Taking a ride on the wild side

I inhaled the clear and cold desert air and couldn’t help marvel at the amazing convenience of modern travel. At 5 a.m., I was in humid Chennai, and here I was, five hours later, in the middle of Kutch. A direct flight to Ahmedabad and a two-hour drive from the airport was all it took.

The Wild Ass Sanctuary on the Little Rann, a desert habitat named after its iconic resident, was our destination. This former sea bed was part of the Gulf of Kutch a few hundred years ago, but is now a dry salty plain for most of the year. During the monsoons, it fills in and becomes home to numerous species, including flamingoes that breed here. The area has numerous shallow water bodies that attract a number of ducks and waders, as it is bang in the middle of their migratory flight to the south.

We set up camp at Bhajana, a village on the fringe of the Rann, and spent the first couple of days on the edges of the sanctuary, scouring the numerous water bodies. Everything was grey: the sand, the birds and the camouflaged mammals. Common cranes and wild asses were everywhere.

We had a great start, with the sighting of a magnificent short-eared owl under a bush. A Sykes’s nightjar, whose location was jealously protected by our local guide, followed, camouflaged despite its large size.

A single lake revealed numerous species: Common teal, Northern shoveller, Tufted duck, Gadwall, Northern pintail and Ruddy shelduck. We learnt how upending ducks feed on vegetation that is just under the water surface, while diving ducks go much deeper in search of fish.

We also visited a hyena den, a unique network of tunnels under an elevated mound, flanked by tell-tale signs of recent meals. Though there were fresh drag marks, the hyenas were either away or underground. We contented ourselves with a sighting of two Indian foxes as they scampered away.

Watching the sun set over a lake on the Rann could be the stuff of fairy tales: as the sun went down turning the water to gold, flamingoes, pelicans, Black-winged stilts, egrets, spoonbills and ducks formed a linear island of pink. Harriers and raptors roosted nearby. An enormous flock of greylag geese kept its distance when we attempted to get closer to take photographs. The only background sound was the faint clucking of the birds.

The Sirkeer malkoha was our first sighing on day two. It patiently waited for us gleeful photographers to finish clicking. Shortly afterwards, a bluethroat posed nearby for close-ups.

The greater short-toed larks glittered in the sun in large groups, while the Crested lark and Ashy-crowned sparrow-lark allowed close-up photos.

On the concluding day, we headed deep into the Rann. At one point, the tar road literally ends: after that, it’s just one vast cracked salt pan, an offroader’s paradise.

As our vehicles zoomed across the open landscape into the middle of nowhere, we wondered how the drivers knew where they were going, and, more importantly, how they were going to find their way back. There’s a real thrill in this for city-slickers: no traffic, no road, no rules, no speed limit and, certainly, nobody honking.

Not that we got too much time to think, with the chill wind literally driving the bitter desert cold into our bones.

As our driver floored the accelerator with nothing but sand on all sides, the experience was exhilarating. But, in our eagerness to get to an abandoned flamingo nesting colony, we found our vehicle suddenly immobile: there was slush, but a brief push helped us back to firmer ground.

So engrossed were we in this amazing habitat that it was a surprise when we suddenly stopped at a temple courtyard. While pilgrims thronged the temple, we scouted around the trees in the compound for our own darshan.

After much searching, our guide triumphantly found it: the Pallid Scops owl, a little sleeping beauty that lazily half-opened one eye at the gaggle of photographers below.

Raptors were found roosting on the ground in the few bushes that were there. The Booted and Tawny eagles, the Griffon vulture, the Peregrine falcon and the Common kestrel were all ticked off our list.

We did miss out on a few endemics: the MacQueen’s bustard, the Greater hoopoe-lark and the Indian courser.

But, all is not well even in this desert paradise. The usual culprits — creeping human habitations, salt production, temple tourism and the Prosopis juliflora, an invasive alien weed that dominates much of the landscape — are wiping out endemic species.

A more modern issue is that the water from the Narmada is now used to irrigate much of the area surrounding the Rann, and threatens to permanently alter the unique dry habitat.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 5:17:03 PM |

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