India 1979: Hunting blackbuck with camera
The adult male blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) is a marvellous creature: black with white markings on face, legs, and belly. The spiralled horns grow to 65 centimetres long in some individuals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Indian blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) – about the size of a fallow deer (Dama dama) – is probably the most beautiful antelope species in the world. The buck is a wonderful creature: coal black, with white markings on face, legs and belly, and long, straight, spiralled horns, growing to 65 centimetres in some individuals. During territorial battles, the males spar with their horns, trying to gather as many females as possible for their harem. Females and young males are brown and white.
In Hindu mythology, the chariot of the moon god Chandrama is pulled by a blackbuck. Formerly, this species was distributed all over plains and semi-deserts in India and Pakistan, but hunting by British and Indian ‘sportsmen’ (as they were fond of calling themselves), and competition from grazing cattle, goats and sheep, took their toll. The blackbuck disappeared completely from Pakistan, and from most of India. Larger herds survived only in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, one of the main reasons being that it is a tradition among the Bishnoi and other peoples here to protect all wild animals, even allowing them to graze in their fields of wheat and lentils. Thanks to their protection of the blackbuck, biologists have been able to re-introduce the species to many locations in India. (Read more about the Bishnoi people on this website, see Travel episodes – India 1991: Bishnois live in harmony with nature.)
A splendid bird sanctuary
I first hear about the blackbuck, when I visit the bird sanctuary Keoladeo Ghana, near the town of Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Towards the end of the 1800s, the Maharaja of Bharatpur visited so-called ‘shooting reserves’ in England, and he was so impressed that he wanted to create a similar area near his palace. He ordered his subjects to dig canals, construct sluice gates, and build levees around an area of c. 20 square kilometres which was previously farmland. Small mounds were made, on which acacias and other trees were planted. Water was then led from the Gambir River into the canals to irrigate the area, thus creating a huge swamp. In this way, the Maharaja became the creator of one of the best water bird sanctuaries in Asia.
Today, during the monsoon season, hundreds of painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala), Oriental darters (Anhinga melanogaster), spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), black-headed ibises (Threskiornis melanocephalus), and several species of heron and cormorant breed in the acacia trees. Rarer bird species are also breeding in the reserve, e.g. Pallas’s fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) and black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus).*
A number of mammals are encountered in Keoladeo, the most common ones being sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), nilgai antelope (Boselaphus tragocamelus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), and small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus). Other species, such as blackbuck and smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) are less numerous.
In winter, the area is visited by thousands of birds, migrating here from the Himalaya and Siberia, e.g. ducks, geese, and eagles.
I spend many days roaming this area to photograph its rich and varied birdlife. My favourite birds are the local grey sarus cranes (Grus antigone) and the snow-white Siberian cranes (Leucogeranus leucogeranus). The latter is a winter visitor from Siberia, which was quite common in Keoladeo in former days, but has declined drastically in the later years due to poaching of the cranes, when they pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan on their migration.*
After a few days, I get on friendly terms with Mr. Fateh Singh, Chief Wildlife Warden of Keoladeo. He is a very talkative man, and we discuss various issues, among these also the blackbuck, which is present in Keoladeo, but in very low numbers.
“If you want to see many blackbuck, go to the sanctuary at Tal Chapar, in northern Rajasthan,” he informs me. “More than a thousand of them live there, and they are easy to photograph.”
He explains how to get there, which sounds fairly easy.
*Since this text was written in 1979, both Pallas’s fish-eagle and Siberian crane have vanished from Keoladeo, the eagle due to poisoning with pesticides and heavy metals.
