3 cubs’ death exposes foresters’ callousness


The train accident that claimed three Asiatic lion cubs near Pipavav ( Gujarat, India ) on Wednesday night has raised serious questions about the forests department’s seriousness in ensuring the safety of these endangered wild cats, many of which have strayed from their original home in Gir ( Sasan, Gujarat, India ).

Three lion cubs were crushed to death near Rampara (Gujarat, India) railway crossing about a kilometer from Pipavav.

After a series of incidents last year in which lions were killed under trains in this particular area, the forest department had deployed trackers along the five km railway stretch between Baraftana junction and Pipavav railway station (both places are in Gujarat, India).

However, sources conformed to TOI that around 53 trackers were relieved by the department on March 31.

Forest officials, however, denied relieving them. “We have not relieved any tracker as they are casual laborers and we call them whenever we need them”, M.R. Gurjar, deputy conservator of forests, (social forestry), Amreli division, told TOI.

Interestingly, as soon as the news about the lion cubs’ death spread, all the trackers who were relieved were called to join work immediately.

“We were finding it difficult to handle the wild cats that come to the tracks. This required round the clock duty but surprisingly we were told not to come after March 31”, said a tracker, requesting anonymity.

There are around 60 to 70 lions along the costal parts of Rajula and Jafrabad Taluka (in Gujarat, India) of Amreli District.

Courtesy – Time of India

Song of the Wilde – The Bandipur Tiger Reserve


SONG OF THE WILD

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We sat down for a romantic dinner at a candlelit table for two, on the periphery of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in south India and the air resonated with mystery and menace. We heard an owl hoot, the electrifying alarm call of a deer ripped across the jungle and then the low growl of a tiger resonated in the depths. It was a chilling moment, but laden with ineffable beauty.

The king of the jungle was probably on the prowl in the forest beyond The Serai Bandipur, a plush jungle resort in Karnataka, around 226 km from Bangalore. As we sipped a drink and pondered on the surreal nature of our tryst, we exulted that the Royal Bengal Tiger was roaring back, having been written off by doomsday prophets as being on the brink of extinction.

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A handsome total of 2226 tigers have clawed back into the big cat census of 2014 as opposed to 1706 in 2010, and the southern Indian state of Karnataka has the highest number in the country. Indeed, Karnataka was the first state in India to set up a commando force to fight poachers and, today, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve supports the highest density of tigers in the country.

The low roars had died down soon after in that star-span-gled night as we savoured a gourmet repast laid out for us at The Serai, where luxury in the wild is the byword. Not surprisingly, the 990 sq km Bandipur Tiger reserve is no stranger to the luxury, these forests, though the 18th and 19 centuries, like to pulverise a tiger or two over an idle weekend.

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Built artfully across 19 acres (and enclosed by solar fencing), the resort has 17 acres of private wilderness around it. As we turned in for the night in our capacious suite, we could imagine the majestic cat scoping the jungle for a meal; transfixing a terrified fawn in his tawny eyed gaze; sizing up on a muscled Sambar and could almost hear the nervous titters of Langurs, high up in a gnarled old tree…

Nestling in the foothills of the Nilgiris, Bandipur that day was awash in shades of green where dawn crept in on silent feet, painting the vast lushness in pastel shades. Langurs swung from tree to tree to welcome the new dawn, birds trilled and the Giant Malabar Squirrel scampered up the sturdy trunk of a tree. The rare while bellied black woodpecker peeked out of a hole in a tree like an inquisitive old aunt; the greater racket-tailed drongo called, displaying his ability to mimic the calls of a number of birds while a crested serpent eagle sat prey. Spotted deer pranced as our jeep purred past and handsome stags locked velvety antlers in a display of brawn.

As the sun rose in the sky, it glanced off the axle-wood trees and glided the forest, turning it into a wonderland. Knotted old growth trees leant towards stands of dead bamboo as though to breathe life into their old, lifeless comrades; red pathways sliced the dense forest and suddenly, a herd of elephants – aunts, matriarch and baby, chomping their way through the jungle. As jeep stopped in quiet homage of the huge beasts, another group suddenly emerged from the other side, backlit by the climbing sun. Low sounds emanated from the herd as they communicated with their brethren on the other side of the divide.

