Savannahs of India
The arid grasslands of India are home to some amazing wildlife and are yet the most threatened habitats in the country. Our authors, who visited the Blackbuck National Park in the remotely located, pristine grasslands of Velavadar, share the magic of the place.
India is well-known for its biodiversity and one of the best ways to experience the amazing array of wildlife present here is to visit the several sanctuaries and national parks of the country. The wildlife present in each Indian state differs according to the climate and topography of the region. The northeastern states are a haven for bird-watchers; parks in central and northern India are mostly known for hosting the pride of the nation – the tiger; while traveling to the south, one comes across a mélange of wildlife. And tucked away in one corner of western India, a not-so-famous park that is known to house mammals and birds of the grasslands, the Blackbuck National Park of Velavadar, Gujarat, is undoubtedly our very own answer to the African Savannahs.
The Blackbuck is probably the best-known mascot for grasslands in India, but the sturdy antelope is facing a steep decline in population on account of rapid habitat loss.
The Blackbuck National Park was established in the year 1976 in the Bhal region of Saurashtra. The park is located about 42 km from the district headquarters city of Bhavnagar and is spread over 34.08 sq. km. Primarily a ‘vidi’ (grassland) of the Maharaja of the princely state of Bhavnagar, the park is surrounded mostly by wastelands and agricultural fields.
Several migratory water birds make their way to the small water bodies in Velavadar during the winter period.
The buck stops here
The park is famed for being the world’s largest communal roosting site for harriers, but its name comes from the antelope species thriving here. A healthy population of Blackbucks has attracted wildlife enthusiasts and photographers to this unique grassland ecosystem. The park offers innumerable opportunities to witness, experience, and capture these hardy mammals in their most natural habitat in magical golden light. From a juvenile to a fully-grown male, from an albino buck to warring males, from jumping individuals to herds following long trails, there is nothing that the park cannot offer. The park is further complimented by the presence of other mammals, such as Nilgais, Striped hyenas, Indian wolves, Golden jackals, and Wild pigs. While Blackbucks and Nilgais can be seen throughout the day, the other mammals are usually active either in the wee hours of the morning or late evening.
The Eurasian Wryneck (above) and the Bay-backed Shrike (below) find refuge in the small, wooded patches in the grasslands. The Gull-billed Tern (bottom) is an aquatic bird and is seen closer to the watering holes
In addition, the Blackbuck National Park is also home to a variety of bird species, both migratory and resident, making a visit to the park a wholesome wildlife experience. Stonechats, larks, doves, shrikes, francolins, and Common Cranes are found in good numbers all year round. Pockets of wetlands within the park attract seasonal visitors, including flamingos, pelicans, herons, and terns. Some other winter visitors include Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Roller, Eurasian Thick-knee, and several species of raptors, especially harriers.
The Indian wolf is the top predator of the arid grassland habitat in India, but is an understudied and overlooked species.
The geography and conservation efforts at Velavadar have created a safe house for the inhabitants of Blackbuck National Park and have resulted in some magical sighting of rare and endangered animals. However, recent changes have affected wildlife drastically. Honking vehicles, chopping off of the grass, and constructions within the park boundaries have disturbed the wildlife. Man-animal conflicts are on the rise as human intervention, action and negligence have increased in a previously untouched habitat. As a result, sighting shy mammals has become more difficult. Blackbucks, which once graced the waterholes and grasslands within the park boundaries, have started moving towards the salt marshes away from the park. The bucks, which once used to jump out of joy for playing, now seem to do so out of fear and frenzy.
Similarly, hyenas and Indian foxes have also started settling outside the park, where they are continually stalked by preying eyes and lenses. The sighting of hyenas has now become a rare event – sighting barely one every 15-20 days – while the Indian fox seems to have disappeared from the park altogether. Cutting of the tall grass across the park has affected the Jungle cats, which in earlier days were seen sunbathing and carelessly walking on the paths. Their exceptional camouflage, though, seems to have given them some reprieve. As a result of continued interference, even the behaviour of some of the mammals has gotten altered considerably. Nilgais, found in several parks across north and central India, is often spotted running away from cars, cameras, and humans. This is in stark contrast to their usual bold behavior seen elsewhere. This can be attributed to the sad reality of Nilgai poaching, which is rampant in the state of Gujarat.
