I work as a naturalist with Jungle Lodges & Resorts, at the River Tern Lodge in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. When the entire country went under lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had no choice but to stay back at the resort. The safaris were closed, and there were no guests, so we found it hard to pass time. My colleagues and I have seen porcupines often in the resort property at night, so we decided to start walking around to look for them. On the first night walk we didn’t see anything and returned to our rooms empty-handed.
That was when one of our staff members called me to report that he saw a porcupine on the path that connects to the hanging bridge from the golghar. I rushed to the spot with my camera and a torch, but when I reached there, I was told that the porcupine had wandered into the bushes next to a log-hut nearby. I quickly scanned the area but couldn’t spot the animal. When I shone the torch under the balcony of the log-hut, I a saw pair of shiny eyes. I was excited and moved closer, only to see the kitten of a Rusty-spotted Cat! It was my first sighting of this cat species, and I was so overcome with joy that I even forgot to pick up my camera. By the time I realised I had a camera with me, it vanished into the bushes, rather quickly.
After this incident, I decided to go on night walks regularly, with the hope of sighting other nocturnal creatures. There was no disturbance at all during the nights because of very little human movement. On one such walk, a colleague whispered that he spotted a small-sized animal sitting right next to the railings of a cottage. I checked quickly and was surprised that there wasn’t one, but two of them – the nocturnal and very shy Indian Chevrotain! I grabbed my camera, but one of them ran into the bushes by then. That’s when I realized the pair of them were a mother and a fawn. The mother stood still and gave me an opportunity to shoot some pictures. When I walked ahead a few meters, I got to see the fawn again and shot some images of it too.
Indian Chevrotains are also called Mouse Deer, but they are not considered as ‘true deer’. They belong to a family of their own – Tragulidae. They are found in the forests of south and southeast Asia, with a single species found in the rainforests of central and west Africa. Although they are mostly solitary, they are also seen pairs. Very shy and highly nocturnal, they feed largely on plant materials. They have primitive features that resemble non-ruminants like pigs and are characterised by the absence of facial scent glands. All species of the family lack antlers, but both sexes have elongated canine teeth which are prominent, especially in males. Legs are very short and thin, with four toes on each foot.
We took a break for a day then headed out again to look for those elusive nocturnal animals. We headed straight to the spot where I had seen the Rusty-spotted Cat but couldn’t find it. We continued our walk and didn’t manage to see any wildlife. We decided to head back to our rooms when a very small animal crossed the path and sat right next to it. I shone the torch and it turned out to be the same Rusty-spotted Cat kitten. I grabbed my camera very quickly and took some record shots before trying to approach it slowly to get closer pictures. But the kitten quickly ran into the bushes.
The Rusty-spotted Cat is the smallest wild cat in the world. These cats are found in India and Sri Lanka, in moist and dry deciduous forests as well as scrub and grasslands. They prefer dense vegetation and rocky areas. Their fur is grey over most of the body, with rusty spots over the back and flanks, while the under-belly is white with large dark spots. The tail is darker and thick, which is about half of the body length, and there are dark streaks on each side of the head, extending over the cheeks and forehead. They are nocturnal and rarely seen during the day. Rusty-spotted Cats are listed as Near Threatened under the IUCN Red List as their population is fragmented and impacted by habitat loss and destruction. They mainly feed on rodents and birds. They also hunt lizards, frogs and insects. While they primarily hunt on the ground, making rapid darting movements to catch their prey, they also venture into trees to escape predators.
The next night, we decided to stay put at the spot where we first saw the porcupines. We had also seen a lot of porcupine droppings in that area. We waited for more than an hour before we heard something walking through the leaf litter and then there it was, the Indian Porcupine! Walking through the bushes, we tried to follow it for a few metres till we could get a clear sight of it. It emerged out of the bushes again after some time and I managed to shoot some photographs.
Indian Crested Porcupine or Indian Porcupine is a large nocturnal rodent. It is covered with multiple layers of modified hair called quills – long and short layers of thick and thin quills. Quills are brown or black with alternative white or black bands on it and they are made up of keratin. When threatened, they raise their quills which are connected to the muscles at the base. The quills at the base of the tail are rattled to produce a warning sound. They prefer rocky hillsides and are also found in shrub lands, grassland and forests, which are suitable for foraging and for digging borrows. Indian Porcupines are mostly herbivorous feeding on a variety of plant material like roots, fruits and grains. To aid quill growth, they occasionally chew on bones and antlers to acquire minerals like calcium.
On the same night, we saw pair of porcupines at a distance, the pair of Indian Chevrotains, a Sambar stag, some field rats feeding on bamboo seeds, a Green Keelback, a Brown Palm Civet, good numbers of Termite Hill Geckos, a pair of Amboli Bush Frogs and a Jerdon’s Nightjar.
If not for the lockdown, I probably would have never noticed the diversity of nocturnal life in our resort. I have concluded that Mother Nature always has surprises waiting for us, but we must step out of our comfort zone to get a feel of what’s in store.