Then a couple of them lumbered across the safari trail, even as our driver reversed the jeep to let them pass unhindered. But one gentle giant hesitated for a heart-stopping moment as though considering mock charge and then plodded away, having decided that we were not invaders. The most stirring moment was yet to happen: the herd trumpeted as they crashed through the jungle, sending shock waves through a silent landscape.

There were no encores after that, but it was a cameo of the world in all its raw innocence. And as drove back to the Serai, a graceful leopard draped in a tree just outside the property, a gorgeous beauty that combined raw menace and grace.

Later, we savoured breakfast at the resort, revelling in the scenic beauty of South African style lodge, which cleverly combines rustic chic with luxury. We spent the rest of the day under the thatched umbrella set up on the terrace of our residence suite, gazing at the Nilgiris blueing in the distance and heaving ourselves up only to go on a nature walk with the resident naturalist in the private wilderness of property. This is a not-to-be-missed activity for the formidable Kuttappan’s air of a fearsome bandit, complete with a rakish bandana and scarred face, is deceptive.

To embark on a nature walk with him is to experience the smaller pleasures of the jungle: points out the pug marks of a visiting tiger who might have loitered past at night; presents a non-venomous wolf snake to you as a mark of respect and affection; and lifts up from the forest floor a pair of deer antlers, velvety in the dying sun, with the tender care that one would accord a newborn baby!

kuttappan-resident naturalistwoodpecker

Kuttappan is a legend in these parts, a tribal who taught himself to read and write, despite a childhood spent in the forest eating birds and robbing wild dog kills for his family, which they would roast on a crackling fire and eat.

Later, as our vehicle trundled through the forest, we were resigned to the fact that we might not see the striped feline. But to out amazement, he made a guest appearance. He sat in a clearing in the distance, gazing back at us with disdain. We eyed each other for a while before he seemed to tire of our pesky presence. He rose and strode off into the thicket, his swishing tail waving goodbye.

Courtesy by K.T.

Khijadia ( Jamnagar, Gujarat, India ) aims for global site status


After Nal Sarovar( A Ramsar Site ), the state forest department wants Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary in Jamnagar districts as a Ramsar site. For this, it has sent a proposal t the Union Ministry of environment (MoEF). Till now, Nalsarovar is the only site which has been recognized as a Ramsar site in the state.

The World Wetlands Dat was observed on February 2. For the past couple of years, the department had been working on the proposals for Ramsar recognition for Khijadiya, Marine National Park in Jamnagar, and Thol Bird sanctuary in Ahmedabad, said officials.

The convention on Wetlands of international importance, called the Ramsar Convention, is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a wetland ecosystem. The treaty was adopted in the Iranian City of Ramsar in 1971.IMG_8252

Once recognized as Ramsar Site, the wetland will be given funding. Besides, the state and the international body will work towards the wise use of all their wetlands through national land use planning, appropriate policies and legislation, management actions, and public educations. They will also ensure their effective management. According to officials, so far there are 2170 odd Ramsar sites in the world. And Nalsarovar has been listed at 2078. According to the proposal, Khijadiya is home to the globally threatened black necked stork, which is a resident species of the wetland declared as a Sanctuary in May 1981. Apart from the black necked stock, other globally threatened species such as Dalmatian pelican, dater, and Asian open bill stork, black necked stork, black headed ibis, Eurasian spoonbill, Palla’s Fish eagle, pallid harrier, Indian Skimmer, Osprey are also found here.

Khijadiya sanctuary is spread over just 6.05 sq. km. However, the sanctuary and its adjoining areas habe a diverse habitats and ecosystems which include marine habitat, fresh water habitat, marshy lands, mangroves, prosopis areas, salt pans, open mud flats, intertidal mudflats, creeks, scrubs sandy beaches and adjoining farmlands. Because of its high diversity of landscapes, the sanctuary has a rare distinction of having maximum bird species density in the state with more than 220 species in a relatively very small area, the proposal  states.

Courtesy – Times Of India 

Birds Bonanza


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Photo Courtesy – Times Of India 

FIVE ROAD TRIPS YOU MUST MAKE IN THE UAE


1) Jebel Hafeet

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 182 km from Dubai and 178 km from Abu Dhabi

Time: The drive itself takes two hours each way, which makes for the perfect day trip

It might be a small residential town, but there is plenty to see and do in Al Ain. But you must drive through Jebel Hafeet as it is truly extraordinary. This huge mountain -approximately 1250 metres in height – is on the border of the UAE and Oman and offers picturesque views along the way.