The sly Jungle cat gets easily hidden in the gold of the dry grassland; a perfect way to steer clear of predators and ambush prey
Turning things around?
Although co-existence is the law of nature, the intrusion of humans in secluded places, like the Blackbuck National Park, translates into conflicts where the suffering party is almost always the wildlife. On a positive note though, the management is not completely overlooking this matter and has looked into various means to ensure the well-being of the park and the wildlife.
There were rumors some time ago that Velavadar was the site selected for the reintroduction of the Cheetah, as food in the form of Blackbucks is available in plenty. But this was denied by the authorities citing that the high number of babool trees in the park will be a problem for the big cat. Cats have soft paws and can get injured easily because of the thorns of trees such as babool. But despite the absence of big cats or other mighty animals, the Blackbuck National Park should remain as a must-visit place for any wildlife and adventure traveler. Recently, conscious efforts are being made by the state government and locals to make the park more popular among tourists. The forest department and the government are working in tandem to introduce Gypsy safaris in the park to make the visit less cumbersome and more economical to the pocket.
While these initiatives will help increase the tourist flow, it may also bring along more challenges to the already perturbed park ecology. To restore the balance, combined efforts of the government, forest department, locals, and most importantly, the visitors, is necessary. Only time will tell how this will be achieved.
Secluded, serene, quiet, and tranquil is how one would sum up the Savannahs of India. As the day draws to a close, an endless march of the Blackbucks towards the setting sun is what you will be parting with, without doubt, wanting to be back again to witness a brighter sun shining over the future of the park.
Additional Tourist Info
Best time to visit: December to March
Park timings : 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. & 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Park entry fee: Rs. 450/- (Per safari, per vehicle, inclusive of guide and camera fees)
Nearest city: Bhavnagar (42 km)
Nearest airport: Bhavnagar (domestic, 42 km), Ahmedabad (International, 180 km)
Nearest railway station: Dhola (50 km)
IF YOU GO…
How to reach: Located 42 km from Bhavnagar on the Ahmedabad-Bhavnagar highway, the Blackbuck National Park can be easily accessed by road, rail, and air. The closest international airport is Ahmedabad, at a distance of 180 km. Bhavnagar, the touchpoint for the park, is located in the centre of Gujarat, well-connected to all major cities within the state (hourly buses depart from Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and Rajkot for Bhavnagar) and outside as well. To reach the park from Bhavnagar, one has to rely on hired cabs, which can be arranged at the drop of a hat.
Where to stay: Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar is unlike any other wildlife park in India. The park is visited majorly by wildlife photographers and not by regular tourists. Thus, there are very limited accommodation options in the park’s vicinity and you can opt to stay in Bhavnagar and hire a cab every day to visit the park. The journey takes about 45 minutes in the morning. For those interested in staying close to the park, there is an option of staying at the forest guest house located right next to the park. This facility has only three rooms, of which one is always booked for VIPs. Additionally, there are three dormitories with a capacity of nine people per dormitory.
The room comes with basic boarding and lodging facilities and no fancy freebies attached. But a reservation here has to be made well in advance. Unlike other national parks, the Blackbuck NP doesn’t run a Gypsy service and those staying close to the park have to hire a vehicle from Bhavnagar for the number of days they plan to spend at the park. However, this is a cheaper option compared to traveling to and from Bhavnagar every day. The Blackbuck Lodge, located approximately 100 metres from the park, is a luxury resort with dearly priced tariffs. Given the lack of accommodation facilities, the Gujarat government has recently approved the construction of additional rooms and a dining facility in the forest rest house complex.
Where to eat: The kitchen run by the forest guesthouse caters only to guests staying at their facility. However, being in Gujarat, you will never be short of eating joints. Barely 10 km away from the park, there are a couple of dhabas on the highway, which serve lip-smacking local specialties.
This article was first published in the April 2015 edition of Saevus magazine.