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Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Encounter with a Jaguar - Part 1

I have traveled to most of the forests in India namely the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Nagarahole National Park, BR Hills, Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, Ranthambore National Park, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve and Jim Corrbett. I was wondering what makes Pantanal in Brazil so special that most people around the world travel to South America to visit Pantanal. Honestly traveling to Pantanal was never my dream nor in my wish list, it was mere a coincidence I had to travel Brazil on business and this provided me the opportunity to visit Pantanal. Most of us are unaware of this place & invariably Kenya & Tanzania in Africa is the prime focal point in most wildlife destinations.

This is one reason why Pantanal is less known and is under severe threat. Pantanal is one of the most immense, pristine and biologically rich environments on the planet. Often referred to as the world’s largest wetland system, it extends through millions of hectares of central-western Brazil, eastern Bolivia and eastern Paraguay. With its extraordinarily concentrated and diverse flora and fauna, and a landscape spanning a variety of ecological sub-regions, the Pantanal stands as one of the world’s great natural wonders.

This area is an unparalleled wildlife sanctuary of spectacular beauty, an ecological paradise containing hundreds of species of birds, thousands of varieties of butterflies, myriads of brightly colored flowers, and shoals of fish. Capuchin and Howler monkeys, capybaras, toucans, anacondas, caimans and tapirs help create an aquatic and sylvan theater of sights and sounds. The endangered jaguar, and increasingly rare Hyacinthine macaws and giant river otters, all make their home in the Pantanal. The Pantanal also provides incalculable economic benefits. It offers a huge area for water purification and groundwater discharge and recharge, climate stabilization, water supply, flood abatement, and an extensive, transport system, among numerous other important functions. And yet, despite the region’s beauty and remarkable environmental and economic value, the Pantanal remains poorly unknown and faces an uncertain future stemming from a myriad of socioeconomic pressures. While the Pantanal remains comparatively untouched, without correct understanding, timely action and wise management, its future could be seriously compromised.

There have been so many images and stories to share from my Brazil trip; however I am not finding the time to process & compile them. Today finally the time has come to share the most awaited “My Encounters with Jaguar”. Having seen and photographed plenty of Tigers and Leopards in Indian forests, I was wondering what makes a Jaguar so special that people from all over the world travel to South America especially Pantanal in Brazil to just have a glimpse of this cat. 

It was Saturday the 24th Sept’11, I was on the boat safari ride and the time was around 12 noon, the boatman and my guide were insisting that we stop for lunch. It is quite obvious we start the day quite early at 5:30am with breakfast and one feels hungry by noon. We hadn’t spotted any Jaguars since morning and I knew that I didn’t have all the time in the world, was here for a short stay in Pantanal, I requested that we take another round on the three brothers rivers & then break for lunch. As we were heading towards the three brothers river, suddenly a capybara from the bank that was on our right, jumped into the river. The capybara swam across and started making loud sounds. I told my guide that it’s an alarm call, to my surprise he wasn’t aware what an alarm call is? My experience in Indian forests helped me to understand the situation better.

Capybara is the largest living rodent in the world; its main diet is grass and vegetation. They belong to the wild pig family and of course cousins of wild pig. Coincidentally capybaras are the favorite meal for Jaguars, Caimans (Crocodile) & to the dangerous Anacondas. I was 100% sure that the capybara had seen the Jaguar somewhere in the bushes hence the alarm calls. Later this capybara joined a small group of other capybaras who also got cautioned hearing the alarm calls, they all were looking in one direction, as seen in the image.

Now my guide and boatman too were convinced that somewhere a Jaguar is hiding. Choku my guide used a powerful binocular and managed to spot the elusive cat. But how can I photograph this cat behind the bushes, sharing the image just that you get an idea how this beauty was nicely camouflaged & hiding.

All this while our motor boat engine was switched off, now since we spotted the Jaguar from a distance we had to start the engine to move in closer. The boat movement was in our favor as the Jaguar too started to move behind the bushes on the edge of the river bank. I remember I had only 3 or 4 occasions when he came out partially in the open I took the opportunity to shoot few images. The sighting lasted only for few minutes and the Jaguar again disappeared into the bushes. Believe me it isn’t easy to shoot in a moving boat, but fortunately I managed few decent shots. We waited for a while, but with temperature almost ~40 degree Celsius chances of Jaguar coming out were almost nil.

Without wasting much time I celebrated this sighting by having a chilled SKOL:), a Brazilian beer and we then proceeded to have our packed lunch. What happens post lunch is very unique and even more interesting, but unfortunately you have to wait for some time. I will share it soon, so stay tuned!

