NATIONAL CHAMBAL SANCTUARY

Indian Skimmer sunset, Chambal River

WE HAD TWO CRUISES ON THE WONDERFUL CHAMBAL RIVER again this time and these were the most productive photo sessions of the whole tour with some of us taking well over 2,000 photos per day of numerous different subjects. The highlight of a cruise along the Chambal River is undoubtedly an encounter with the second largest crocodile in the world, the long-snouted Gharial (second only to the monstrous Saltwater Crocodile). We saw plenty of them including a few large-nosed males, amongst the more widespread Marsh Mugger crocodiles. The National Chambal Sanctuary was declared in 1978, mostly to protect this critically endangered, fish-eating crocodile. Named after the Nepalese word ‘ghara’ meaning earthenware pot, referring to the enlarged growth on the end of the snout of mature males, which can grow to six metres long and one tonne in weight. There are fewer than 400 breeding pairs left in its remaining range, a mere 2% of its former distribution, which used to include Pakistan, Burma and the Brahmaputra. A truly magnificent animal! We also had some really bonkers close encounters with a huge Marsh Mugger Crocodile, which thankfully decided not to join us in our boats.

Marsh Mugger, Chambal River

Gharials enjoying late afternoon sunshine, Chambal River

Another major attraction here is the endangered Ganges River Dolphin and the encounter we had this year was easily my best so far, with numerous semi-breaches and I even managed a (albeit record) shot of one this time. They seem to favour the same deep section of the river that I have seen them in year after year, downstream of a couple of river islands and upstream of a large meander, just as they are supposed to. These creatures face a range of threats from pollution to water development projects, hunting (Ganges and Brahmaputra) and entanglement in fishing gear but happily they continue to flourish in the Chambal River.

Another brief glimpse of a Ganges River Dolphin, Chambal River

A rich variety of wildlife can still be found on the Chambal, including pretty much all of the characteristic species of the large slow-flowing rivers of the Gangetic drainage system that were once found all over northern India. It is like stepping back in time and other relics included Red-naped Ibis, Comb Duck, Black-bellied and River Terns. Also here were: flotillas of Bar-headed Geese grazing on the weed in the river; Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans and the impressive Pallas’s Gull from Central Asia, Ruddy Shelduck, paired up and a couple of Golden Jackals on the prowl. We also photographed a pair of nesting Pied Kingfishers; a crazy Striated Heron perched on one of the abandoned pontoons that allowed approach to almost within touching distance plus a furtive Brown Crake along the nearby riverbank.

Great Thick-Knees, Chambal River

As the sun was setting on our evening cruise we finally caught up with another major target here, the amazing Indian Skimmer, with its ‘snapped-off’ shorter upper mandible, bouncy flight and even living up to its name with a little skimming. There was only a pair this time, however, we were relieved to see them at all once we knew skimmers had not been seen for around 10 days and lots of folks had gone home disappointed lately. Although the light was fading fast by now, they even arranged themselves in the reflections of the orange sun on the water – FANTASTIC STUFF!

Indian Skimmer, Chambal River

Once the thick morning mist had cleared our next cruise also afforded several opportunities to photograph some attractive River Lapwings (now a threatened bird of the Indian Subcontinent’s large slow-flowing rivers) and the peculiar Great Thick-knee. A 960km long tributary of the filthy River Yamuna, the Chambal River has evaded development and its inevitable pollution owing to the river being considered unholy! The river reputed to have been cursed by a princess as well as carried the blood of thousands of sacrificed cows, ironically saving it from the even worse fate that has befallen the other rivers around it. Our very pleasant lodge near the Chambal was as delightful as ever and a wonderful evening meal here was followed after dark by some Common Palm Civet photography in the lodge gardens. In daytime there are usually some interesting birds in the near vicinity and this year’s visit again resulted in some good photo opportunities of Spotted Owlet. We were sorry to head back north to the bright lights of Agra, then Delhi via the bizarre empty new Yamuna expressway and the next stop on our tour, the ‘Kipling Country’ of Madhya Pradesh state.

Striated Heron on an old pontoon, Chambal River