India is a land of contradiction. It is a sub-continent but just a country also. It is the world’s biggest democracy yet the caste system still operates. It will soon have the largest population in the world yet wildlife is still abundant (but threatened). Its people are some of the kindest, nicest and friendliest on earth, yet desperate things are done by the poor to earn more money from begging and ‘honour’ killings (over disapproved marriages) is still common and women do not have equal rights.
India is not a colonial country any more, but more than any other country of the former British Empire it clings to those traditions. It was after all ‘the jewel in the crown’. A great deal of colonial rule was wrong and oppressive, but it did do some good in setting up a good road and rail infrastructure and placing the seeds of a democratic society for when it became independent. The worse thing colonial rule did here and elsewhere was to segregate people and lands into separate countries according to religion. Without integration there can be no understanding and without understanding there can be no acceptance, it will forever be ‘them and us’. However this is not a political piece, it is a piece about the country’s wildlife and the practicalities that need to be considered during a trip to see that wildlife.
So, where to begin, a short article like this cannot hope to cover the subject except in the most cursory way. However, I will try to give my best impression of this busy, vibrant and chaotic country.
Geographically, the land it has everything! India is located mostly within the northern tropics with its most northern part in the subtropics (tropics: area of the earth at which the suns rays can strike perpendicularly). It is in shape roughly triangular, with its broader northern part set in the foothills and mountains of the Himalayas (including the Karakoram and other ranges) Kangchenjunga 8,586m being the highest peak. Here snows are frequent in winter. The snow and rain from these mountains and the higher ones beyond create great rivers and these rivers flood the lands extensively when the cyclones from the Indian ocean bring moisture laden air which creates the annual monsoons between late May until September in the south and from July to October in the north. Also in the north east is the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh area which is virtually cut off from the rest of India being connected only by a thin strip of the country. In this region are the low conical hills of the Patkai range. Immediately south of the mountains is a flat area of boulders and alluvium with many rivers known as the Terai. This belt is heavily covered with Sal Shorea robusta forest and receives ample rain year-round.
The rivers (main ones being the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus) thread through the largest area of alluvial plains on earth. This fertility of the land of the Northern Plains, is due to the flooding rivers, and here several crops (of rice mostly) a year can be grown. Fish are farmed in the paddies as the rice grows providing valuable protein to supplement the carbohydrates of the rice.
The western side of the country is the Rajasthan Desert (Thar Desert) known to birders because Keoladeo (Bharatpur) Reserve is located on its eastern edge. This region is very hot with little rain and extends westwards beyond India into Pakistan.
In the central south of India is the Deccan Plateau, still a fairly arid scrubby area. To the west of this and inland but parallel to the coast are the Western Ghats or mountains, which have distinct wet and dry periods but have a pleasant climate for much of the year. On the east side of the plateau are the lower, broken inland mountains of the Eastern Ghats, which barely rise above 1,000m. The coastal plains are wider in the east. The south east (Madras) is very hot and receives very heavy rains.
With such a huge population, over a billion and rising, every scrap of land is utilised, where the land is not intensively cultivated, it is used for fruit growing, and if too arid for even this, its meagre vegetation is grazed by white cattle and goats. Vast conurbations where large cities merge seemingly imperceptibly with their surrounding satellite towns take up other land. The paradox is that wherever there is any hint of greenery or marginal land wildlife abounds. Why should this be? It seems the overriding reason is that in this country unlike virtually all others, wildlife is not persecuted for pleasure or for profit and on a day-to-day basis. In short all animals and plants are inherently respected here and this respect is largely passed on through the 2 main religions of Hinduism (Hindus 80% of the population) and Islam (Muslim 13%) with Buddhism accounting for less than 1%, except in Sri Lanka where Buddhist account for 70% of the population. Even trees are respected and revered to a level seldom known in the west, and individual trees can take on the status of almost being sacred. This is especially true of the Banyan Tree Ficus benghalensisthe national tree of India where it is known as Bar or Bargad. This tree grows in towns and provides welcome shade as well as medicinal products.
