Talchhapar : a journey
Three friends and their learning journey on a research trip to the wilds and barren flats of Talchhapar.
On a hot summer night in Delhi, three young friends, full of enthusiasm, boarded the bus for Chhapar. A small town in Churu district of Rajasthan, Chhapar was slated to be the field experience meant to be forever etched on our souls. It was an overnight journey and none of us slept overcome with excitement. As the dawn broke, we saw the mesmerizing view of the Aravalli hills welcoming us to Rajasthan, the largest state in India, possessing both historical and biogeographical heritage equally.
Around mid-morning, shortly after crossing Sujangarh town, we saw a blackbuck swiftly leaping across the road in front of the bus. As we watched in awe, we had no idea that road-kills were very common in this area, because this road was an important state highway passing right through the middle of the Talchhapar Wildlife Sanctuary. This is one of the smallest wildlife sanctuaries in the country with the area just about 8sq.km., located in the Shekhawati region of north-western Rajasthan. Initially managed as a private hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Bikaner, it was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 1962 with an area of 719 hectares. Later around 2008-09 an area of 81 hectares was added to the sanctuary to make the total area of 800 hectares. The sanctuary is a flat track interspersed with low-lying areas. It has open grassland dotted with Acacia and Prosopis trees which give it an appearance of a typical savanna. This sanctuary is very popular among bird watchers as it attracts a large number of migratory birds and also has an enviable number of resident bird species, despite its small size.
We were received by an official from the forest department at Chhapar town. A warm sandy breeze welcomed us as we entered the gates of the sanctuary, which was to be our home for the next three months. The beautiful forest rest house which now promptly stands at the entrance was still under construction at the time, so we stayed with an affectionate local family of goldsmiths in the adjoining village just across the road.
The first person we met inside the sanctuary was the then range forest officer of the division, Mr Surat Singh Poonia, a man of few words, but possessing an immense knowledge of the desert ecosystem. He is a very passionate birder and has played a key role in shaping and managing the sanctuary. As Mr Poonia showed us around the sanctuary in his Jeep, we saw many spiny-tailed lizards scurrying away towards their burrows sensing trouble as we approached them. The sanctuary also lies in the passage of many migratory birds like demoiselle crane, common crane, harriers and sociable lapwing which add to its diverse bird life for which it is most famous. Moving on, we saw many raptors, green bee-eaters, Eurasian rollers and peafowl.
Apart from the sound of our vehicle, we could hear a constant rattling sound, rat-tat-tat in the background as if two hard objects being cluttered against each other. It took us a while to realize where the sound was coming from. Nothing had prepared us for the sight as spectacular as we were to observe. As the dust settled and the view cleared, we could see thousands of blackbuck standing at a distance of us. Hundreds of stags were locking their horns to fight each other for the females with the onset of breeding season, filling the atmosphere with the rattling sound. We watched in amazement as the drama unfolded right in front of us. The blackbuck is the most dominant mammalian species of the sanctuary along with chinkara, blue bulls, Indian fox, desert fox and desert cats. The forest department census data revealed a count of 1680 heads for blackbuck in 2005-06 which increased to 2025 heads in 2010-11. The population structure had more females than males along with fawns (47, 36 and 17 % respectively). Chief herpeto-fauna includes spiny-tailed lizards, common monitors and desert monitors. The three of us were to study the ecology of Indian fox, spiny-tailed lizards and the blackbuck in the coming months for our summer internship.
Our typical field day used to begin at 5 am and our alarm call to wake up were loud peacock calls coming from almost every village house rooftop. It was a scorching hot summer and the temperature often rose close to 50°C during noon.
One of us was working on the ecological observations of Indian spiny-tailed lizard (Saarahardwickii). It comes under the family of agamid lizards. As the temperature used to rise up making the ground warm, these cold-blooded spiny tail lizards used to come out of their burrows. These cold-blooded reptiles get their energy from the sunlight. There were no trees around and we needed to sit and wait in the open area to observe this lizard coming out. As it was the hot summer month and monsoon had not yet arrived, we could see the mirage on the ground as early as 8.30 in the morning. We were advised to go back to the room after 9 am because of the danger of catching a heatstroke but our intrigue and curiosity made us stay until noon to observe animals that dwelled in the stillness of the sanctuary. The banks of the seasonal water ponds inside the sanctuary were our resting places where we observed birds while keeping an eye over our study animals.
