- A Rendezvous with India’s national aquatic animal- Gangetic River Dolphin.
- Spoilt for choices at Chambal National Sanctuary
“It is not a season for Chambal. The best season to be there is from October to March when migratory birds make it their winter home. All the migratory birds have, well, migrated. Mugger crocodile and Gharial only are not alluring enough for me to make a trip. ” Reasoned Manish, my husband.
“I know. But there will be resident birds and I want to see our National Aquatic Animal, the Tiger of the Ganga.” Argued me.
“This ‘Tiger of Ganga’ is more difficult to spot than the ‘Tiger’ itself. And there will be a few, only a few, local birds.”
“Yes, but you know, places when visited in off-season, reveal their true local colors. And I do like solitude. With all the birders having gone, Chambal will be entirely to ourselves.”
He did what he always has to do- surrender to the wishes of the travel organiser of the house and that set us for an off season trip (in mid-April) to National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS).
NCS is the first riverine sanctuary established in India on the river Chambal. Chambal is a perennial river which originates from the Vindhya Range near Mhow in Indore and flows its course through Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and enters Uttar Pradesh to merge with Yamuna. This sanctuary can be visited from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Bah in U.P. was our point of entry to this sanctuary for proximity from Delhi.
Zooming through the Yamuna Expressway and then driving onto Fatehabad Road, we reached Jarar village at noon. There was only one single guest at the Mela Kothi, Jarar Village, except us. We relaxed under the shade of Neem tree and spent the afternoon going through the checklist of resident flora and fauna.
We settled ourselves in the boat at four pm for the first safari from the Uttar Pradesh side. The Chambal River here acts as a natural boundary between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
A few minutes into the ride and a colony of baby ‘Indian Tent Turtles’ on a submerged lone pontoon sent the camera into continuous shooting mode. When all had had a good look, they at us and us at them, they tumble-cum-slipped into water in a queue.
“How do they know that they should go in a queue?” Amused my elder son Rachit. That send the younger son Tanmay in a laughing mode which could not be tuned down for a while.
The boat was moving along the banks. Three River Lapwings cat-walked in their black head dress and a pair of Greater Thicknee remained nonchalant on the shorelines as the lens zoomed on them. Tanmay, who never liked our birding mornings in Delhi as he could never spot anything because of the distance and being too young to be able to focus the binoculars, spoke honestly, “These birds are better than birds in Delhi. I can see them all without binoculars.” I looked at him proudly as he flipped through the Field Guide of Indian Birds and enjoyed the pleasure of identifying the birds.
Some more adult Tent turtles obliged us along the bank. Soon, we saw a colony of Indian Skimmers, which can surely be found at CNS, at a sandy patch in the river, co-habitating with Little Terns. Our skilled boatman Kishan made a swift move and cut the engines on time. We were near enough to have a good view without Binoculars. These orange billed beauties, with a permanent pout because of longer lower mandible than the upper, are the pride of the avifauna of CNS. A few of these were flying low over the quiet waters of Chambal with their bill open and lower mandible ‘skimming’ through water to capture the fish. We were busy watching and shooting their skimming flight when our guide, Dushyant, whispered- “Mam. Leave it all. A male Skimmer has caught a fish and he is approaching the female to feed her as a pre-mating courtesy.” All turned to look at the pair.
Birds show different mating behaviour like displaying the plumage, dancing, singing, preening, building and feeding and we had seen all but feeding. I fumbled to focus the camera, and nervously tried to have a good shot. The female accepted the fish, male cocked his head high and made loud cries and swayed his beak sideways as if in triumph and then balanced himself on the female.
Bird mating is a fast balancing act. Meanwhile a Little tern also caught a fish and proceeded with great pride and ecstasy to its female. It was too much in too little time. I looked at the mating Skimmer couple and the approaching male Little Tern at the same time, which were barely three feet apart from each other.
The cloaca kiss of Skimmers ended in just a few seconds and I paid my full attention now to the Little Tern. By then the fish has disappeared from Little Tern’s beak and we waited for another mating. But another Tern intruded, perhaps to take the female and a fight broke between the two. The female simply walked away leaving the two fighting with each other.
We all took a breath! I looked at my husband who acknowledged my off-season plan with a big smile.
We regained our composure and settled in the boat with excitement, hope and restlessness, characteristic of any terrestrial wild life excursion. The boat passed another sandy island colonized by a pair of Sarus Crane, the State Bird of Uttar Pradesh, and their sub-adult who had a brownish tinge on his neck instead of spectacular red neck of his parents. These sandy islands together with the sandy banks are the breeding grounds of many species of Chambal and are therefore critical to the survival of the riverine eco-system.
In March and April, when the water levels recede and the flow quietens but does not become too less, these exposed sandy islands become nesting grounds of Indian Skimmer, Little terns and other birds and the exposed sandy banks of the river become the nesting grounds of the Gharial.
Three storks, black-necked, painted and woolly necked, were together at the left bank of the river and tempted us to head towards them. A distant sighting of the Gharial basking on a rocky island in the mid river diverted our attention and left no options but to move towards him, for whose protection this sanctuary was first carved in Madhya Pradesh in 1978. This impressive snout-y crocodilian, who lives in fresh water habitat only, was once found from Irrawaddy River in Myanmar to the Indus in Pakistan. Now classified under the IUCN red list of threatened species, they are extinct from both these rivers and a small population resides in India and Nepal.
