A few hours in Delhi, a day in Agra… and already we felt exhausted. Crowd, traffic, pollution, it all added up for a massive and unpleasant cultural shock. Bring me back to the Subantarctic! Bring me back to Finland! There was a lot to see, of course, a lot to discover, but overall, I felt completely overwhelmed. It hadn’t taken long: just a few minutes after exiting the airport, the aggressions of taxi drivers had made me feel disorientated. Luckily, my parents and my two brothers had joined me soon after, and it’s as a family that we had started this Indian adventure.
Like I said, the cacophony of cities had taken its toll, and it’s with evident relief that we reached the Chambal Safari Lodge – Mela Kothi, in Jarar. We had just stepped through the entrance that we started to regret spending only a night in this welcoming compound. The sun shone, the birds chirped in the trees and the bougainvillea were in full bloom. Bliss.
We enjoyed a much satisfying lunch in the garden – pure air, no car horns sounding – but didn’t stay idle much longer, though the rooms looked comfortable enough for a relaxed stay. No, we had an appointment with crocodiles.
Mugger crocodiles (Crocodyles palustris) abound in the Chambal River, but our main target was of course the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). This very special crocodile armed with a thin snout and 110 sharp teeth is perfectly adapted to catch fish, its main diet. It’s also critically endangered. In 2006, only 182 mature individuals survived in the wild, a 96% decrease from 1946 – since then, populations have slowly recovered, helped with captivity breeding and reintroductions into the wild. Nevertheless, it now occupies a tiny portion of its original range, which spanned from the Indus to the Irrawady.
Nowadays, the National Chambal Sanctuary, a protected area more than 400-km long that extends from 1 to 6 filometers on the sides, thus including the Chambal “ravines”, is a shelter for the largest wild Gharial population.
In the Sanskrit mythology, the Chambal River was born from the blood of thousands of cows sacrificed by the Aryan ruler Rantideva. This grim origin myth may explain why people have usually kept clear of this area, thus making it one of the most pristine rivers in India. The Chambal ravines, a network of dry gullies that stretch from the river outwards, were a hideout for bandits (including Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi), and illegal sand digging has taken its toll, but thankfully the Chambal River escaped the heavy pollution that befell many water bodies of India. It stills remains a sanctuary for wildlife, including reptiles of all sizes, mammals and birds.
We embarked Bachchu, resident naturalist at the lodge, in the car, and drove to the river.
On the way, we crossed villages each poorer than the previous one, with bikes, rickshaws, pedestrians and cows mingling in an undescribable carnival of colours and noise. Fortunately, we didn’t have to do the driving, and we could focus on watching. Bachchu was highly knowledgeable about nature, history, local life, Indian society… he was also friendly and happy to answer all our questions, no matter the topic. Wildlife identification, the cast system in India, the holy status of cows there… we have all heard about that, but it was interesting to hear about it from an insider. Enjoy, explore, learn.
The sight of an Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) perched on top of a dead tree marked the beginning of wilderness, and from there, a winding road took us through the ravines to the river bank.
A local man drove the boat while our guide devoted himself to wildlife spotting. The Chambal River was so still in this warm evening, it was a completely different experience from our zodiac cruises in the subantarctic! I liked it.
From the first minute, it was clear that this sanctuary was a haven for reptiles but also for birds, and we had our first sightings in the wild of an iconic waterfowl, the Bar-headed goose (Anser indicus). This bird nests in Central Asia and winters directly south, flying over Himalayan passes in the process, and was a star in the documentary Le Peuple Migrateur (Winged migration) by Jacques Perrin, a movie that I loved as a kid.
Because the passes they go over are usually higher than 5000m, Bar-headed geese have adapted in various ways: muscles are better supplied with oxygen through denser and more homegenous capillary networks, lungs are larger (compared to other waterfolws) and their hyperventilation capacities are great when their tissues lack oxygen (aka in hypoxia situations). This fascinating paper showed that Bar-headed geese cross the Himalaya in about 8 hours, without using winds that could help them on the crossing. Birds are amazing!
As we moved upstream, a host of new animals were revealed to us: wagtails, storks, turtles, waders were in this mix of exotic, local species and migrants I was familiar with from birding times in Europe.
Then we saw the Mugger crocodiles, young animals maybe a meter long, sunbathing on the river banks. They did not move as our boat approached.
Our prime target didn’t make us wait long, and soon we had Gharials in sight as well. They came in all sizes, from the huge adult males that were maybe 4 or 5 meters long to the 50-cm-long one-year-old. Some dived on our approach, but we had splendid views nonetheless; often, they were a bit too close for my telelens!
Males have a boss at the end of the snout that ressembles an Indian pot called ghara, and they actually take their name from it. You can see it on the following picture, standing out of the water ahead of the eyes as the rest of the crocodile is submerged.
It was the first time I saw any kind of crocodile, and I was pretty impressed. Later, cows seeminlgy attempted to cross the river, then retreated. Bachchu explained that they wanted to cross, but they feared the crocs… it felt like I was in one of those documentaries I watched when I was a kid.
Other species we were super happy to see were the Golden jackal (Canis aureus), which turned out to be rather common, but we don’t get to see “wolves” that often in France, and the Jungle cat (Felis chaus), a much more furtive animal that our guide was pretty excited about.
On the way back, a squadron of Great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) flew over, en route to their night roost.
That was not the end of our adventures, for a Blackbuck safari was planned in the morning! Concretely, we drove at dawn to an agricultural land on the edge of the Chambal ravines and walked among the fields to observe these majestic antelopes. They are considered sacred by the local inhabitants, who don’t kill them when they see them in their fields but rather try to shoo them away.
We saw many more birds, including the splendid Indian courser (Cursorius coromandelicus), and I had to face a fact: I’m really into birds more than anything else. It’s not that I didn’t like the Blackbucks, I did, but when I had to choose between watching them more or try to get pictures of a dull grey bird, namely a Large grey babbler (Argya malcolmi), I didn’t even think about it and went for the bird. Odd, hey?
That’s how our phenomenal introduction to India’s nature ended. After another delicious lunch, we reluctantly drove away, even though our destination promised more marvels. Have you ever heard of Bharatpur?
To be continued… 😉
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