A Journey into the Little Rann of Kutch
Saline desert plains, arid grasslands, and a thorny, rocky landscape – the Little Rann of Kutch plays host to the largest wildlife sanctuary in India, the Wild Ass Sanctuary while being the home of a variety of avifauna. Govind Bhattacharjee recounts his visit to LRK for a memorable birding photographic experience.
It was a bleak landscape of featureless wilderness – mile after miles of grey-black soil stretching as far as the eyes could see. At the horizon, a semblance of greenery appears to circumscribe the bleakness of its landscape, but going closer, you realise that it was just an inhospitable bed of thorny shrubs spread over a wide area. The word Rann means “Salt Desert”, and indeed it is a salt desert that covers the 5000 square kilometres of wilderness of the Little Rann of Kutch, or LRK as it is commonly known. Parched earth and cracked soil unfold endlessly around you as you drive in the open jeep in your safari. Roads here are non-existent, but at some places, you can move along the tracks made the vehicles that have negotiated this barren landscape earlier. The unchanging, unyielding sterile landscape seems almost surreal as you move along.
During the Indus Valley civilisation, the Rann used to be fed by the waters of both the Saraswati and the Indus rivers. It was only rather recently, in 1819, that a powerful earthquake diverted the Indus waters away from the Kutch. Even the sea level was much higher and the entire Saurashtra peninsula was nothing but an island in the Arabian Sea, through which ships used to sail smoothly into the Rann before making their exit back into the Arabian Sea through the Gulf of Khambhat. The hamlet of Dholavira, located far inland from the sea, which flourished as an important centre of the Indus Valley Civilisation, then was a port. As the sea receded from the land, the Rann became a vast, featureless plain encrusted with salt. Today the area supplies almost 60 per cent of India’s salt requirements.
Despite being a salt desert, the Little Rann, as distinguished from its better-known counterpart called the Greater Rann of Kutch or GRK (which hosts the popular Rann of Kutch Festival every year), is a biodiversity hotspot. It attracts migratory water-birds – cranes, ducks, pelicans, flamingos as well as many land-birds – falcons, sandgrouse, francolins and the Indian bustards. It is also home to a number of mammals – some of them endangered like the Indian wolf and desert fox, besides nilgai, India’s largest antelope and the graceful chinkara, the Indian gazelle. But the most important and unique among its mammals is the beautiful Gudkhur, or the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus). They are a seriously endangered species and LRK is their last refuge, their only known habitat in the world. In fact, LRK hosts one of the country’s largest wildlife reserves, the Wild Ass Sanctuary.
Wild asses belong to the horse family, of genus Equus; they can gallop at very high speed, and usually move in herds, though they can also be spotted taking a leisurely, solitary walk among the wilderness. They sport a beautiful chestnut colour that looks gorgeous in the bright orange sun, turning the salt desert into a spectacular landscape.
And not only mammals, the LRK also offers a rich assembly of birds. One prominent and fearsome visitor to meet here is the peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus. Growing between 1 and 2 feet, with a wingspan of nearly 4 feet, the peregrine weighs less than a kilogram, but is a most formidable predator, feeding on medium-sized birds or small mammals and reptiles. The raptor is the fastest hunter on the face of our planet, clocking speeds reaching up to 380 kilometres per hour during its dives when chasing the prey, often another hapless bird.
Usually, no other bird can be seen where the peregrine is waiting for a prey. Photographing them is not easy, the moment they sense some curious lensman sneaking upon them, they fly with a speed that no camera can ever match. Peregrines are the wandering raptors, always flying free.
Equally difficult to capture in photographs are the short-eared owls, Asio flammeus. They nest on the ground, usually at spots concealed by vegetation, and can camouflage themselves within the thickets so well that they appear like a mirage that you often encounter in the desert. Only if the photographer has infinite patience, does not appear too intrusive and is not too close for their comfort, may they please to walk out into the edge of the foliage for a period just long enough for taking a quick shot or two.
Another bird of prey found in the LRK is the common kestrel, Falco tinnunculus. They have extremely powerful eyesight and hunt by it. They usually feed on rodents – voles, shrews and mice- that they can spot while hovering high up in the air before making a steep dive to capture them.
An interesting visitor to the LRK is the narrow-winged, lightly-built pallid harrier, Circus macrourus, another raptor that flies from the distant Central Asian steppes to enjoy the warmer winter sun of LRK. While returning after the exhausting day-long safari, I was greeted by the wonderful sight of a flock of common cranes, Grus grus, the large, stately birds with huge wingspans measuring between 6 and 8 feet. They are also winter migrants from Central Asia.
Looking at them flying majestically over the Rann, covered in the celestial light of the afternoon that was fast melting into the dusk, I felt an inexpressible joy in my heart. That’s what the birds always do. They lift your soul.
Read also: Croaks all around
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