Towards the end of the 1800s, the Maharaja of Bharatpur visited so-called ‘shooting reserves’ in England, and he was so impressed that he wanted to create a similar area near his palace. This was the origin of the famous bird sanctuary Keoladeo Ghana. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Today, hundreds of painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) and many other bird species breed in the acacia trees in Keoladeo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala), illuminated by the evening sun. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The park authorities encourage local villagers to graze their water buffaloes in the water holes of the sanctuary, where the invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a huge problem. The white birds are eastern cattle egrets (Bubulcus coromandus). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The villagers are also encouraged to remove as much as possible of an invasive species of mesquite, Prosopis juliflora, from the reserve. This picture shows local women, armed with long sticks to break off branches for firewood. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
My favorite birds in Keoladeo were the local grey sarus cranes (Grus antigone) and the snow-white Siberian cranes (Leucogeranus leucogeranus). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
One or two pairs of the endangered black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) breed in Keoladeo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Occasionally, I observed the rare Pallas’s fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), searching for prey in the reserve, in which a single pair was breeding. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) is very common in Keoladeo. It breeds in hollow trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) lives in family groups. In this picture, members of a group pause to stare at me. The plant is the invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In winter, Keoladeo is visited by thousands of birds, migrating here from the Himalaya and Siberia, e.g. ducks, geese, and eagles. This picture shows feeding ducks on a misty February morning. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Journey to Tal Chapar
Arriving at Ratangarh, I board another bus, which is absolutely packed with people. For this reason, I place my backpack on the roof rack, afterwards approaching the conductor to buy a ticket. He refers me to the ticket office, where, however, the clerk informs me that I have to get my ticket from the conductor. I convey this piece of information to the conductor, who makes a racket and informs me that I cannot go. However, after grumbling for a while, he hands me a ticket anyway.
An exhausting bus ride brings me to the village of Tal Chapar. At dusk, from my room in a tiny guest house, I hear the strange, rasping hoot of a spotted owlet (Athene brama). All night, there is also lively singing and music, supplied by tablas (small finger drums) and a harmonium.
In the morning, an employee from ‘The Industrial Department’ invites me for breakfast and proceeds to interrogate me – in depth – about my job, what I am doing in Tal Chapar, my family members, their names and occupation, and much else. Nearby, two young women are printing patterns on lengths of orange cotton cloth, spread out on a table. Intricate patterns have been carved into wooden blocks, which are dipped in red dye and pressed against the cloth. The process is slow, but the result is beautiful.
Young woman in Tal Chapar, printing patterns on cotton cloth, using a wood block, into which intricate patterns have been carved. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Around the village reservoir
Near the sanctuary office, two beautiful red-necked falcons (Falco chicquera) are perched on a tree. The friendly staff inform me that I can take photographs of the blackbuck, when they approach a water reservoir near the village to drink. I also get permission to make use of a couple of grass hides near the office. I ask them for a guide to walk far into the reserve, and they instruct me to return the following morning.
I take my seat in one of the hides, waiting for the blackbuck to arrive. In the other hide, an Indian photographer has taken shelter, but it seems that he doesn’t possess the necessary patience to photograph wildlife. When a small herd of blackbuck approaches the waterhole, he immediately runs out to get close-up photos – only managing to scare the animals away. Exasperated, I give up and leave my hide. The nearby plains are dotted with blackbuck. Mr. Singh didn’t exaggerate – there must be at least a thousand of them.
In the village reservoir, many herons, ducks, and coot (Fulica atra) are feeding, while common mynas (Acridotheres tristis), ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri), doves, and many other birds arrive to drink. A small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus) zooms along the shore, and a large, black snake disappears into a bush. A beautiful hoopoe (Upupa epops) is feeding in a grassy area, while peacock (Pavo cristatus) strut about, resembling decorated noblemen. From far away, the distinct call of grey francolins (Francolinus pondicerianus) can be heard: “Ji-de-li-de-li-ji-de-li-ji-de-li!”
In the evening, a group of men gather in my room. A pipe of tobacco is handed around, and one of the men starts singing, again accompanied by tablas and harmonium. Occasionally, the other men will join in as a chorus. Their singing continues for hours. I learn that they are giving a farewell party to one of the men, who has been transferred to a place far into the desert, near the Pakistani border.
