Join us on an exciting journey through India’s changing wildlife landscapes.

Photography and text by Surya Ramachandran

It was an extremely cold morning in the Indus gorge of Ladakh. Large chunks of ice floated in the blue waters of the river. The sun was going to take a while to creep into the narrow gorge and the winds were unrelenting. The only thing that kept us braving the elements on the riverbank was a beautiful snow leopard across the river. We could see her panting, her pupils fully dilated, trying to recover from an exhausting failed attempt to hunt Bharal sheep just a few moments ago. We had just witnessed one of the most incredible moments in nature: a wild snow leopard on the hunt in the steep Indus gorge of the Himalaya, a few hours south of the city of Leh, in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh. For an engineer turned nature guide from a busy coastal city in South India, this was beyond my wildest dreams.

Sloth Bears playing in Satpura.
A galaxy frog. Probably the most beautiful endemic frog of India. A modern day mystery to science as this frog lacks vocal sacs and ears. So how does it croak for a mate, and how do they even hear each other? Or do they use other means?

My first stint in the wilderness – a big move from the city

My journey began over a decade ago when I was an intern at a wilderness lodge in Central India. We were based in Satpura, a park that encouraged people to slow down, to walk and canoe through the wilderness, to take in Rudyard Kipling’s jungles beyond chasing big cats. Satpura, though a tiger reserve, was always the quieter cousin to surrounding popular national parks like Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Tadoba and Pench, which are well known for their tigers. The stories of these cats had become legendary across the world. These forests were the heartbeat of India’s conservation success, a process that started with the launch of the Project Tiger initiative in the early 1970s. At Satpura, the cats lived in dense hill country, they were shyer overall and the low density of prey made them difficult to find in the early years. This opened an opportunity to broaden the narrative of tourism in Central Indian tiger reserves, which was big cat-centric and proud of its tigers, showcasing them along with efforts to protect their habitats. While this perception of tourism was neither good nor bad, it meant that low tiger sightings meant low tourism in the parks, a trend which is still the case in lesser-known parks in India.

Hoolock gibbons from Assam. Male and female. The only ape species in India.
This Indian eagle owl found its room in an abandoned irrigation canal near Mysore.

These forests were the heartbeat of India’s conservation success.

The four years in Satpura opened my eyes to the greatness of the surrounding wilderness. Chasing the big cat can make one blind to everything else around them. In the absence of that majestic distraction, the guides in Satpura had to work much harder and learn much more to create a beautiful wilderness experience. It was an exciting yet slow start, and over time tourists warmed up to visiting a corner of Central India where tigers were not the focus. The focus was just the wilderness, the experience, coupled with sloth bears, wild dogs, leopards, the rusty-spotted cat (the smallest wild cat in the planet), crocodiles, rare birds like Indian skimmers and dusky eagle owls, special butterflies like the Panchmarhi Evening Brown, trees, shrubs and even the rock structure that date way beyond the Himalayan substrate.

Indian Skimmers from the Denwa canoeing experience in Satpura.
A rusty spotted cat in the Satpura Tiger Reserve – the smallest wild cat species in the world.

A well-thought-out tourism program that focuses on multiple avenues of exploration and takes into consideration forest type, low-carbon activities, strategies to manage over-crowding during peak seasons and local leadership can be a great tool for conservation. Satpura is testament to this. Within six to seven years, the prey densities grew, the tigers returned to all corners of the park and today, the movement of big game in Satpura is on par with the other parks of the region. But most importantly, the walking, canoeing and emphasis on slowing down continue in Satpura.

The four years in Satpura opened my eyes to the greatness of the surrounding wilderness.

Tracking tigers

After Satpura, I spent a few years in Kanha, driving a jeep through the jungle trails, tracking tigers, and admiring the impressive antler rack of the endemic hard-ground swamp deer or the Barasingha. The vast open grasslands, the tall sal woodlands and the flat-topped hills were a stark contrast to the rocky deciduous woodland of Satpura, despite the park being just a few hours away. I had some of my most memorable moments with tigers while in Kanha. During my time there, young tigers grew into dominant adults and wove their own stories, while greats like Munna (known for the CAT’s stripe pattern on his forehead), who were beyond their prime, fell and melted away into the wilderness of the sal woodland. I felt privileged to witness a chapter in the story of wild tigers in India – a story that never ceases to amaze.

A male tiger hugging and marking a tree in Kanha as safari goers are amazed.
Bioluminescent forests of Goa in the monsoons.

Going and guiding off the beaten track – first stop Ladakh

The excitement of tracking tigers from jeeps did not last very long after spending time in Satpura and exploring the forest on foot. My friend David and I had already spent several monsoons hiking and exploring the shola rainforests and grasslands of the Western Ghats – a mountain range that stretches from India’s southern tip all the way to the Narmada River in the north, along the western coast. The Ghats are one of the top ten biodiversity hotspots on the planet, known for their high degree of endemism thanks to the high-altitude cloud forests and shola islands separated by seas of montane grasslands. We were documenting snakes, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, and endemic birds like Nilgiri thrush, the brightly patterned black and orange flycatcher, and the Malabar trogon. The idea of exploration and discovery had to be a part of my life as a guide and also, as importantly, my free time.