Depending upon religion there can be any number of sacred animals, some revered as gods by one religion and yet eaten by another. Thus, the cow is holy to Hindus but eaten widely by everyone else. The Elephant is holy to Buddhists and depicted as Ganesh. Around India it is therefore common to see even in city centres cows and elephants wandering around and browsing off stalls, at one place being lightly shoed away and at another being hit with a stick and pushed. I well remember one elephant nonchalantly lying in the middle of the road at a very busy intersection as blissfully unconcerned by the noise, fumes, traffic and general near-pandemonium that is India’s daily life. The Indian drivers equally unconcerned by an elephant in the junction adopted it as a makeshift roundabout, which would have made sense except that this being India drivers took the shortest route around whether that be clockwise or anti-clockwise. And of course again this being India nobody looked either way before entering the roundabout, because as with anything else in life, it is God’s will whether you crash or not and you should trust and accept God’s judgement. It is no wonder India has the highest official road traffic accident rate in the world!
Indian vehicles are invariably old, underpowered and small by western standards. Many are made by buying engines in and home producing the chassis such as with the popular Tata brand which have Mercedes derived engines. Tata have been building their indestructible trucks since 1954. Most vehicles are gaily coloured and well customised in garish ornaments like over-burden Christmas trees. Much of these adornments are religious in nature and they are often surrounded with vast amounts of gold decor, mirrors and pictures of family. The decorations are often so heavy that they even hinder the safety of the driver by nearly totally blocking their view through the windscreen, but who needs to see when God is watching over you and your extremely religious passage! Yes the typical Indian driver is very bad, but fortunately his vehicle is invariable small, slow and underpowered and the traffic usually ensures a slow pace. Just to add to the already chaotic driving conditions of cars, lorries, bicycles and flagrant disregard for road rule there are thousands of pedal rickshaws and even more auto rickshaws or tuk tuks. Rickshaws are 3 wheeled vehicles with motorcycle controls and a screaming two-stroke engine. They have a single front seat for the driver and a small rear bench for 2 or possibly 3 passengers, and they usually have a cloth roof. Being small, they can weave through heavy traffic often at a frantic pace and in all directions. These will often be your cheapest and easiest form of transport, and the hair-raising rides can be fun once you trust the drivers lightening reactions.
If Indian roads are suicidal by day they are doubly worse at night, especially where there is no light. We aborted night driving on our very first attempt as we left Delhi, when we came across roadworks. These roadworks were unlit, not so much of a problem had our headlights been working (we only had side lights) there were no signs, it was pitch dark and instead of road cones there were only huge boulders, which we very nearly crashed into. We negotiated this but a little further on were once again virtually stopped at a ‘truckstop’, an impromptu gathering of trucks parked for the night, but unlike in any other country the trucks here stopped right in the middle of the road and their occupants camped next to their trucks to safeguard their cargoes. This meant anything smaller than a tuk tuk could not get through and everything else had to stop. The lorry drivers clearly knew it was reckless for them to drive at night, especially after working/driving all day and stopped, besides most lorries did not have fully working or bright lights so it was not possible for them to continue anyway. The first lorries had only just stopped and we squeezed past, only to have several near misses with unlit cyclists, and decided that was enough night driving in India for one lifetime and headed for the nearest hotel. The Holiday Resort Inn promised swimming pools, golf courses and bar, there were large murals on the walls of western families depicting these activities in joyful sunshine. We would have been happy if just the bar was true but sadly all we got were filthy rooms with grotty beds. We headed out to find a bar and found one selling Pink Pelican beer which was bright pink and tasted ok.
Next morning as we drove on the roadworks of the day before got worse with holes everywhere and boulders all around. Eventually at one enormous hole we came across a truck that had crashed in and snapped in half and the driver, who was dead, was just being removed from the cab. The workmen seemed more concerned about how to get the truck out the steep sided hole without machinery, than about the dead man. But obviously he had died because it was God’s will.