WHAT TO DO THERE: Before reaching Al Ain, make a quick stop at the Green Mubazarrah, a lush area with hot springs. Upon reaching your destination, pick and choose from a wide variety of activities that are on offer.

Highlights include the Al Ain Palace Museum; Al Ain Zoo and Wildlife Park and Wadi Adventure which has a number of activities that include water sports such as white water rafting, kayaking and surfing.

Jeble Hafeet

2) HATTA

Difficulty: Intermediate

Distance: 159 Km from Dubai and 266 Km from Abu Dhabi

Time: Suitable for day or weekend trip

With its stunning views of the mountains and an interesting heritage village, Hatta is well worth the drive. Don’t forget your passport because there are border checks – though some place may accept Emirates ID.

WHAT TO DO THERE: Hatta’s ultimate highlight is the Hatta Pools, which is a cluster of rock pools that have been naturally carved by rain over millions of years. You can easily spend the day there jumping into the water splashing about and having fun.

The best time of day to see the pools is in the early morning or late afternoon, when the misty light settles over the peaks, casting shadows between the many crevices. Hatta heritage village, meanwhile, is home to an old watchtower and restored stone buildings of the old town.

Stay at the Hatta Fort Hotel a secluded retreat with chalet-style suites overlooking the Hajjar Mountains, and mini-golf and archery. Fancy camping…there is the Wadi Al Qahfi campsite, which is just a few minutes away from Hatta Pools.

hatta

3) Fujairah Road

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 113 Km from Dubai and 220 Km from Abu Dhabi

Time: suitable for day or weekend trips

One of the best things about a road trip to Fujairah is that the emirate is approximately 80 percent mountains. There are plenty of beautiful views to take in on a sunny day, as well as many unique photo stops.

What to do there: If you are heading out on a Friday, be sure to make a pit stop at the Friday Market, which sells everything from inflatables to high-end carpets. Don’t be afraid to haggle. Fujairah offers a range of activities including rock climbing and hiking. Diving enthusiasts can check out Snoopy Island- named because the island is shaped like the Peanuts character. Another attraction, Wadi Wurayah, is the only WWF-protected mountain range in the UAE and home to a natural waterfall. Fujairah has a wide range of places to stay, from the budget-friendly Star City Hotel Apartments to the top-rated Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort.

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4) Fossil Rock

Difficulty: Easy for off-roaders; an intermediate challenge for beginners

Distance: 31 Km from Dubai and 331 km from Abu Dhabi

Time: Can easily be covered in half a day

Officially named Jebel Maleihah, this large area is more commonly known as Fossil Rock thanks to the numerous marine fossils of shells and small sea creatures that can be found on its slopes. Due to its close proximity to Dubai, this route is perfect for anyone new to desert driving and who wants to try a road trip that is relatively easy. It is also a great starting port for anyone looking to learn off-roading. However, you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and it is recommended that you go with someone who already knows how to drive in the desert.

WHAT TO DO THERE: on the way to Fossil Rock, there is the greenert-rich oasis town of Al Awir, and halfway along the route is an estate that is home to a number of gazelles and deer. Speaking of wildlife, there are plenty of other animals to spot along the way, including the pharaoh eagle owl, yellow-spotted sand lizard and cape hare. All of these animals tend to be harmless, do not bother them and they won’t bother you. In addition to fossil spotting, desert driving in Fossil Rock is truly spectacular. The sand in this area is a beautiful rich orange-red colour with easy-to-master dunes.

fossil rock

5) Dibba

Difficulty: Intermediate as it is a bit of a long drive.

Distance: 152 km from Dubai and 286 km from Abu Dhabi

Time: perfect for a weekend escape.

The UAE’s east coast is a perfect getaway. This small section lies between two regions of Oman, the Musandam Penninsula and the region around Muscat. One of the most popular road trips in the UAE is to Dibba, which is in Fujairah. This town lies on a coastal plain, nestled in mountains with green fields and ancient relics.

