I suspect the potential for Chambal to be a multi-day wildlife destination is under-stated for both local wildlife enthusiasts in India as well as for overseas visitors. In December 2016, I spent nearly a week in the Chambal area as an invited speaker at the Uttar Pradesh Bird Fair 2016. I took three boat safaris on the Chambal River and made two visits to the Sarus Trail. I also had a few birding sessions at the Chambal Safari Lodge. The purpose of this two-part article and accompanying itinerary is to illustrate the richness of bird species and other wildlife in the Chambal area and also more specifically in the grounds of the Chambal Safari Lodge.
The National Chambal Sanctuary spanning over 1200 square kilometres is in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in the north of India. In India, wildlife tourism from overseas visitors tends to be tiger-centric. An exception to this is the large number of visiting birders who go in search of birds as well as other wildlife and do not need a wildlife tour dominated by large mammals. In this article, when I refer to Chambal, I refer to parts of the sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh and use the Chambal Safari Lodge as a point of reference. This lodge has been the base for visiting wildlife enthusiasts for over two decades who have been viewing an aspect of India’s wildlife which deserves a wider audience. A highlight for me was being able to approach Marsh Crocodiles and Gharials silently and to photograph them at eye level from a boat as they basked on sand banks in the river.
The Chambal Safari Lodge is located to the South-east of Delhi and Agra, 270km and 70km respectively by road. Agra is famous for the Taj Mahal and guests can do this as a day trip or enroute. The river is 22 km (approx. 45 minutes) away and the lodge operates three motor boats for river safaris which are operated under a licensing system. The lodge lies in the Gangetic Plain, a fertile area bounded in the north by the Himalayas. To the south is an area of higher elevation split by the Narmada Rift Valley which punctured the Deccan Traps; an area of lava flows laid down 65 million years ago during one of the earth’s most violent periods of volcanism. The resulting greenhouse gases were responsible for a tropical climate in Antarctica. Water drains into the Chambal from the South as well before joining the Yamuna-Ganga basin and flowing into the East into the Bay of Bengal. In Indian mythology, the water of the river was cursed and this is believed to be a reason for the lack of human settlements which have left it unpolluted.
The bird list for Chambal is around 350 species; almost the size of a bird checklist of a small country. The Chambal Safari Lodge has close to 250 species which is also quite impressive. In fact, the grounds of the Chambal Safari Lodge are akin to a small nature reserve with a diversity of vegetation types. The habitat types are varied with densely wooded pockets in which owls roost, to scrub and grassland suitable for prinias and Grey Francolins. The grounds also have a number of large, old fig trees which when in fruit, are a magnet to birds and mammals. Bird watchers and photographers can position themselves near one of these trees and wait for the birds such as the Indian Grey Hornbill.
The Lodge also has a surprising number of mammals. Mammals such as jackals and hare which are rarely seen in daylight outside protected areas in most countries can be seen on a walk. Nanette Roland from Leica and Thomas Sacher a wildlife biologist who were invitees to the bird fair saw a Jungle Cat in the fields adjoining the lodge. Rhesus Macaques hang around the village just outside the lodge’s boundary. In the night, using a red filtered light, visitors can look for Common Palm-civet. The large deer, the Nilgai is seen crashing through the grounds and entering the adjoining fields. Because of their resemblance to the cow which is sacred in India, they are not hunted. This explains why this large deer is so fearless of people.
The River Chambal’s potential for wildlife is a result of the lack of human habitation along its course which has resulted in a lack of pollution. In fact, it is probably the only river in India whose water is clean enough for human consumption without requiring a lot of treatment. On one of the river safaris organised for the Uttar Pradesh Bird Fair, some people drank the river water while boating although I would not recommend anyone doing so.
Continues on the 27th of June.