The boatman cut the engines at a distance and slowly rowed the boat to a comfortable distance. Gharial’s head was raised and it chose to keep its long snout shut, yet we could see one half of its huge collection of razor-sharp teeth, the upper set perfectly interlocked with lowers. Its Olive colour glistened in the evening sun. Boatmen slowly oared the boat a little closer. It remained unperturbed. Then perhaps it became impatient with our peek into his leisure time and slowly belly-glided into water. This rendezvous left us wishing if we could see Gharial’s nests, as March and April is the nesting period for it.
The sandy banks along the river gave way to the famous ravines of Chambal as the boat chugged further upstream. Gharials did try to divert us from the pursuit to try our luck with our national aquatic animal ‘The Gangetic Dolphins’ which has been given many titles like ‘The Queen of the Chambal’ and ‘ The Tiger of the Ganga’. Gangetic Dolphin is the only freshwater dolphin of India and is found in the river Ganga, Brahmputra and their tributaries. The Gangetic Dolphin and the Indus Dolphin (found in Indus River in Sind Province, Pakistan) belong to the same species.
Author Sanjeev Sanyal, in his book “ The Land of Seven Rivers- A brief history of India’s Geography”, ponders over the lost Saraswati river, asking how these two cousins, belonging to same species, come to live so far from each other in these two disconnected rivers.
“… Physical surveys and satellite photos confirm that the Sutlej and the Yamuna were once the tributaries of the Saraswati……Unfortunately, the river appears to have lost the Yamuna, and perhaps due to a tectonic event…It then lost Sutlej, its major tributary, to the Indus. …At some time Satluj swung west towards Indus. The old channel flowing east remain visible in satellite photographs….The problem is that the two river systems are today not connected, and the dolphins obviously could not have walked from one to another. The sea route too is unlikely since the mouths of the two rivers are very far. In any case the river dolphins are not closely related to the salt water dolphins of the Indian Ocean and must have evolved separately from them. One possibility therefore is that the shifting rivers allowed the dolphins to move from one place to another.”
We were in the middle of two banks, quite upstream from our embarking point when Kishan shut the engines. The Sun was giving last call to its scattered rays. Dushyant, Kishan, me and Manish took one side each. Kids kept looking everywhere. Nothing happened. The waters were still and so were we. Time was ticking by and our hopes were sinking down. After twenty minutes, which felt like hours, a ripple was noted by Kishan. Another by Rachit. More and more ripples appeared but not the shy, elusive Dolphin. They kept us on tenterhooks by appearing at a place where we were not looking and leaving a ripple of water to tease us later. The fun of wild life adventures lies in chasing and waiting. At last, a glimpse of a sylvan curve was all that only Manish and I could see, and it was gone even before we could speak the word ‘look’. Although only Manish could see the beautiful long snout, yet the thought that this threatened animal is safe and playing in these waters, made us feel happy.
As we raced back to the embarking station, setting sun turned Chambal’s still water pink and purple and drew our attention to the river. It is among the most pristine rivers in India and is blessed that its waters hold no religious significance to bear the brunt of our rituals and sins. Dacoits too contributed their share when they got hold of its ravines and thus forbade any commercial activity near it. Perhaps that is why this river has remained as the healthiest riverine system in India.
Next day, when kids slumbered out from their sleepy bodies, we hurried for a morning safari on Chambal. Having met its prestigious residents, that is Dolphin, Gharial and Indian Skimmer in yesterday’s evening safari, we decided to pay more attention to lesser mortals like Mugger and turtles. We skipped Indian Skimmer and glided away from Gharials. However we did stop to look at two Gharial nests in exposed sand bank. A little upstream and a Golden jackal in the slopes along the bank sent all the Lapwings screeching and flying for their life, which in turn made a flock of Lesser Whistling ducks fly abruptly. The jackal was perhaps chasing some rodent or Francolin in the scrubs. It stopped, looked towards the bank and wondered what he has done to these noisy, feathery, fluttery creatures and thus allowed us to have a lovely and long view of his majestic Golden colour, beautiful face and we wondered if it intended harm in any way!
Before the engines could be started, a pair of Damsel Fly, locked by their appendages in a heart shape, settled on the bright red oar of the boat. Damsel fly look quite like dragon fly but none of us had seen these in such an interesting position. The guide also knew nothing about these. Later when we searched on the Net, a hearty laugh came out unhindered. It was a mating pair of Damselfly!
This off-season was turning out to be ‘Mating season’ at Chambal !
We crisscrossed the river from one bank to another in search of Mugger crocodile and found another threatened resident, the Indian Softshell Turtle, on a rock in the middle of the river. It had just come out from water and was enjoying the Sun. It did have an almost flat and soft shell justifying its name. (This species of turtles lacks the epidermal scales and thus the shell has less bony architecture, giving it a softer look.) A long neck, shiny olive green color and contrasting yellow border on the shell added to its beauty.
Mugger eluded us but not for long. With its broad mouth and heavily armoured body, it gave us a ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ look. Our jaws dropped in awe when it lifted its bulky body on its tiny feet and walk-cum-crawled into water in its characteristic semi-upright stance.
Sun came overhead. We had met most of Chambal’s Who-is-Who. It was time to return and I sensed this Sanctuary has entered and transformed us with the force of its beauty and isolation.
And it had allowed us to witness a part of its private life!