WHAT TO DO THERE: Dibba is renowned for its relics and historical places, including tombs and tools that date back to 7000 BC. So this is a real treat for anyone interested in discovering more about the region’s history. In fact, archaeological finds have revealed that the area has been inhabited by man since the Stone Age. In the third millennium BC, Dibba was a commercial center frequented by the Phoenicians. Sightseeing highlights include the Al Bidyah Mosque- one of the oldest in Arabia – as well as Dibba Castle and Portuguese Fort. A trip underwater is a must-do for enjoying the diverse marine life. It is worth taking dhow cruise with one of the area’s tour companies that offer snorkeling or diving trips. A great swimming and fishing spot is Dadna Beach, where natural rockfaces are reflected in serene blue water.

dibba

Courtesy by G.N.

Taking wings to save wildlife


Shah left studies to learn animal, bird rescue in SA

About a year ago, if a person in Kalipat Village, Rajkot, Gujarat, saw a snake he would kill it immediately. But thanks to the efforts of 22-year old Divyaraj Shah from the village, now nobody even harms the snake or any other wildlife.

Now, if they see a snake, villagers call Shah who rescues it and releases it in the wild.

“On an average, I rescue 10 snakes every month from Kalipat Village ( Rajkot, Gujarat ) alone,” says Divyaraj who has dedicated his life for protection of wildlife.

In fact, Shah left his studies mid-way while pursuing graduation from St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad in 2010-11. He went to South Africa to learn about wildlife and their rescue and rehabilitation processes. He stayed there for 10 months in the outskirts of Pretoria and learnt to deal with birds, wild animals and how to release them in the wild.

“I went to South Africa because I wanted to work for wildlife conversation. It is important to learn scientific methods to rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife. There is a huge difference in dealing with domestic birds and wild birds. It is difficult for rescued birds to adjust again in the wild,” says Shah.

He also advocated rescue of the birds in captivity.

A local charitable trust in city rescue wild birds and hand over them to Shah for rehabilitation. The birds which are being rehabilitated include Barn Owl, Shikra, Black Kite, Black Shouldered Kite, Short toed Snake Eagle, spotted owlet, egrets and ducks.

“In Gujarat, rescue efforts are commendable but there is a lack of knowledge about what to do with the rescued birds. A week ago, a barn owl was rescued near city. A volunteer who rescued it gave anti-rabbis injection and wild bird died immediately,” Shah said describing the lack of awareness among wildlife volunteers.

Shah even found a solution to rat menace in Kalipat ( Rajkot, Gujarat ). He gave villagers cages to catch the rats, which are then fed to the rescued snakes by Shah. “Since I give snakes their natural food, they survive in captivity and then I release them in wild,” the wildlife enthusiast said.

“Villagers and farmers are happy as the problem of rats has been reduced significantly,” he added.

Shah has successfully released over 300 birds in the wild. Now, he plans to set up an ICU for birds at his eight acre farm on outskirts of the city.

Courtesy – Times of India

Love and longing in Indonesia


jakartataman mini mosque

From the airport to the Ciputra Hotel, on the fringes of the city, is a half-an-hour drive at night. Jakarta, or rather the build-up to the Indonesian capital, is somewhat underwhelming –a feeling that stays with me through the next morning. Jakarta, by day, is crowded (Indonesia is world’s fourth most populated country, and the capital is obviously more than just the tip of the iceberg) and crazy (the traffic jams are in a league of their own); the muggy weather plays its climatic version of spoilsport.

indonesia-love and longingnational monumentulu danu beratan temple

But there are parts of the city – especially the older side – that are beautiful. Cutting through the crowded clutter, you spy colonial (read Dutch) architecture, tree-fringed avenues and interesting eateries. You can grab the lunch at a seafood restaurant called Raja Kuring, a typical Indonesian cuisine is far more unfettered than sya mainland Chinese or Korean (the mix in plate comes from the varied historical and cultural influences – including Indian – the country has absorbed).

Pressed for time, so alongside a traffic-deadened tour of Jakarta – with a mandatory stop at the 137-metre-tall National Monument – a visit to the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. This is supposed to be like a thoughtfully-dressed-up window display of the diversity of Indonesia’s 27 provinces.

dragon springs

The Jakarta fling over, and headed to the airport to catch a flight to the hidden gem: the island of Lombok. Lombok has the potential to be another Bali and locals regard it to be an unspoilt avatar of the eastern world’s Great Tourism Factory. It is easy to say why. Crystal clear waters – one can see the coral formation through and through – and white sands frame the tropical paradise. The drive through Lombok is wondrously rural: there are lush green pastures and rolling hills.