How does one differentiate between a Jaguar and a Leopard?

While the Jaguar closely resembles the Leopard, it is sturdier and heavier, and the two animals can be distinguished by their rosettes, the rosettes on a jaguar's coat are larger, fewer in number, usually darker, and have thicker lines and small spots in the middle that the leopard lacks. Jaguars also have rounder heads and shorter, stockier limbs compared to leopards. Unlike other big cats, jaguars kill prey by crushing the spinal column and must have a much stronger bite in order to do so. This means that the shape of their skull is unique among the cat species. As a result, they have the strongest bite-force of any member of the cat family--even stronger than lions and tigers. The jaguar weighs twice as much on average than a leopard. A fully grown male jaguar can even weigh up to 160 kilograms almost equivalent to a Tiger.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

In Search of a Malabar Pit Viper

Sensing our presence - Malabar Pit Viper
 Inspired by Austin Stevens - a Herpetologist, a great photographer and film maker too, I admire him most for his famous documentary on Animal Planet “In Search of the King Cobra” that was filmed entirely in the Western Ghats, India.

Here I share my experience going after a very rare, venomous Snake known as the ‘Malabar Pit Viper.’  These are nocturnal snakes & mostly active in the night and is spotted only during monsoons. I had two choices to make for high probability of spotting these snakes, one at Agumbe and other at Amboli.  At Agumbe accommodation is available only at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station and one needs to book it well in advance, Unfortunately I didn’t make any bookings, so I had no option but to travel to Amboli.
Way to Heaven

Amboli, a biodiversity hotspot for some rare Amphibians and Reptiles is a hill station in south Maharashtra State. At an altitude of 690 meters it is the last hill station before the coastal highlands of Goa and a relatively unexplored one. Just an hour’s drive from Belgaum - my hometown, Amboli is Maharashtra’s Cheerapunji & the wettest place in the state. Historically, Amboli village came into being as one of the staging posts along the road from Vengurla port to the city of Belgaum, which was extensively used by the British to supply their garrisons in south and central India.

We had made are our stay arrangements at Whistling Woods, a small homestay run by Hemant Ogale, Owner cum Naturalist/Guide and a photographer too. The accommodation was quite comfortable and the food was awesome. We ordered Non-Veg Malavani Thali, a simple meal but very delicious that consists  of Sol Kadi a special konkan appetizer made of Kokam and Cocount milk and excellent for digestion, it also acts as strong antacid agent, Chapatis, Chicken Curry and Steam Rice. In addition we had ordered Fried Fish, a konkan style fry can't get any better.

Owl Eyed Moth

Our forest trail was on foot in search of these rare species, the trail began at 9:30pm and was expected to end at 2am. With dense mist around the visibility was down to less than 5 feet. I knew one wrong step during the forest trail could lead to fatal bite by one of these snakes of Western Ghats, so I was prepared with protective foot wear, in addition a powerful torch, rain gear for my camera equipment’s and most importantly a high intensity external Flash light for my Camera. The area is highly populated with Leeches so I had to be mentally prepared to lose a minimum 100ml of blood too. However I had applied Eucalyptus oil on my feet, it is believed that it works as a repellant to insects and leeches too.

Green Vine Snake
Our first encounter was a rare moth known as Owl Eyed Moth; I was amazed to see this one for the first time and managed to make some images. It is only now I realized how difficult and little I knew about photographing at night, of course one challenge was there was no natural sources of light. As we trekked further a Green Vine Snake was spotted, luckily a mildly poisonous snake, this guy was coiled & resting on a branch, waiting for a prey. This is typical strategy of the snakes that camouflage themselves and strike on tree frogs or reptiles once they are within the striking range of say 1-2 feet.

In a mood to strike - Malabar Pit Viper
We walked further deep into the forest, the mist was even denser, I was really nervous, my friend Prashant had almost decided to back off from this trail, he was not feeling too well. However I managed to convince him “We do it Now or Never”. We proceeded further, as we walked through the bushes water droplets fell on us and every time we felt as if some insect or a lizard jumped on us. 

