The Indian subcontinent boasts nearly 500 species of mammal, protected within over 250 wildlife reserves, and is the only place in the world that can still claim both Tiger and Lion among its native fauna. Inevitably, however, it is the Tiger, and such other popular large mammals as Asian Elephant and Greater One-horned Rhino, that are the focus of so many of our India tours. This special itinerary is different though, a trio of rare Indian mammals — Blackbuck, Asiatic Wild Ass and Asiatic Lion — being our chief targets. A supporting cast of other rarely seen possibilities, including Striped Hyena, Desert Wildcat, Indian Wolf and Desert Red Fox, is no less mouthwatering!
The range of the Asiatic Lion once extended as far as Greece, but habitat destruction and hunting gradually diminished its population. Today only a few hundred remain in the relict Gir Forest on the Saurashtra Peninsula in Gujarat, India’s westernmost state. It is here that we will spend two full days, travelling from our base at a comfortable tourist lodge into the grassland and forest domain of this magnificent predator, encountering a stunning variety of wildlife as we search for our quarry. We will also visit two other wildlife reserves in Gujarat during this holiday, each protecting important populations of endangered species. In Velavadar Wildlife Reserve we will enjoy the highest concentration of Blackbuck on Earth while, in Dhrangadhra Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch, we’ll explore the home of the Asiatic Wild Ass. We will also spend time around Kachchh, searching the desert scrub for such rarities as Striped Hyena, Indian Wolf and Desert Wildcat.
We begin with a 2-night stay in Velavadar, where the graceful Blackbuck, one of the most attractive of all Indian mammals, still occurs in large herds that graze the scrubby grasslands set aside for their protection. Indian Wolf, Jungle Cat and Nilgai also occur here and, whilst the driest season during March and April is perhaps best for mammals, the winter months from November to February draw large concentrations of wintering harriers, eagles, geese and cranes to the reserve.
Our next destination is the Gir Forest National Park. With a rugged terrain of low hills and tracts of deciduous forest interspersed with areas of grassland, this national park supports a great diversity of mammals including Sambar, Chital, Nilgai, Chinkara (Indian Gazelle), Four-horned Antelope and Wild Boar. With such an abundance of prey it is little surprise that Leopards maintain good numbers in the forests and Striped Hyenas seek to scavenge any leftovers from the big cats’ meals. The Gir Forest is, however, most famed for its Lions and our focus will be to find as many as possible during twice-daily excursions into their habitat. While, elsewhere in India, the Tiger is the top terrestrial predator, here in the Gir Forest, the majesty of the Lion is unchallenged. We will spend three nights here at a comfortable forest lodge.
Next we travel to Kachchh for a 2-night stay, breaking our journey with a night in Rajkot. In Kachchh we will explore the surrounding desert and scrub where such avian specialities as Great Indian Bustard, Grey Hypercolius, MacQueen’s Bustard, the endemic White-naped Tit and the exquisite Indian Courser may be seen. In this region our chances of seeing exciting mammals are greatly increased by the fact that, being outside any protected area, night-time spotlighting safaris are possible. Thus we have a much greater chance here of seeing the strange loping Striped Hyena, the charming Desert Wildcat, the desert subspecies of Red Fox and perhaps a family of Indian Wolves.
Finally, we travel to the Dhrangadhra Sanctuary. Established in 1973, this reserve embraces a huge area of flat, saline wilderness and protects an important population of the endangered Asiatic Wild Ass. Finding these shy, sandy-coloured creatures is no easy task in this arid landscape. However, with luck, we should discover a small herd feeding on their favourite ‘bets’ (islands of coarse grasses), which provide their principal nourishment in this harsh terrain. After two idyllic days in the peaceful haven of the Little Rann of Kutch, we will head to Ahmedabad for our flight to London, via Doha.