her trunk up. The older ones waded in as they swam across to reach the other bank, closer to where we stood.
Elephants Kabini

The engine was off and we stood there, watching them, not a word passing, me trying not to foolishly shed tears. Thankfully it worked and I only ended up having a grin of childish wonder.

Elephants Kabini

Elephants Kabini
They climbed out of the water. The aunt nudging the little one out with her trunk. The mother poured sand all over herself. The calf then played all around her legs before using her trunk to get to her teats. The mother kept moving to graze interrupting the poor little one who wasn’t discouraged. We stood there for a while, just hanging around the calf, her mother and aunt. They stopped taking notice of us and went on with whatever they were doing.

Elephants Kabini
After a while, we drove back to the other side which we had left from. The Matriarch stood there grazing keeping an eye out on us. She sure was pregnant. A tusker ambled around. Might’ve been an adolescent son, on the verge of being kicked out of the herd.

Elephants Kabini
The little one continued to fool around on the other side. Sometimes we heard a trumpet of two as she tried to figure out the range of uses of her trunk, or maybe something got into it and she had to blow it out.

We hung around for another 5-10 minutes this side, not feeling like leaving their presence. For a brief while, time came to a halt and everything was great with the world.

The langurs

Chitals and Langurs are among the first you see at the start of any safari in the South. The naturalist and the driver usually dismiss them with a “Common”, “We’ll see a lot more of them later”. That later is usually reserved for the time when the engine is killed and you’re waiting for a big cat in a frequented spot, or when you’re almost at the end of the safari and there isn’t any chance of a big one. Most jump up the trees, giving you a tree full of langurs at different branches. Some hang around on dead branches eyeing you or looking around bored. These latter are the ones that interest me the most. They have expressive faces which are difficult to capture because of the black face in the middle of that grey fur. But almost every time I do manage to capture at least one of them in an interesting pose.

After an eventless morning driving around the Nagarahole reserve near Kabini, with only Sambhar deer as the interesting mammals, we reached a patch at the fag end where three langurs were digging into the ground. “Salt licks” announced the naturalist. After capturing those we drove on further and stopped near another group. There was one who sat there with her child, wary of us, but not looking directly. After a few seconds, she seemed to have decided that we were not threats and her eyes went all over the place. But her little one continued to look at the jeep. This capture happened at that time. Was pleasantly surprised to note that the little one was looking straight at my lens in one. In the other, the Mother is looking straight up and the kid gazing away, which combined with the log on which they were sitting, made for a nice composition.

Click on the pics to enlarge in the viewer.

The first sighting

Bandipur, October 2012:

We drove along to a spot which a Tiger was known to frequent. We had been charged at and chased away by a herd of elephants. “Gowri”, they called her. We turned up and she wasn’t there. The entourage included a bunch of hot-shot photographers. (A hot-shot photographer is one who carries a lens that needs a hold of its own and has paid more than 1L for it.) One of them showed us pics of the Tiger shot earlier. “Ever seen a Tiger before in the wild?” he asked. We shook our heads. “The first sighting is something you’ll never forget” he promised.

Kabini, January 2013:

After a morning safari filled with drama, nerves and heightened expectations, we had returned to camp with zero sightings. The entourage included two other middle-aged hot-shot photographers. We also heard that Gowri, the Tiger from Bandipur had died a few days back after a fight with another male. The photographers joined us for breakfast and I cribbed that I had been looking for a Tiger for the last two years and hadn’t found one. The more talkative of the two listened patiently and answered “Do you know how long I had to wait for my first Tiger sighting?”, he paused for attention “10 years!”, he said. “I remember complaining about it once and another person, senior to me said it took him 25 years to sight one. It doesn’t come easy.”

Kaziranga, November 2013:

This was the last safari of the trip and a guy in the jeep was hoping for a Tiger. I told him the story of the photographer who waited 10 years for his first sighting. This was only his first Safari trip. And just like that, he ducked. By the time the rest of the folks turned, it was gone, into the bushes.

Bandipur, December 2013:

We spot pug-marks, we follow pug-marks. It eludes. But, we spot a leopard for the first time.

Kabini, February 2014:

There’s no hint of a tiger, although the chart says that a Tiger , 3 leopards and a pack of Dhole were spotted just that morning. This time the Safari includes elderly foreigners. Their last day and they’ve spotted leopards but not a Tiger yet. The Safari starts in the heat, barely yielding anything. There are no elephants, no Gaur, just chital. Slowly things start emerging: An Indian Roller, a Malabar Giant Squirrel that actually stays out and still, posing for photos. A mongoose is seen, a Serpent Eagle and a Snake Darter swims out of the water and suns itself.

Snake Darter Continue reading “The first sighting”