In my defense, I was young and impatient. All pumped up on what we shall call the ‘Indian holiday hormone,’ I’d made mental notes on how to narrate the story back to my friends in Kolkata, when I spot my first-ever royal Bengal tiger in Bandhavgarh. But said tiger had other plans, and I was left… royally disappointed. So much, in fact, that I have the flimsiest memory of what must have been a beautiful winter morning in the national park in Madhya Pradesh. I don’t remember the huge herd of chital, nor the gorgeous Indian roller that my family fondly recalls.
Looking back, it wasn’t the tiger’s fault, or mine. The real problem was the unsuspecting yet woeful gaze that we hold, collectively, for wildlife. Somehow, we’ve conned ourselves into believing that a safari is successful only if one comes back with a checklist of ‘big’ sightings—leopard in Kabini, elephant in Periyar, one-horned rhino in Kaziranga, and so on. To break the mould, and travel towards a more rounded, organic experience of the wild, we’ve drawn up a list of low-profile stars you can keep an eye out for on these popular Indian safaris. The big guys won’t mind.
Come winter, excitable droves of nature-lovers and wildlife photographers set out for Ladakh’s snow-swaddled heights, hoping, praying, betting that this time, they’ll sight the snow leopard. Wildlifer Neeraj Mahar, who has lived and worked for four years around Hemis National Park—one of the major protected hubs for the animal in Ladakh—feels strongly about the missed opportunities along the way. “Entire tourism packages hinge around this one animal! But peak winter in Hemis (January-March) is also the window to spot some other amazing species, many exclusive to the region,” rues Mahar. Take for example the Tibetan wolf, a fierce, shaggy beauty: rare but present. Or the Himalayan red fox, stark as smeared sandalwood against endless quilts of white.
Among the herbivores, there’s the blue sheep, oh-so-abundant. Locally known as bharal, these ungulates (hooved mammals) are neither sheep, nor exactly blue. But sporting grey to light brown coats—with an almost illusive hint of blue sheen—‘mountain monarchs’ are tough cookies, navigating treacherous Trans-Himalayan heights comfortably. Ditto for the Ladakhi urial endemic wild sheep found “slightly on the fringes.” You might meet them grazing on the banks of the Indus, the rams extra-impressive with giant, curving horns designed for dominance. Not a winter watch, but one of Mahar’s favourites is the Himalayan marmot, living in large colonies. If you’re visiting between May-October, look out for the woolly-furred, button-eyed beauty—like a character out of an Ice Age encyclopedia.
Instead of Indian rhinoceros: Malayan giant squirrel
“Cute about sums up the Malayan giant squirrel, but it’s also got quite the personality,” says Sumashini P.S., a wildlife researcher from Bengaluru who’s made a home out of the wilderness in Assam. The Goth cousin of the Malabar giant squirrel is an unabashed flaunter, she insists, with its glossy black fur (it’s not called the black giant squirrel for nothing) and swish-worthy tail. Scattered around the forests of the Northeast and North Bengal with a presence in Bangladesh, Nepal, China, and several Southeast Asian countries, it is still listed as ‘Near Threatened’.
In Kaziranga National Park, however, it isn’t too difficult to spot, gambolling around high canopies, or gnawing at seeds and bark. Let the distinctive coat, loud call, and the “ruckus they create, jumping between branches”, guide you. Your best bet is around the sunnier, fruiting days of summer—6-9 a.m. to see them in thick action, and well after the heat starts, if you fancy a slumped, stretched, or snoozing avatar. But a real win would be to spy them while they’re feeding. “Once they start eating, the gluttons are oblivious to the world,” laughs Sumashini.
Instead of tiger: Barasingha; Dhole
Brought back from the brink of local-extinction by the labour and love of the forest department, the barasingha (hard-ground swamp deer) enjoys a special home in Kanha. With the most artistic antlers, the state animal of Madhya Pradesh is also the national park’s official mascot. Catch them in full glory around the mating season (autumn), when the males put on a spectacular show as a part of the rutting ritual: they adorn their antlers with vegetation, to make them appear bigger. Seasonal couture certainly ups the barasingha’s appeal, for they are also known to change the colour of their fur coat: Golden-brown with faint white spots during summer, and a richer orange-brown for winter. But if an intelligent, gregarious personality is your thing, look no further than the dhole, or Asiatic wild dog. The adept hunter reigns over Kanha in large packs.
Instead of elephants: Chausingha; Ruddy mongoose
A four-horned antelope is a sight to cherish anywhere, but in Bandipur, the otherwise elusive creature can be spotted relatively effortlessly. “In my three months at the national park, I’ve seen my fill of chausinghas,” vouches Rajat Rastogi of National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). He even hands out a rough map for the purpose, hinting at great sightings at “the junction between buffer and core zones,” especially near Mangala Village. A keen eye will lead you to spot the buffish coat among dry grass (January-April), the squat black nose, and smaller pair of forehead horns. “A skittish bloke, if it catches you watching, chances are it will take three near-comical high jumps, and run off,” warns Rastogi. So scour gently, at transitional sections of greens, between dry deciduous trees and thorn scrub. While you’re at it, be on the lookout for Bandipur’s resident ruddy mongoose. Bulkier size, black-tip tail, and fur the colour of filter coffee sets it apart from its more common cousin, Indian grey mongoose, which also abound in the area.
Instead of tiger: Jungle cat; Rusty spotted cat
A rustle and a crunch in the wispy yellow grasses, and suddenly a slender silhouette leaps up on all fours, out of camouflage and dramatically into the air, to snag his morning meal of a luckless bush bird. Congratulations, you’ve been courted by the jungle cat, aka reed or swamp cat. Nilanjan Chatterjee, working out of Tadoba for his PhD on small carnivores, vouches for the thrill. “It’s quite a spectacle, if you can catch this fellow, slightly larger than the domestic cat and a sandy to reddish-grey colour, while he’s on a hunt,” he says. Look out for the predecessor of your beloved housecat, particularly if you’re visiting Tadoba between March-June. Once the rains arrive and the grasses turn green, the felis chaus tends to retreat deeper into the forest, in the fear of losing camouflage. Not sighted as often, but certainly coveted, is the rather squishy-looking rusty-spotted cat, the smallest member of the cat family. But don’t be fooled, this (obviously) spotted orange introvert, who’s something of an enigma even to experts, has been known to share its habitat with big cuz, the tiger.
“Earlier, it was thought to be a dry area species, but now we know it can also thrive in good canopy cover, with birds and eggs to predate upon, shares Chatterjee, careful not to gloat about his prized photograph of one nocturnal encounter. Cross your fingers and hope for a sighting around evening hours—on your way back from the day’s jaunt. Chances are better around the months of March-April, when the rusty gets frisky, and can emerge out of reclusion to look for a mate.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.