The hotel room overhangs the sea. The waters were lapping gently through the day, but, as the night gets darker, it gets choppier. Sitting out on the porch outside ground-floor room, one can hear the crashing of the waves reverberating in the surrounding stillness. It is magical.

The next day, head off to a gili – that is island in local parlance. There are many gilis lying a short distance away from the main island of Lombok, and it is an exhilarating 10-minute journey on a bumpy, open-air speed-boat. The tropical sun beats down mercilessly, and the humidity continues to soak it.

gunung kawi

The gili whose shores are washed up on is called Trawangan. The villa at the gili hotel has an open-air bathroom and, because all the water on the island is from the sea, there is an urn of treated water left on the side of the shower area. Adventurous people can head for snorkelling and deep-sea diving. There are bonsai stagecoaches that would take you on an island trot. At night, you can hit an alley that looks straight out of a western European small town (there is a reason why it looks like this – tourism from the Occident): bistros, live-cooking cafes, lounge bars…..and music.

Even the weather seems to be behaving itself. In the morning, it is back to being hot and grimy and you would board the speedboat back to Lombok. You will be taken to this consortium of local houses, like a quick-fix hemlet: locals live here, make a living selling their ethnic wares. It is a labyrinth of levels, little huts magically appearing at every nook and corner. One can buy sarongs from them. Next you will fall in line with the rest of the group to catch a flight to Bali.

Bali turns out to be a somewhat of a downer. That is probably because of a displacement theory. The hotel – Discovery Kartika Plaza – is utterly gorgeous. Cottage comes with a plunge pool, there is Balinese piped music playing, the bedroom has a four-poster bed, complete with a flimsy, diaphanous curtain all around it. The downtown area is quaint and touristy with a certain faded old-world charm. The younger and wilder lot of visitors hang out near the beaches.

The next day, last in Indonesia, the group happily passes up the chance to watch a Balinese dance recital in favour of retail therapy. Consumerism always aces culture.

ulu danu beratan temple

There is a shopping mart called Krishna (most of the Balinese population is Hindu, and Krishna appears to be the most popular god: the main square has a wonderful depiction of Krishna and Arjun from the Mahabharat), a slice of shopping heaven: from Balinese souvenirs to Indonesia artifacts to silver jewellery to spa treatment lines to clothes and shoes and what-have-you.

One last meal at a lovely mom-and-pop dinner and you are off the airport. A new airport is allegedly in the works. Which is good news – the present airport, that greets huge traffic, is in a bit of mess.

Indonesia is the archipelago of 17000-odd islands. One dollar is equals 9600-odd Indonesian rupiahs. With just over 100 dollars, one can feel monetarily and momentarily empowered.

SPOTTING THE POTTED


More elusive than the tiger, leopards are one of the toughest big cats to spot. But if you are passionate about these enigmatic creatures, here are a few places in India to visit.

RAJASTHAN:-

Far from the madding crowd of tourists and safari canters, this is an uncharted leopard terrain, unknown even to the locals. A few dry, parched zones of Rajasthan have become thriving spots for leopard sightings. The journey starts from Taalvraksh (while coming from Delhi), which is just 20 km from Sariska Tiger Sanctuary in Rajasthan. The place has become a safe haven for leopards, which have migrated here from Sariska, thanks to territorial tiffs with the tigers. A small area of dense forest covering, with little water available, has made the place a good leopard habitat.

Next, you can visit Siana in Jalore district, a small hamlet bordering the great Thar Desert. The village of Siana is featured in David Attenborough’s epic The life of Mammals. The rocky desert hills of Siana are still home to a number of leopards other than chinkaras, Indian striped hyenas, desert fox, civet cat and jungle cats. The place offers a farm stay with homegrown food, safaris and a tour of the village where you can see carpenters engaged in making wooden handicrafts, leather embroidery and potters wheels.