A Himalayan Monal from the high Himalayas of Uttarakhand.
A beautiful toad-headed agama in the dunes of the Thar Desert. One of the many endemic creatures that have created a niche for themselves in this harsh desert.

This was when I got the opportunity thanks to friends and mentors of the to understand and work with the homestay program of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust in Ladakh. This was like starting from ground zero again. The treeless, cold desert seemed at first to be lifeless to my untrained eye. The luxury of seeing large herds of chital or stumbling upon a flutter of butterflies did not exist here – it was just lichen, rocks, and snow – or so I thought.

Teaming up with Tsewang Norbu and Morup Tchewang, some of Ladakh’s best snow leopard trackers, and their team of spotters changed my life. These people knew the mountains like the back of their hand. They knew the wildlife: where they would be, how and why they move and, most importantly, how to find them. I spent many months with them staring at the mountains, learning to be patient how to and identify the odd shapes that were out of place in our field of view. If one is lucky, one of those odd shapes would turn out to be an elusive snow leopard.

Rufous-bellied Eagle – a rare forest eagle from Western ghats.
Indian Wolf from the Grasslands of the Deccan.

I spent over eight months every year in the mountains with them, watching Ibex on the cliff tops, snow leopards on the prowl, wolves denning with their young ones, golden eagles and bearded vultures mastering the skies and brown bears waking up in the summer from their winter sleep. The freedom to explore in the high mountains was unlike the times I had spent in the national parks with their rigid systems. We were exploring outside protected areas, but all of Ladakh was one big wilderness thanks to the extremely low population density — something unheard of in the rest of the country.

Watching rare animals like snow leopards, Pallas’s cats and Himalayan brown bears in India are a reality today thanks to the efforts of researchers in creating a biological atlas of this vast mountain ecosystem and establishing behavioral patterns of each species. It is also due to the effort of the Snow Leopard Conservancy and other conservation bodies in working with communities towards sensitization, awareness, compensation, and skill development programs leading to job creation and skilled trackers who work in these mountains every day. 10 or 15 years ago, I would have laughed if someone had told me that I would be witness to all this.

Eublepharus fuscus – Western Indian Leopard Gecko from the rocky outcrops of the Deccan with the city lights of Pune in the background (a city that is rapidly growing into and encroaching the grasslands).
A white-bellied sea eagle flying with nesting material in the Karwar coast of Karnataka.

Changing times – hope for the future

Snow leopard tourism is not the only thing that has emerged as a new addition to the Indian wilderness landscape. Fantastic guides, experiences and quality accommodation are popping up all over the country. Smaller parks are now moving into the mainstream. Birding and bird photography in India is larger than ever. Indians and international visitors are exploring beyond the beaten trails. The Indian wolf and striped hyena are slowly making a comeback in the Deccan grasslands thanks to the efforts of citizen science and the attention brought to it by photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. Red pandas of the eastern Himalaya, dancing deer in Manipur’s floating national park, Lion-tailed macaques of South India, the small cats and bustards of the Thar Desert, the story of Leopards and Shepherds in the Aravallis, the river dolphins in the Ganges and Brahmaputra and the glowing forests of Goa are just some examples of the incredible latitude of wilderness experiences and species the country offers. From the forested corners of Arunachal, the rhinos and other giants of the Terai, the mangroves of the Sundarbans and Orissa, the salt deserts of Kutch to the shola grasslands of the Western Ghats, there are numerous wilderness experiences to witness.

Red Panda from Singalila National Park, Eastern Himalayas.

Snow leopard tourism is not the only thing that has emerged as a new addition to the Indian wilderness landscape. Fantastic guides, experiences and quality accommodation are popping up all over the country.

Every time one visits a new wild corner, they may be able to put together a small piece of the puzzle that moves towards a more complete understanding of India’s wild spaces. India is a subcontinent for a reason. Fifteen wild cats (16 with the introduction of the cheetahs to Kuno) and over 1,300 birds are just two examples of the diversity that this country holds. Despite the large human population, our wild spaces, though vastly reduced in the past, are now holding strong and in many cases even growing and thriving thanks to conservation efforts, policies, and increased awareness. Wildlife is bouncing back in the most unexpected ways; repopulating old habitats, creating new ones in tea and coffee plantations, and adapting to constant changes in the surroundings. True conservation success is always going to be a process, with many ups, downs, and lateral shifts as we learn and understand more. However, if recent developments are considered, there is definitely hope for the future.

Khur Herd Grazing in Little Rann of Kutch.

Despite the large human population, our wild spaces, though vastly reduced in the past, are now holding strong and in many cases even growing and thriving thanks to conservation efforts, policies and increased awareness.

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