Spotting Wildlife: Tricks and Traits

A very important part of sustainable tourism involves making sure that you do not disturb the flora and fauna of the region you visit. In this post, I will talk a little bit more about spotting wildlife without disturbing them whilst also improving our chances to spot them!

Many times, we visit places (like National Parks or Sanctuaries) to get a glimpse of the wonderful wildlife that it harbours. But like all nature-trips, sightings are not guaranteed. Nature has its own way. We cannot be assured that we will get to see a tiger even if we visit the most famous Tiger Reserve in the country. So the first rule of wildlife sighting is – Do not have expectations.

We might not see the “star” species, but what we can do is make the most of the time we have in hand, to see everything that a place can offer. And that can only happen if we have the following four traits: Keen sense of observation (sight, smell and sound), patience and an ability to remain still and quiet.

The last factor required for wildlife sightings is something that is NOT in your hands, and that is luck. You either have it or you don’t. Whether you chance upon the enigmatic snow leopard the day you head out is partly based on luck. But some things that can improve your chances are the aforementioned traits.

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Back in 2009, when I was volunteering with the Karnataka Forest Department and WCS Bengaluru, to conduct wildlife surveys in Anshi Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, I learnt the subtle art of being silent when treading on the forest path. In other words, I learnt to keep my mouth shut when I spotted something. I had a rather close encounter with an Indian Gaur (a huge mammal that can weigh up to a 1000kgs!) which to this day remains one of my most memorable experiences in the wild, and I mean that in a good way. But on that day, it was quite frightening.

To quote myself:

My flight response was about to kick in when, in what seemed like an eternity but was probably less than a minute, a massive gaur stood staring back at us. The thick undergrowth offered some sense of security, but the gaur had no interest in us at all (most animals rarely do), and moved away. 

Source: Wild Walk In Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 4, August 2014.

Often, mammals will engage in a “staring game” where they gauge if you (humans) are a threat. Then they will either run away, move away soon or continue to do what they were doing.

Video: A staring game (0:10 to 0:18 seconds) to with an adult Gaur, Mollem National Park, Goa (2019)

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In Ladakh, I remember a group of wild Bharals (a.k.a Himalayan Blue Sheep) foraged just a few metres from us. This was because we decided to be in “statue position” for half an hour, when we first spotted them some few 100 metres away. We positioned ourselves against some rocks with our cameras very slowly and remained silent and still. Soon enough, when the group was comfortable with our presence and sensed no danger, both adult and young bharals came close to us to feed on the Siah plants that they relish so much.

Image: Wild Bharals coming so close to us was quite exciting. (Image Credits: Ashwin Mohan)

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In 2013, on a safari in Gir National Park, we chanced upon another cat instead of the one the park is famed for. Gir is synonymous with Lions as it is the last remaining habitat of the Asiatic Lion. So while we were secretly hoping that we do see a lion, we got even more lucky within the first 5 minutes of our entry into the park.

The moment you enter the park in your safari jeep, a network of guides and drivers already act on the intel they have received from other guides. They know which areas will yield sightings of the Lion. But our group was an anomaly. We had requested our guide that we would stop for every bird that we see!

All the other jeeps had already gone ahead. We were the only ones who stopped the vehicle as soon as we entered the park. A Maldhari tribesman had just crossed us when we were about to start the jeep again. But our driver who was a keen observer said he sensed something was near by. Just then, a stag (Male Spotted Deer) on our right gave out a loud alarm call.

Image: The alarm calls of Spotted Deer are often used as indicators to the presence of predators, for example tigers, lions, leopards. The alarm notifies both human beings and other animals of the forest.

That immediately gave us a hint that there may be a predator around. Four of us, the driver and the guide remained absolutely still and quiet for a few minutes. We could hear our heartbeats in sync with the alarm call of the deer. And then we saw it. On our left, an adult leopard made revealed itself, stealthy walking from the nearby foliage to a water pump near a well, and then disappeared. None of us got a photo, for obvious reasons. We did not move during those few seconds. Only our eyes moved following the leopard intently. Even though that sighting was just for a couple of seconds, it was far more exhilarating than the lion sighting we had later in the safari.

***

In 2019, while birding near Ajmer (Rajasthan), we got tipped off about an Indian Eagle Owl in a near by scrubland. As our car reached near the spot, the sight of the majestic bird just blew our mind! It was about 200 feet away from us and the moment we reached the spot, the bird was aware of our presence. As a responsible tourist (wildlife enthusiasts, nature observer or whatever you call yourself), it is important that the animal is left as it was found. In this case, we found the Owl perched on a broken log, in an scrubland bordering some fields.

Check out this video. The Owl had almost got comfortable with our presence when in 0:38 seconds, our driver lets out a burp which immediately catches the attention of the Owl and it looks back at us! They are that sensitive!

Video: Indian Eagle Owl, near Ajmer, Rajasthan

I am happy to share that we left the Owl as we found it. We observed it for a good 5 minutes and then left it alone to its daily routine. During these 5 minutes, we remained quiet and minimized our movement. Birds are always aware of our presence and are more wary of our movements. So jumping excitedly and pointing fingers at the bird/animal is likely to “spook” it.

In my previous posts, I have also talked about guides who were able to sense presence of a wild animals due to their keen sense of smell and their ability to “track” animals. However, those traits we will leave to the experts!

So in summary, when you are out hoping to catch sight of wildlife, remember the following:

  • Do not have expectations.
  • Observe keenly. Try and develop this skill as much as possible.
  • If you spot something, remain silent.
  • Use a low voice and minimal sign language to indicate the location of the bird/animal to others.
  • No hasty movements.
  • Leave the bird/animal as you found it. NEVER disturb it.

There are other ethical aspects associated with spotting wildlife and photographing them. I will discuss those in my other posts. But for starters, I strongly recommend reading this resource by Conservation India.

Nature Observations Short Stories

Earthly Notes View All →

My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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