Last but not the least, on the list is a place called Bera near Jawai Bandh, one of western Rajasthan’s largest reservoirs, which is abuzz with flamingos, geese, cranes and other migratory birds. Equidistant from Udaipur and Jodhpur ( 4 -5 hours by road), it is an hour’s drive away from the Jain temple at Ranakpur. Unlike Taalvraksh, Bera is not home to a few nomadic leopards, the place is full of the cat, camouflaged under big rocks. The location boasts of quite a few comfortable camps, some in luxury category with private viewing decks! Most of them offer specialized safaris with experienced guides, who will help you track down the stealthy beast and other wildlife, like sloth bears, wolves and hyenas.

Best time to visit:- winter, since the cat strolls out and basks freely under the winder sun.

KARNATAKA

The iconic image of a leopard resting on a silent tea branch that we often see in magazines was perhaps shot in the lush backwaters of the river Kabini in southern India. Snaking its way through the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the Kabini forms a spectacular backdrop to abundant wildlife, especially leopards. The Kabini forest Reserve in Karnataka is rather unique since all three predators – Tigers, leopards and Dholes (Indian wild dogs) coexist here. The leopards spend a large part of the day on trees and come down mostly for hunting. They are so well-camouflaged that even the most trained eye misses them from a distance. The Kabini Forest Reserve is also partially the largest refuge of the endangered Asiatic elephant. On a boat safari of the reserve, one can spot them by the waterfront along with other animals like gaur (Indian bison), spotted deer and wild boar.

Best Time to Visit: Between October and May.

BORDER OF MP, MAHARASHTRA

The fabled forest immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Mowgli Land in Pench, makes for intriguing jungle safaris. Located on the southern boundary of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra, Pench National Park is known for a variety of wildlife and more famously for the Royal Bengal Tiger. However, leopard sightings in this park are stated to be among the best in India. Though known to operate mostly in the peripheral areas of the park, leopards are also seen in the deep forest area. So don’t always keep your vision fixed at ground level, keep a watch on treetops for unsuspecting leopards taking a nap. Birding enthusiasts must pack appropriate binoculars and amateurs should carry birding books since the forest boasts of around 200 different species of birds, including barbets, wagtails and blue kingfishers.

Best time to visit: November to June

MADHYAPRADESH

There is one more place in central India that brags of a high leopard density – Satpura Tiger Reserve. Most travelers, who’ve been here to seek tigers, have come back jubilant over chance leopard sightings, the possibility of which is terrific, both inside the park and in the buffer zone, which is accessible on night drives. This relatively new, little-known scenic reserve also has the distinction of being one of the few national parks offering walking and kayaking safaris! Other than offering abundant wildlife, its forest clad hills, steep gorges and creeks makes for a picturesque outing.

Best time to visit:- November to June

JAMMU AND KASHMIR

A trek to the higher regions of Ladakh has become synonymous with searching for the elusive snow leopard. Leopards are hard to spot and snow leopards top that list. These reticent creatures love their cold habitat and come into sight only during their mating months, when they are on the move. Various organizations have vowed to protect this endangered animal and have started treks in the area, led by a Ladakhi snow leopard expert who tracks the snow leopards movements with the help of local villagers. In support of community-based ecotourism, these organizations make travelers stay with the local herders in the warmth of their traditional Ladakhi homes with comfy beds and gratifying meals.

Best time to visit: February and March, the snow leopards mating season.

AROUND THE WORLD

Asiatic leopard sightseeing’s can be fantastic in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. Boasting of one of the world’s densest leopard populations, Yala is also inhabited by herds of elephants, sloth bears and crocodiles.

Finding the elusive leopard can seem like a tall order, but not in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. Stay in one of the many gorgeous luxury camps and lodges with excellent guides at your service.

The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in Botswana is a place full of predators, roughly 200 cheetahs, 450 lions and 150 leopards dominate the sand dune-ridden landscape!

Rock and Roll Island – Easter Island


With its rough seas and stone moai statues, Easter Island is one of the world’s most isolated places.

easter islandmoai statues

Moai – the name of the giant statues that dot the grassy knolls of Easter Island. Carved out of the island’s volcanic rock nearly 1000 years ago, these enormous stone heads were built to honour the island’s very important people.

