The Wandering Minstrels of Rann
The Indian or Asiatic wild ass is listed as Endangered by the IUCN, with its last refuge in the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch and its surrounding Great Rann of Kutch. Follow the author’s journey as he describes their daily life amidst adversities.
A barren, parched and desolated land in summer, a huge wetland during the monsoons, and home to thousands of migratory birds in the winter—the Little Rann of Kutch is a fascinating bundle of contradictions within its saline, marshy limits. The Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) is a landmark symbol of this unique landscape, their quiet and often symmetric congregations are scenes that remain unchanged in the Rann through all seasons. These equids have grazed here for centuries, relying completely on the resources of Rann. During the last few years, however, wild asses have been regularly seen in areas well away from the Rann. Although the dispersal can be assumed to be a result of an increasing wild ass population and habitat degradation in the Rann, the exact reasons have not been clearly understood.
I first came across a herd of wild asses in the farmlands around Surendranagar (approximately 60km away from the nearest boundary of the Rann) in 2007. Since then I have been photographing these wild asses; it helped me to understand their living patterns in this new location. But over the last one year, I have been closely observing and monitoring a few selected individuals which stay near the farms, dominated by two stallions, whom I have referred to as Bando and Dhulio.
A dusty start
Typical of Gujarat—the state has many variations in climate— the area was hot, dry and dusty when I started monitoring these asses. The sultry winds made the temperatures soar above 45oC in the afternoons. The setup was not very dissimilar to the Rann. This meant that the stallions had one thing on their mind, mating!
Bando and Dhulio’s territories were separated by a narrow road. The stallions appeared restless during this period; frequently inspecting the females and remarking their territorial markings. Both the stallions kept a constant watch on one another. Bando’s harem had more females than Dhulio’s and Dhulio was often found looking at Bando’s territory as if covetously watching the females on the other side of the border. But some inherent tendency inhibited him from making a move. As a warning to Dhulio, Bando would practise a threatening run towards him, until he fled from the spot.
Despite the possessive behaviour of the stallions, the membership of a female in the herd depends on her personal willingness. Females are known to leave and rejoin herds several times. Hence, the size of a herd is also never permanent. Stallions establish a territory in a resourceful area and females visiting the place, will stay within the territory, if they feel it be a suitable area.
Once, I noticed Bando visibly upset; Dhulio had crossed the road that formed the border and stepped inside his territory. Bando chased Dhulio for nearly five minutes, even following him into his own territory to make sure the message was clear. Bando carried a blade of grass in his mouth while chasing his adversary; I have observed this behaviour on several occasions during such incidents. After the dust from the chase had settled, Bando climbed a mound near the border of their territories, and remained there for a long time, as if to announce his authority to everyone around.
Rain and Shine
July brought rains and the hot and dusty land was transformed into a lush green field, filled with the fragrance of wet soil. A drop in the temperatures added a spark in the lives of the wild asses. However, the behaviour of two adolescent males in his herd had been disturbing Bando. Eventually, he had to chase them off his territory. He also kept a vigil at the border for some time to ensure that the recalcitrant adolescents did not return.
Four beautiful foals were born in Bando’s herd during these months. Unaware of the hardships of adult life, the routine of the newborns involved feeding and playing, whenever they were not resting. Although the ancestors of these newborn foals have moved out of the Rann, whether or not these foals, or their successors, will ever get to see the Rann is a mystery only time can solve!
Farmers in this area cultivate castor, which is not favoured by wild asses. Hence females, especially mothers with young ones to feed, move across territories in search of better grazing grounds. Bando lost quite a few females in this fashion
A Winter’s Tale
November was not very cold, but many winter birds started visiting the area, adding to the fauna of the region. One evening, I saw a new group of over 40 individual asses in the area. There was no stallion accompanying them. Although most of the herd members showed little interest in the new arrivals, the stallions displayed a little bit of anxiety. The newcomers stayed for just one night and were gone the next day. (In August 2014, most of these newcomers were seen under the leadership of a healthy stallion approximately 10-12 km away from this area.) If this new herd has also left the Rann and come to settle into a human-dominated landscape, it’s perhaps time that reasons for this migration and new strategies for their conservation be looked into.
Wild asses are shy and most individuals in a herd walk away when they see an approaching human. Dominant stallions, however, linger around, probably for the safety of the rest of the herd. As a result, these stallions are more prone to be harmed by inconsiderate farmers, usually flogged with a stick or stones. Bando, unfortunately, was a victim of one such incident. His front leg was injured badly by a farmer and he was unable to walk properly ever after that. In December, Bando was seen getting visibly weaker; his once familiar charm was now evading him. He started acting strangely around females, chasing them away and even attacking them occasionally. The once proud stallion was now robbed of his honour and dignity.
Fall of the Empire
It was around 2 pm on a January afternoon when I got a call from Kanu, a local farmer. ‘Saheb, hadi kadho. Roya sawarna baje che!’ (Sir, come quickly. The asses have been fighting since morning!)
Immediately I understood that this was not a regular scare- off, but a serious territorial fight, and rushed to the area. With Bando growing weaker by the day, I had actually expected this to happen much earlier. I got there as fast as I could, only to find the dispersed herd members gathered around clumps of Acacia. But the Warriors were missing! On seeing me, Kanu started blabbering anxiously, trying to explain the intensity of the fight. I had to interrupt him to enquire about the location of the stallions. Both of them, I learnt, had moved away from the territory. For almost three hours I searched the area, but with no luck. Finally, I decided to quit. While returning, I suddenly came across Bando; he was shivering as he tried to hide in a thicket of grass in a dry stream. Scratches, most likely inflicted by Dhulio, were distinctly visible on his body. He came out, perhaps recognising me and possibly looking for some help and sympathy. Having witnessed Bando in his most glorious days, this was a very sad moment for me. I kept him company till sunset, a post which Bando slowly disappeared into the bushes nearby.
Next evening, I saw Dhulio in Bando’s territory. He was the new king now! Not as injured as his rival, he was busy sniffing at the females. There seemed to be unease among the other members of the herd, and it was some time before the females mated with Dhulio.
It was around the middle of February when I saw Bando again. He was back in his former territory. He appeared gloomy, his head sunken – as if he had accepted defeat. Bando’s presence did not seem to faze Dhulio at all. Since then, I have come across Bando several times, standing motionless for long periods and always at a considerable distance from the herd.
The familiar heat wave once again swept the fields. This was a tough time for both, the farmers and the asses, because of the inadequate rains last year. I found the size of the herd shrinking, almost on a daily basis. Sighting locations too were uncertain. The herd started dispersing outside Dhulio’s territory, looking for food and water.
One evening I saw Dhulio along with four other asses; Dhulio was rolling in the dust. After a couple of days, he was seen alone. The place started to look quite desolate without the wild asses. I visited the area a few more times after this and saw only Dhulio occasionally. He refused to leave the place, probably knowing that the good season will return and so will the females—or at least, that is what he seemed to hope.
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