Secrets of Wild India - Desert Lions

March 6th. 5 am . New Delhi airport

Everything is still so vivid in my mind. Still not fully awake, I am pushing 3 trolleys with thirty six pieces of luggage, trying to navigate the early morning passenger traffic.  I get weird looks as i labour along, trying to keep the trolleys in line. People seem to instinctively know that I am film crew,  whispering to themselves and glancing over their backs.  I check-in 245 kilos of excess baggage and pay almost 5 times my ticket fare for it. By the time I get into the flight it seems like eternity since i left the hotel this morning.  I feel like i have already earned my cameraman fee for the day, and it is just day-break now!  I am heading to Gujarat to start filming for the `Desert Lions episode.

`Desert lions`, unlike the tiger episode, had to be shot very differently. It involved multiple locations and many different species. I was expecting to spend as much time on the road, trying to reach locations, as I would be sitting in hides trying to film animals.  There were five major locations - Gir for the lions, lesser Rann of Kutch for the wild ass, greater Rann of Kutch, Velavdar in Gujarat for black buck and many parts of Rajasthan for leopards, chinkara , demoiselle cranes and of course the sand dunes.   In contrast `Tiger jungles` was to be shot in a single location where our routine would be set.

As we drive from the airport to the greater Rann of Kutch, Kalyan and Mandana chatter away in excitement. They had arrived a day earlier, driving their vehicles from Bangalore.  They had scouted around, looking for filming locations and the best places to film wildlife. In one of the spots they were able to watch and photograph a pair of absolutely adorable desert cat kittens. While scrolling through their stunning images my mind is working on the possibility of a great sequence with them; I am excited too.

Desert cat kittens - incredibly well adapted to their environment  

Desert cat kittens - incredibly well adapted to their environment

 

Our first filming location is the `Banni grasslands. These grasslands were once the flood plains of the Indus river. At some point in time, the river changed course and the fertile lands, sprawling nearly four thousand square kilometers suddenly changed to arid conditions.  At first glance the whole area looks like parched waste-land with little life other than dry tufted grass. But its endless vastness holds some very unique wildlife.  Besides the Desert cat; Caracals, Desert foxes and migrating common cranes embellish this place. Unfortunately its flat arid appearance has become its death knell. To most people, open lands without trees is considered wasteland and wastelands are meant to be developed. Banni is slowly disappearing.

The two kittens are in their den when we locate them at pre-dawn. Even though it is march, the morning is bitterly chill. The kittens allow me to get off the vehicle, on to the ground, to film. Brave little ones I think to myself.   I plant myself next to the car's bonnet, enjoying the warmth of the engine. The kittens are quiet too. They huddle together and snooze, occasionally checking to see what I am up to. Someone passes a cup of hot tea and I am grateful. We wait for the sun to pop out.

One of the concepts we wanted to bring out in the `Desert` film was the close association of the wildlife with humans. In these areas, a good proportion of the wild animals roam freely outside protected areas and constantly come in close proximity to humans. Culturally, the people of the desert are very accommodative and not only tolerate the presence, but also feed and protect the animals. This film was in a sense a tribute to the fact that people living in such a harsh environment with so little for themselves , have the heart to share what they have and protect the wildlife that lives around them.

The kittens warm up with the suns rays and start stretching. Within minutes they are up and about, scratching and scouring the ground and stalking. They are stunningly agile as they make maneuvers through the bush and keep taking off into mid air to escape play attacks. They are so engaging that i lose sense of all time. I am fascinated by how well adapted they are to their surroundings and how significant their play is to developing their hunting skills. All this agility will be required to hunt scurrying rodents and alert little birds once they grow up. This is the first time I am filming the smaller cats and I can't help notice how similar they are to domestic cats in their mannerisms. The way they sit, the way they stalk and the way they play. What really seperates them is their camouflage and their perfect adaptation to the environment they live in.

Indian fox pups - den so close to the road that my heart jumped everytime a vehicle passed them

Indian fox pups - den so close to the road that my heart jumped everytime a vehicle passed them

We spend the next few morning following the kittens. Evenings are at an Indian fox den which is strangely within touching distance of a village road. The den has 3 pups which provide endless filming entertainement. I am amazed how playful and relaxed they are in spite of vehicles passing right next to them every now and then.

Little Rann of Kutch - Moonscape on earth  

Little Rann of Kutch - Moonscape on earth

 

When we leave Banni I am really happy. The ten days that we spent there is really productive and the footage we got is worth its weight in gold.

If Banni is a picture of aridness, the lesser Rann of kutch is nothing short of a moonscape. It is flat and featureless till the eye can see and the salt makes the ground white. Add heat mirages and you wonder if you’re still on this planet.  We have a very tight schedule in the Rann and the Asiatic wild asses don’t seem to be in a mood to be filmed. They are spooked by our vehicles and I have to use some trickery to get close to them. I hide in the prosopis bushes and wait for them to get close. Its not much cover but it works. I am able to get some behaviour at least. The trouble with the Rann is that once the sun is up the heat haze intensifies quickly. Every thing starts to appear as blurred jelly and it is becomes a pointless exercise to film after a certain time. Eventually the Asses do oblige and give me some of their time. I am happy to take whatever they give. I guess it’s a good working philosophy for wildlife cameraman.

The Desert episode saw us jump numerous locations; each as spectacular as the next and each offering its own little excitement. But there was one common binding factor to all of them-  how closely linked the wildlife was to humans were in these regions. From the thousands of demoiselle cranes that congregated in Keechan, to the desert cats and foxes living alongside camel herders and village traffic and to the maldharis living next door to wild lions -they were all great examples of harmonious co-existence. The experience was eye opening to me. It set me thinking as to why and how this was happening here, one of the harshest environments on the planet. Be it an artifact of religious belief or cultural up bringing, the fact that people let animals live alongside them and share what little they have speaks of a complete acceptance of the fact that co-existence is the only way of life. Some people may be acceptable with the dangers and losses that come with wild animals living next door, some may be angered and frustrated by it, but as a community there is only one resounding message, Live and let live.

Chinkara in a Bishnoi temple - Rajasthan

The very last sequence I have to shoot for the series is to do with chinkaras. They are specialized desert antelope with legendary abilities for surviving without water. We hardly got any footage of them during the shoot because of their shy nature. They would disappear into the dunes the moment they saw me with the camera. We need some shots of them as this film would be incomplete without them. The place I  went to film them was a Bishnoi temple close to jodhpur. Here the chinkara were came every morning to feed on the temple offerings. I was stunned at what I saw. These animals were going in and out of homes, feeding on rotis and allowed people to touch them. I open a packet of salt biscuits (they love them apparently) and a beautiful adult male comes up and eats it out of my hand. It then moves to a child who also holds out her hand. I sit there and wonder, I don’t really want to see chinkara eating biscuits out of peoples hands, I am happy to see their tails disappear into the sand dunes. But I am at the same time touched by the fact that they can so easily trust humans and let them close and we as humans, if we chose to, can let them close to us as well.

Demoiselle cranes - Congregate in the thousands in a small village called Keechan in Rajasthan

Demoiselle cranes - Congregate in the thousands in a small village called Keechan in Rajasthan