First heard about Easter Island while on holiday in Santiago, Chile, is when a documentary about a tiny Polynesian island covered in giant heads and extinct volcanoes. A five-hour flight later, we had touched down at Matavery International Airport to the swishing of grass skirts, cool coconut drinks and leis made of freshly plucked frangipanis.

As the driver had navigated the dirt roads towards the hotel Posada De Mike Rapu, he had occasionally stopped to give way to one of the 6000 wild horses that roam free on the island. Burnt yellow fields rolled quietly towards the roaring ocean; a lone palm tree the only reminder of the thick jungle that once covered this isolated land.

Impressive work ethic: Continue to walk further along the Ara O Te Moai, is the ancient trail once used to transport the moai around the island. There is a huge dented slab of volcanic rock: the Rano Raraku quarry. Most of the moai on the island – estimated around 1000 – were carved from this quarry. Some are very small, while others look around 10 metres tall. When someone important died, the village would request that a moai be made so that person’s mana (good luck and special powers) would protect them. The villagers had to feed and house the workers while they made the state, which could take a year.

fallen moaimoai statue-1

It is an impressive work ethic – and the mammoth job of carving the moai is just the beginning. Most of the moai line the island’s coast, which is up to 11 miles from the quarry, and are strategically placed on platforms to protect the villages from invaders. Even to this day, questions remains about how such a primitive people managed to move hundreds of tonnes of rock around the island.

 

National geographic may have found the answer. It funded an expedition to Easter Island, sending archaeologists on a mission to find out exactly how these enormous statues – the largest weighing more than 80 tonnes – were transported from the quarry. They recreated the scene and realised it is possible the moai walked from their quarries to the platforms around the island.

Nearby, a fallen moai’s head sinks into the soft grass, its empty eye sockets (once made from coral) staring blankly at the blue sky above. The local people believed that if a moai fell while being transported to its new home, its mana was worthless and the moai was to be left where it toppled. Workers would then return to the quarry and start a year’s worth of work all over again.

 

A Birdman in the hand: The sea is swollen before leaving the jetty and by the time fishing boat reaches open waters it’s lathering into a fury. It is not exactly an idyllic day to go snorkelling in the Pacific. The guide cuts the engine beside Motu Nui, a tiny, uninhabited speck in the ocean. There were the ominous-looking cliffs of Easter Island, now being battered by swirling winds.

 

easter island cliffskari kari ballet

Up until 19th century the island held a competition called Birdman contest. Powerful men on the island would order the strongest men from their village to clamber down those high cliffs, swim across here to Motu Nui, collect the first Sooty Tern (an important island bird) egg of the season, swim back and climb back up the cliffs to the village. It was pretty dangerous crossing the water, but first man to make it back with the egg would be the winner; his chef got to be the Birdman and ruler of the island for the year.

 

Towards the other side of Motu Nui, the sea turns back to turquoise, where you can plop into the cool water for snorkelling. The visibility would be perfect yet there would be hardly any fish here, the water around Easter Island eerily devoid of sea life.

 

Show Time: The Kari Kari ballet is widely regarded as the best traditional show on the island.

Courtesy by G.N.

CHINA’S BEAR NECESSITIES


The Chinese are not known to be great animal lovers, but in stunning Sichuan province you would discover why the endangered giant panda is their national treasure. And if you can tear yourself away from all that cuteness, there are plenty of other attractions and distractions.

pandatraditional play

In the space of just a few hours, it is impressive how much a giant panda can defecate. I am inside five-year-old Yoaxin’s enclosure, using a shovel to chase enormous floating pellets of compressed orange mush around a pond.

As I skilfully scoop the mess into a bucket, I wonder if US first lady Michelle Obama, who recently visited the Sichuan province’s most famous residents, opted to roll up her sleeves to pick up panda poop as part of her official duties, probably not.

But having enrolled at the Bifengxia Panda Conservation Centre as a voluntary panda-keeper for the day, I am ready to get my hands dirty.

As one of the world’s most endangered species, whose existence now depends heavily on conservation efforts, the rarest member of the bear family has earned adoration from wildlife lovers worldwide.

Earlier this year, in Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo the resident giant panda Tian Tian, on loan from the Chinese government, was artificially inseminated, with hopes she will give birth this month or in September. But panda fans eager to see the animals in their homeland can now do so with greater ease, thanks to increased flights from a variety of different airlines to the panda capital, Chengdu.

