Photographing Wildlife in Rajasthan: What a Surprise!

Leopard near the Varawal Leopard Camp.
Leopard near the Varawal Leopard Camp.

Story and photos by Melissa Theil

As a hobby travel photographer, the destination I visit dictates the type of photography I prepare for. This past February I decided to make a third photojournalistic trip to India. My plan was:

  1. to photograph the Allahabad (now Prayagraj) Kumbh Mela, a grand Hindu spiritual pilgrimage and festival to which millions throng from all over India and the world held at the holy confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati,
  2. visit some breeding stables of the famous Rajasthani Marwari horses to take portraits of these fascinating animals,
  3. visit the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan to document the annual Desert Festival and
  4. photograph rural tribal culture of Rajasthan.

Wildlife was not on my agenda, so I hadn’t packed a big telephoto lens. Once there, my friend, guide and fellow photographer, Ankit Kangarot, pleaded with me to add some of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of his beloved Rajasthan to our itinerary. After 3 wildlife safaris to Africa, my thought was, why bother?  Nothing can compare to the diversity of wildlife one sees in the national parks of Africa and there probably wouldn’t be much wildlife action at Indian parks, anyway, right? It turned out I was very wrong and totally unprepared, photographically, for the wildlife in rural Rajasthan. Little did I know that rural Rajasthan is teeming with exotic wildlife beyond my imagination. Of course, I got the colorful cultural shots I had planned for, but wildlife popped up everywhere. And there I was, without my long lenses!

Herds of chinkara or Indian gazelles are commonly seen in Rajasthan's Thar Desert.
Herds of chinkara or Indian gazelles are commonly seen in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert.

As we traveled the rural dirt roads by car, I saw many large blue bulls or nilgai, a cow-like antelope native only to India, which I learned are a pest to farmers. But, because they are similar to cows, they are considered sacred and cannot be killed. Herds of chinkara, or Indian gazelle, were common sights. Other ungulates we spotted in the fields were Sambar deer and blackbuck. I saw lakes, salt pans and ponds teeming with migratory greater flamingos, rosy pelicans and demoiselle cranes. In the larger lakes we spotted huge mugger crocodiles, and even saw a critically endangered gharial on the Chambar River. Gharials are long, thin-snouted crocodilians with a distinctive boney bump at the end of their snout, which resembles an earthenware pot known in Hindi as a ghara.

Jungle cats look like large domestic house cats.
Jungle cats look like large domestic house cats.

One evening near Udaipur, we spotted a jungle cat (Felis chaus) hunting by the side of the road. It looked exactly like very large domestic housecat to me. I think of myself as a pretty well-educated natural historian when it comes to Indian wildlife, but I learned I was pretty naive when we came upon a spotted hyena eating roadkill. I never knew there were hyenas in India! Ankit told me jackals are also commonly seen and, sure enough, two jackals scurried into the bush near Bikaner and I caught them with my lowly travel lens.

Wild Peafowl are seen everywhere in rural Rajasthan as well as in cities.
Wild Peafowl are seen everywhere in rural Rajasthan as well as in cities.

Other surprises included seeing beautiful, iridescent purple sunbirds, tame lapwings and bulbuls everywhere.  Langur and rhesus monkeys, wild peafowl and parrots were ubiquitous, as well. Ankit’s friend’s family raises government-controlled opium poppies. We visited them one evening and learned that green parrots there are a menace, as they become addicted to the poppies.

Parrots have become addicted to opium poppy secretions in Rajasthan.
Parrots have become addicted to opium poppy secretions in Rajasthan.

There were feral camels in the Thar desert that had escaped from camel herders years ago. There were emus, which had been imported from Australia and sold via elaborate Ponzi schemes to farmers who, when they discovered no money could be made raising the large birds, set them free to fend for themselves.

Breathtaking landscape near the Varawal Leopard Camp.
Breathtaking landscape near the Varawal Leopard Camp.

Since it was on our route, Ankit got us a reservation for a day at Varawal Leopard Camp near Bera which was a highlight of my Rajasthani adventure. I was blown away by the scenery! Magnificent, ancient, weather-shaped boulders (like the kopjes in Serengeti) jut out of the scrub forests and the artificial lake near the Jawai Dam. We were amazingly lucky to see a couple of leopards quite soon after leaving camp in our safari vehicle. The 50 or so leopards in this region share the land with Rabari sheep and goat herdsmen who are reimbursed by the leopard camps for any livestock loss from leopards and a few hyenas, since there is not much other natural prey here. I also learned that, in this area, humans have never been attacked by these apex predators.

Rabari herdsmen near the Varawal Camp are compensated for livestock loss due to leopards.
Rabari herdsmen near the Varawal Camp are compensated for livestock loss due to leopards.

Lesson learned. More research before the trip. No more preconceived notions about what I’ll find at a photo destination. Question my guides and workshop leaders before departure. I am still mourning the “lost” wildlife photos I could have taken if I’d brought a longer lens and changed my itinerary. And I’m haunted by Ankit’s, “I told you so!”. Next time I go on one of his wildlife tours, we’ll include Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore and Sariska National Parks, the Mount Abu and Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuaries for opportunities to photograph tigers, wild boars, sloth bears, wolves, chousingha or the four-horned antelope, caracal, jungle cats and leopards. The famous Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary is also on my bucket list.

Langur monkeys are seen at every tourist site in Rajasthan.
Langur monkeys are seen at every tourist site in Rajasthan.

India, particularly Rajasthan, is a lot more than colorful people, cities and festivals.  It also teems with interesting wildlife. If you get a chance, by all means go. And don’t forget to pack your favorite telephoto lens!

Melissa Theil’s passion for photography was ignited when many years ago she won a prize for a photo which she took not even knowing how to put film in her camera. So, she studied photography and won some more contests. Her string of former professions, which include biologist, horseback riding instructor, nursing and drug researcher, earned her enough to travel the world. Add to that, her need for dabbling in alternative lifestyles, learning about third world cultures, being a crazy cat lady and lover of all living things great and small, you have a human being who has much to photograph.

You can keep up with her on Facebook and also see how she views our beautiful world at melissatheil.smugmug.com.