The Conservationist’s Battleground

It’s just past midday and in the 35 degree heat, we drive along the National Highway-29 with an expanse of wild floodplain to our north and forested highlands to our south. As we pass a small, one-man roadside fortification, a shooting post, we are told about this area’s ever-present war. This is not just a deterrent where untrained local militia shoot at an intruder’s feet to ward them off. Someone was fatally shot here the previous night, as they are every few weeks.

‘The Pride of Assam’ roams the Kaziranga National Park we had just exited. With an alleged higher potency than the horns of its African counterpart, it is in particularly high demand in Asian countries, especially Vietnam, where it is used as a supposed cure for cancer. Its value is highlighted by the risks the poachers will take to harvest it. Approximately the same number of people are killed by the anti-poaching force each year as their quarry are by poachers: the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros.

The Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, also known as the Indian Rhinoceros, is one of five rhino species worldwide, with three being found in Asia. Every species has experienced declines.

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Adult female Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park

The Javan Rhinoceros is one of the rarest large mammals in the world. It used to be widespread in south-east Asia, with its range stretching from the Sunderbans in east India, east to the Vietnam coast and south to Central Java. Now, only around 120 years  since it first became locally extinct in India, the sole remaining population inhabits the Ujung Kulon National Park. The park has an area of 1200 square kilometres, of which about a third is marine and supports as few as 60 Javan Rhinos.

The Sumatran Rhinoceros is only slightly less rare. It once had a similar range to the Javan Rhinoceros, and although it didn’t inhabit Vietnam, it was found in Borneo, where one of the four or five populations is located. Although there are more individual populations than the Javan Rhinoceros, these are tiny and probably add up to fewer than 100 individuals.

Fortunately, the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros is approaching 4000 individuals having almost doubled over the past couple of decades. Despite this, as with the other two species we have looked at, the distribution has decreased from a wide band ranging from Pakistan to the easternmost point of India to several scattered pockets in south Nepal, West Bengal and along the Brahmaputra River in Assam; and there is a chance there is a population in the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.

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One of the first rhinos we saw in Kaziranga National Park

The increase in the population of this species is at least partly due to the work of anti-poachers around the populations of this rhino, particularly around the national parks where many of the rhinos live. Nepal is an excellent example where the holy grail of zero-poaching has actually been achieved, where several very popular species in the markets of Vietnam and other East Asian countries such as Tiger, Asian Elephant and Rhinos live. With almost a quarter of the country assigned as national parks and other protected areas such as Bardiya NP and Chitwan NP, where I was lucky enough to see both Tiger and Rhino several years ago, and a huge commitment from the authorities, it has illustrated that the war against poaching doesn’t have to be an insurmountable battle.

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Inhabitants of the many river sandbanks along the Brahmaputra River. In some places such as near Chitwan National Park, children are being educated about conservation with projects such as Eco Clubs in schools.

In my opinion Kaziranga National Park and other areas in India which support the Greater One-horned Rhino may soon realise the abolition of poaching. If the anti-poaching rangers continue risking their lives to save this magnificent animal, and other approaches such as monitoring and education continue to be implemented, then this rhino may just survive and perhaps even prosper.

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Mother and calf on the misty plains of elephant-grass.

 

 

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Thick-headed

At the end of March I had the good fortune to be able to visit North-east India for a few weeks. For the first part of our trip, we stayed at the Sunderban Jungle Camp on the edge of the Indian Sunderban Tiger Reserve. Each day we would take a boat and explore the unique habitat of the mangroves and hope to find some of the special species that inhabit it.

Luckily we had several great sightings of restricted-range birds in particular, such as Brown-winged Kingfisher. This species is restricted to the mangroves on the coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea from Odisha to the southern tip of Myanmar. It was one of six Kingfisher species encountered in the Sunderbans, surely the Kingfisher capital of the Indian subcontinent.

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Brown-winged Kingfisher

Although my personal highlight was not the intricate beauty and variety of the many kingfishers seen, but the drab Grey Thickhead. Unsurprisingly this is not the modern accepted vernacular name for this species, although it is the literal translation of the Mangrove Whistler’s scientific name, Pachycephala cinerea. Although is is unclear to me what warranted their scientific name, the genus appears to me to be just like typical flycatchers albeit with a slightly broader bill and perhaps chunkier. However it is not the appearance that drew me to this species, but the melodic song.

The voice of the Mangrove Whistler rises high and proud above the accompanying chorus of the mangroves. It consists of a series of tuneful notes which crescendo to a concluding flourish which is audible even above the din of the motorboat as it chugs along down the wide mangrove channels.

Having heard the distinctive tune, our guide Sujan ordered our boat to be stopped at the edge of the mangroves near where the whistler was whistling. To him it sounded abnormally close, the species usually prefers to remain deep within the mangrove forest without access by boat. This is why they are very tricky to see in the Sunderbans: walking is forbidden due to the danger of tigers. So when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that I was very privileged.

The small nondescript bird flew up to a convenient perch on one of the higher mangrove bushes along the river. From there it began to sing, occasionally switching position but almost constantly in view for several minutes. So hard to find, so unexpected that this species wasn’t even on our trip checklist – a cumulative list from around 9 years of running this trip with 2 or 3 trips a year. Our guide has the honour of having seen over 1100 species of birds in India, yet the elusive thickhead only 5 or 6 times before.

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The Mangrove Whistler sitting dignified on its mangrove perch

Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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