According to a 2003 census by the Chinese State Forestry Bureau, there were 1596 giant pandas in the wild with 83 percent of the population found in the Sichuan province. (More recent figures are expected soon, but have not yet been published.) Three hundred of those bears can be found in reserves such as Bifengxia and Chengdu’s Giant Panda Research Base.

Seeing pandas in the wild is almost impossible; solitary creatures that roam in areas of 20 sq km, they are often only captured by camera traps. Plans are under way to reopen the mountain Wolong retreat, destroyed in a 2008 earthquake, but in the meantime, a good alternative are the bamboo hills of Bifengxia in Ya’an, 150 km from Chengdu.

Legs splayed like a small child, with those distinctive dark eye smudges making her look like a haggard insomniac, Yoaxin appears quite sad and helpless.

Far more lively are several baby pandas, which emit high-pitched squeaks as they tumble on top of each other and scramble up trees.

Local tourists dressed in ridiculous fluffy panda hats snap happily on their smartphones before racing off to souvenir shops to buy tat emblazoned with the symbolic monochrome bear.

Even centuries ago, soldiers would wave flags decorated with pandas, which they believed represented power. There is no doubt these creatures have become a national treasure.

However, given the country’s controversial track record for using endangered species in traditional medicine, Chinese animal welfare almost sounds like an oxymoron.

Jack, the guide said pandas are one of the few endemic animals to have survived, he partially jokes: “because they don’t taste very good!” But there is some truth to his words; history books recount tales of local people attempting to cook pandas in pots with highly dissatisfying results.

“Chinese people like to put things in their mouths, “he adds, as we drive towards the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base.

Located in the middle of the city and easily accessible, this is the most popular reserve for foreign tourists. Walkways wind around spacious enclosures, in a set-up similar to a zoo.

During the visit, the temperature is mild, but in the sticky summer months, pandas sleep on ice beds in air–conditioned rooms and eat watermelon and carrot lollies to keep cool.

Posters advertise the opportunity to hold a panda, if you are prepared to pay 1330 yuan (215 $) and dress up in an overcoat and surgical mask.

The money is needed for the expensive upkeep of the pandas and investment into the artificial insemination unit, currently the main method by which the sluggish pandas are able to reproduce.

emeishan jinding templegiant budha of leshan

Fortunately, Chengdu has much more to offer than its cute and cuddly bears. Green spaces, excellent cuisine and a strong tradition of tea houses has earned the 2000-year-old Sichuan capital a reputation for being the most relaxed city in the People’s Republic.

ram taoist templemarket

At one time, there were 10,000 tea houses in Chengdu, today, 1000 are still in operation. One of the biggest is the Hemin teahouse in the People’s Park, where groups of old men and university students gather at bamboo tables to play the traditional Chinese game, mah-jong.

Competitors are locked in serious, concentration, their expressions as blank as the flat sky overhead. (On average, the sun only shines in Chengdu 100 days per year.)

antiques shopping areamodern chengdu

Elsewhere, in the park, retired women wearing oversized glasses and pouts like a baboon’s bottom amuse themselves by parading up and down on a makeshift catwalk in a bizarre public fashion show, while others perform traditional Tibetan dances. Aside from the 17th century Qing dynasty wide and narrow alleys, now revamped as an upmarket complex of restaurants, boutiques and street food stalls, much of the high-rise architecture in Chengdu is modern.

As people from rural areas seek better health care, education and employment, the population of the city is swelling. Yet many would agree that their hearts still lie in the surrounding scenic countryside.

Used in the 1950s to carry coal from mines, the Jaiyang railroad now takes tourists on day trips through peaceful farmlands, while a separate carriage still carries locals and their livestock to market. A journey on the small steam train provides welcome contrast to the grey smog and concrete of the city; fields of brilliant yellow rapessed flowers radiate colour in a place where the sun rarely seems to shine.

Although China is a country that is rapidly industrialising, with new roads and buildings springing up like weeds and choking the environment, there is the glimmer of hope that people are beginning to appreciate the extent of what they could lose. It is true that, culturally speaking, the Chinese are not a nation of animal lovers, but efforts to protect the giant panda, their national treasure, are educating a new generation.

Courtesy by G.N.

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