Hitler Bug
We continued our trail and suddenly Hemant whispered Stop!,  he said he spotted a Malabar Pit Viper, my heart started beating fast, and I could barely see Hemant in the thick mist. I asked him where he spotted; he beamed his torch onto a small branch, I beamed my torch too on the same branch. Wow! What an amazing snake this is, he was nicely coiled to the branch. Without wasting any time I started taking some shots with my MACRO lens, in the excitement I moved in too close and this guy was getting edgy so started hissing with his tongue out. I was lucky to shoot this image as well, I didn’t back off and I could see him taking a position as if he will strike any moment. The normal striking distance for these snakes is 1-1.5 feet and I was about 4-5 feet. And also Vipers are quite intelligent and don’t unnecessarily strike on humans and lose their precious venom; instead save it for their prey like frogs or Gecko’s that can be part of their large diet.
There was another drama to this, due to excitement I moved in so close that I had to almost get in to the bushes and believe me my friend screamed that there is another snake right on top of my head. I stayed unmoved, in the meantime Hemant our Naturalist whispered that it is a Cat Snake and non-venomous, he requested us not to panic. I have some image of the Cat Snake but not that great as I couldn’t get him in the right focus.

The Bull Frog
It had rained quite heavily and was still drizzling but believe me we were sweating, I pulled out a water bottle from my bag pack, what a relief to sip up water in such situations. After a while we encountered a Bull Frog, he was quietly sitting in the water that was collected due to rains. I believe the Bull frog has the same status and given equal importance as that of a Tiger as regards to its conservation. It is listed in the highly 
endangered species.

Wrinkled Frog
Now Hemant wanted us to walk a few yards in a water stream, honestly in such pitch darkness walking in the stream was really dangerous. But he was very keen to show us another rare species of Frog known as the Wrinkled Frog. He said monsoon is high breeding season so chances of this frog near the water streams are extremely high.

Fresh Eggs laid by Wrinkled Frog
My friend Prashant refused to walk further; his feet were hurting, he was seriously having a shoe bite. However I pushed him hard and he agreed to move on. On our way we a saw a Crab Mating Couple, I was fortunate to get some good images. And as expected by Hemant, we spotted the Winkled frog, initially she was on the leaf and had laid fresh eggs and we could also see the tadpoles that would hatch anytime. When tadpoles have finished developing inside the eggs, they wriggle out of the egg-jelly and fall in the water below, where they develop further. I salute Mother Nature who has created such a wonderful Ecosystem.

We walked back from the water stream and continued our amazing forest trail in the wilderness, I was happy to learn about the Amphibians and was eager to come here again so I asked Hemant what is the best time to visit, he replied that end of June or 1st week July is ideal season for studying and spotting these rare species. 
Waiting for his prey - Bamboo Pit Viper
Triangle Head - Malabar Pit Viper
We walked further and spotted another rare species of a snake known as the Bamboo Pit Viper. I was so happy to see such beautiful species that too in pitch darkness, of course photographing them was a real challenge. I managed few decent shots of Bamboo Pit Viper and our luck continued as we spotted plenty of Green Vine Snakes, Cat Snakes and finally we again got a Malabar Pit Viper in the open.

Deccan Banded Gecko
This time this guy was resting on a small branch that had fallen due to heavy rains and as usual waiting for his prey, I managed few close head shots, as close as 1ft. Further there was another highlight of this trail; a Deccan Banded Gecko was spotted on the road. Again this is the first time ever I saw this species, I fell flat on the road to get some low angle shots, and this guy was very cooperative and gave me plenty of opportunities to shoot at a very close range.

Curious Gecko
Malabar Pit Viper
The time was almost 1:30am and we decided to head back to whistling woods, I thanked Hemant Ogale for being such an excellent guide but told him that we missed one more rare species to spot that is endemic to rainforest and this region; it’s the Malabar Gliding or Flying Frog. Hemant smiled at me and replied that it is difficult to spot it in the forest, however he said there is chance that we may see it within his property.

Malabar Gliding or Flying Frog
I was game for it, as it was our last and final chance to try our luck; we beamed our torches on the tree branches and bushes, no sight of this beauty. Finally Hemant took us to his backyard where he had natural water well, there was a diagonal branch leading from a tree lying low above the well and believe me friends the Malabar Gliding Frog was nicely perched on it. A vibrant green frog with red color between its toes, what a beauty she is, fortunately there was another one perched high up on the branches. The term “flying frog” refers to its ability to break their fall by stretching the webbing between their toes when making leaps down from the treetops. It can make gliding jumps of 9-12 meters, a maximum of about 115 times its length.

This was the first time ever I tried a forest trail at night that too on foot, it was just out of the world and an amazing experience of my life. I plan to do such trips again in future, if you are interested you may wish to join me, and also please do leave your comments, feedback and suggestions on the blog.

Disclaimer – If you wish to do such trails request that you take precautionary measures as advised by a qualified guide/naturalist, it is just not about venomous snakes but we have records of some frogs being highly poisonous too. Please do not venture into the forest on your own.