A word about hire cars. We thought we had hired a Nissan Primera until we arrived at the well know car hire place in Delhi centre and we proudly handed the keys to an Austin Premier or some such. This was a 1960 designed car, available in black, that was still going strong in India. It was tiny and though 5 of us could squeeze in just about, we could only get 3 bags in the tiny boot. After heated words over a couple of hours with the manager, he eventually gave us the only car capable of fitting all of us and our bags in (just), his Suzuki Jeep! Most lights did not work and we broke down twice (both minor) but it was a good vehicle. Driving in India, even if your nerves can stand it, it is not advisable to drive yourself as road signs are poor or non-existent especially in rural areas. There are no motorways so progress is slow and the best advice would be to go with a tour operator or hire a vehicle (preferably 4x4) and driver if you can afford it.
There are often problems in India for the tourist of one sort or another, be it mechanical, bureaucratic or just a case of finding directions. Fortunately many people speak English as a second language and just about anyone who has been to college speaks it (as in any other country, since by far most of the scientific papers published are in English). Indians are very helpful and resourceful and it is seldom you will be left totally stuck. However, with Indian traffic and the small but ever present possibility of serious illness it is essential you have good travel insurance.
Changing money was always an odd business in Indian banks. None of the banks then had ATMs or computers or even calculators, and were run with just an abacus and mountains of paperwork. The queues were invariably teeming out the doors and never seemed to move, but at least when we started to queue we were often spotted and brought to the front for relatively quick service. The tourist foreign money was undoubtedly the reason for this VIP treatment. At the time of our visit there were about 50 rupees to £1. It is now around 36 rupees to £1 and prices will continue to rise as India’s economy continues to boom and people get more affluent. In truth to change money it was always far easier to change money on the black market on the streets, at the same rates as the banks. It was always easy to find out at the hotel who could change money.
Places to Stay are easy to find, but vary enormously in quality and price, always look at several places and if cheaper accommodation is wanted look down side streets. Elsewhere especially in tourist areas there will be no difficulty finding somewhere to stay however you may have to shop harder to get a bargain. In more rural areas, when visiting wildlife parks, it is usually possible to stay at a park lodge. These lodges are luxurious, comfortable and expensive and are often booked in advance by tour operators, so if this is where you want to stay it is best to book in advance. Trying to find alternative accommodation outwith the park but still within reasonable travelling distance can be a challenge, especially since park staff for once will be unwilling to help. Asking locals is the best way (if no hotel signs are seen on the way). We decided not to stay in the lodge at Corbett National Park or at the expensive Quality Inn just outside the gates. After a short while we found the idyllic Corbett Riverside Resort for less than half the price of the other places, and with negotiation we got this price even lower. The challis was by the boulder strewn lower banks of the Kosi River, the opposite side were high-forested sand cliffs, in which several pairs of Wallcreeper were nesting (see account on BSG). We missed the morning elephant ride, as this is offered to tourists staying at the lodge first, and they saw tiger, whereas we only saw its pug (paw) marks. So sometimes it can be worth paying extra to stay at the park lodges and if you can afford it why not?
Indians are ever optimistic and unfailingly joyful, particularly the men. This may be because the women are left to do all the heavy, difficult manual work. The women gather firewood and animal fodder, wash clothes in the river and tend crops but they too are invariably happy. The women and school children in India are always immaculately dressed in a colourful saree and this applies even in the poorest areas. Women often prepare food to, and in India if you like spicy food you will be in heaven. Non-spicy food can also be readily found and food is cheap, varied, plentiful and available everywhere. Beer is available in many brands and sold everywhere, as well as the large brands such as Tiger, there are hundreds of local brews which can be fun to try. Indian whisky is also universally sold. The only words of caution are to be careful of hygiene at street vendors stalls and in less frequented restaurants. Getting ill from food in India is a real possibility, but often the symptoms are just an upset stomach and the runs.
Other main health hazards are malaria and rabies and it is worth seeing your doctor beforehand to ask about precautions for these as well as to make sure all your other inoculations are up to date and to check about other risks (see Selected Links on BSG for organisations giving health advice to travellers). I thought it well worth having the 3 rabies inoculations before I went, even though this will not stop you contracting the disease it makes its symptoms much less severe and easier to treat. Without this rabies precaution, if you are bitten you must get treatment immediately, even if symptoms are mild. People are frequently miss-diagnosed with early symptoms of rabies, and this can be dangerous as the disease can rapidly become worse and even fatal. Treating people with rabies who have not had the precautionary inoculation is drastic involving a course of injections directly into the stomach.