A pair of beautiful red-necked falcons (Falco chicquera) were perched on a tree near the Sanctuary Office in Tal Chapar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hoopoe (Upupa epops), feeding in a grassy area near the town reservoir. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A lengthy talk about permissions
The following morning, I return to the sanctuary office. Unfortunately, as it turns out, an unfriendly old man has now taken command.
“Sir, do you have a written permission from my superior, the District Forest Officer in Bikaner, to enter the reserve?”
“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Singh didn’t inform me that I would need one.”
“In that case, unfortunately, we cannot allow you to enter the reserve!”
“But yesterday your staff told me that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to get the permission!”
“I’m sorry, but we cannot give you permission to enter without a written permission from the D.F.O. You must go to Bikaner to get the permission. Then you can return here and get our permission to enter.”
“But Bikaner is far away, and I already spent a long time getting here. Can’t you make an exception and give me permission?”
All my arguments are in vain, but finally he agrees that a phone call from his boss will be sufficient to allow him to let me enter the sanctuary. This day, however, is a Sunday, and the post office is closed, but, nevertheless, the friendly postmaster opens the office and allows me to use the phone. This phone would be a treasure for any technical museum in Europe. Nothing but whirring and wheezing can be heard, and I fail to get any connection. Then the kind postmaster gives it a try. He manages to get a line through to the D.F.O.’s office, only to learn that he is absent. I ought to have told myself – after all, it is a Sunday.
On my way back to the guest house, I notice several blackbuck near the hides – but now I cannot use them, as the staff has been instructed to keep me away. Should I ignore their orders? I make a quick decision. I’ll to go to the water reservoir and from there sneak into the reserve to some waterholes, where the antelope often drink. These waterholes are situated near the outskirts of the sanctuary, so I convince myself that this action must be rather harmless. I run back to the guesthouse, grab my equipment and manage to arrive at the waterholes without being seen by the staff.
Three females and two beautiful bucks with enormous, spiralled horns approach the waterhole and quench their thirst, not far from the bush, behind which I’m hiding. The bucks walk a short distance, spar a bit, and then re-join their herd. Several other blackbuck also approach the waterhole, and, gradually, my mood changes to the better. I have seen these beautiful animals at close quarters, and managed to get fine pictures.
A wonderful male blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), with long, spiralled horns, approached the waterhole to quench its thirst, not far from the bush, behind which I was hiding. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two younger blackbuck males, still with brownish parts on their body. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Obnoxious rickshaw driver
Satisfied, I can now start the long bus journey towards Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. I board a bus, headed for a nearby town, Sujangarh, and then another bus to Sikar. On board this bus – which is very crowded indeed – two young fellows offer me their seat, whereupon they bombard me with the usual bunch of irrelevant questions. Luckily, they soon descend.
While waiting for a third bus in Sikar, I am bothered by beggars, shoe shiners, and snot-nosed kids. The queue in front of the ticket office is unusually long, but luckily the conductor from the previous bus spots me and drags me in front of the queue. This is indeed very nice of him, but, alas, of very little use, because when our bus finally arrives, it’s already packed with passengers. This fact doesn’t seem to subdue anyone – they push and shove and shout, and when the bus leaves the station, there must be about 150 passengers, inside, on the roof, and in every other place a person can possibly cling to. An obese man offers me his seat, my protests being to no avail. That’s Indians for you! The most paradoxical people in the world. For two hours, I am seated in a most inconvenient position, before the crowds thin out a bit.
In Jaipur, I’m captured by one of the usual obnoxious rickshaw boys. When I ask him to take me to a hotel, he says: “Yes-yes, I know a good hotel!” He then proceeds to drive me 200 metres to a hotel, which he finds good – namely the one, where he gets commission for every guest he brings there. I am too exhausted to protest, but when he demands 2 Rupees to drive me the short distance, I feel an almost irresistible urge to kick his behind.
(Uploaded February 2016)
(Revised October 2017)