In such a densely populated and in great areas under-developed country wildlife is invariably under great pressure. In India wildlife survives so well, seemingly because of lak of persecution and a general respect by the major faith for all living things. Even so some species particularly larger mammals seem to be slowly losing the battle to maintain their numbers. No creature symbolises the conservation struggle better than that to save the Bengal Tiger, where even now India is its main stronghold. Vast amounts of money, time and research have been expended on this species and mistakes have been made. For a while it seem the World Wildlife Fund and Project Tiger were making good ground, but unfortunately not everything was as it seemed. The Indian park guards had been instructed to ‘cook the books’ on the number of tigers found on census of pug marks. This was done to increase interest, generate tourism and increase western funding. WWF eventually uncovered the truth after carrying out independent surveys and it was found that tigers were not fairing as well as hoped. There was little wrong with the habitat of the protected areas, this seemed little changed, what had changed however was the increase of poachers from other countries such as China and this was now threatening the species. The problem was that though the park staff were dedicated they lacked enough vehicles and radios to patrol the protected areas effectively against poachers.
If such a charismatic and good foreign currency earner as the tiger is struggling, what hope for other wildlife? Many species in India live or spend some of their time in the Himalayas, and although around towns and along roads virtually all natural vegetation has gone, in more remoter valleys and tourist retreats there is still much good habitat. Also in the Teria lowlands, the flat boulder landscape at the base of the Himalayas there is a huge forest, the largest in India. This land is mostly unsuitable for cultivation due to the boulders and pebbles, it is therefore thinly populated with few good roads and thus in vast tracts the forest remains in largely tact. Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in the ne as mentioned earlier is even more remote and under-populated (but Assam is still 26 million in an area half the size of Britain!). And India’s wildlife continues to throw up surprises, when a new species of bird the Bugun Liocichla Liocichla bugunorum was discovered at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh in 2006. Other birds thought to have become extinct in that ne area have also sprung back to life particularly with regard to the Manipur Bush-Quail Perdicula manipurensis (2006) and elsewhere Jerdon’s Courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus (1986) and Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti (1997). Is it possible that Pink-headed Duck Rhodonessa caryophyllacea may yet be rediscovered?
The Best Time of Year December to the end of April is the best time to visit for migrants and to avoid the monsoons, and worst of the heat.
For general non-country specific information please go to this page on BSG. WORLDWIDE LINKS: TRAVEL ADVICE, VOLUNTEERING & ACCOMMODATION
COUNTRY SPECIFIC TOUR OPERATORS Wildlife India Tours India is a rich and divers wildlife destination with 89 national parks and 400+ wildlife sanctuaries across the country. Explore the website and glimpse the wildlife of India.
COUNTRY SPECIFIC LINKS NGOs concerned with India, wildlife and conservation
Bombay Natural History Society A long standing institution and the BirdLife partner.
Eviction from protected areas
Wildlife Conservation Society
Wildlife First Wildlife First This NGO in India was the one to co ordinate the Karnataka Tiger Conservation Project (KTCP). Other affiliated organizations without web pages are shown below atKuduremukh Wildlife Foundation this NGO for conservation of the Kudremukh National Park works through conservation, monitoring, education for conservation and community interfacing. Other affiliated NGOs are
Bhadra Wildlife Conservation Trust This local conservation NGO works on protecting the Bhadra Tiger Reserve.
Conservation of Wildlife and Heritage of Kodagu (CWK)
Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) This non profit organization works for conservation of wildlife and natural eco systems.
Ashoka Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) works towards advancing environmental protection and conservation of biodiversity.
Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT) plans build a long-term rigorous field conservation program in prime wildlife habitats in Maharashtra.
WWF Project Tiger
Lost and poorly known birds
Manipur Bush Quail
Jungle Owlet and others