After a small afternoon siesta, where we shared our day’s happenings with each other, the next round of research used to start in the evening to observe the dusk activities of our focal animals. As a typical desert setting, the evenings were a bit colder and pleasant as compared to the day. As soon as the sunset in the horizon, offering a mesmerizing view across a vast field of barren land, a different set of animals came out of their day-long rest to forage in the night. The wind blowing caused a mild whistling sound which mingled with the continuous chirping of crickets and other insects. Spotted owlets flew over gerbil holes in hope of a catch.
Since, one of our study animals was the common fox, Vulpes bengalensis, we often stayed after dusk to monitor their activities. The sanctuary has many active dens of both common and desert foxes. Though desert foxes are lesser familiar to human presence and were not sighted often, common foxes roamed around and foraged freely while we took observation notes and did vegetation sampling. The dens of the Indian fox were both simple with small openings and complex and cavernous dens with multiple openings. Since the pre-monsoon period during which we arrived is the pup-rearing period for the foxes; we had multiple lovely sightings of mother foxes with their pups. One of the parents always remained in the vicinity of the den to keep a tight vigil on both the pups and the den. The foxes were often seen chasing and catching spiny-tailed lizards for prey and occasionally remains of peafowl were also seen near the mouths of their den.
The sanctuary also offered us some surprises while we focused on our study animals. A monitor lizard angrily sniffed at us more than once in defence, as we had got very close to its burrow while looking for fox scats. Prey-predator relationships were very visibly folding out in front of us. We once encountered a sand boa squeezing itself and entering the hole of a spiny-tailed lizard to fish out its prey, though the hole was fairly small for the snake to enter.
With the coming of July, we could feel some moisture in the air and knew it was the sign of the onset of the southwest summer monsoon. We could see enormous water-filled clouds hovering over the desert horizon. It seemed as if all the animals had sensed the approaching monsoon and the sanctuary suddenly became livelier.T he peacocks started their display dances to woo the females and early morning from the terrace of our house we could see displaying peafowl on several other rooftops. Words cannot describe the beauty of the moment as the peacocks used their colourful tail feathers to attract their mates. It was a majestic sight witnessing the dance of male peacock. On many occasions, we approached near the peacock but he still continued to woo the females around, oblivious to our presence.
The first drops of rain were a huge relief both for us and the animals with petrichor igniting our senses. Peafowl called and displayed everywhere and the blackbuck gathered together as they heard the thunder rolling and lightning. Within a few days of the rain, the sanctuary drastically changed its colors from dusty brown to lush green. Grass grew in plenty around us and mud puddles welcomed us in unexpected places where we enjoyed splashing in them. The same barren land now looked like a tropical paradise, not only for us but for all animals. We also witnessed flocks of birds hovering over the field during sunset and sunrise. Many of them were migratory birds, flown thousands of miles from as far as Eastern Europe and central Asia. Rosy starlings perched noisily on Acacia trees and it was a captivating sight to watch them congregate in large numbers in the sky, called a murmuration. At dawn and dusk, thousands of these birds formed a large dark shifting cloud in the sky, swooping down and rising together in perfect rhythm like a musical symphony.
We had numerous lively discussions with the local villagers about our work and the animals. Children specially were very keen and fascinated to see us set out every morning in our field work gear and asked many inquisitive questions. Locals in this part of Rajasthan are very simple people, engaged in their daily chores all day long. But, living in the area since many generations, they have exemplary knowledge about the ecosystem and the wildlife thriving within. Some villagers occasionally visited the sanctuary to collect dry Prosopis and Acacia branches for firewood. The forest department works in close association with the local people as they are one of the main stakeholders in the area. We also gained many local insights about wildlife trade which we were then unaware of. We got to know that the oil extracted from the tail region of the Indian spiny-tailed lizard was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Though working inside a protected area we never encountered anyone catching the lizard.
The Bishnoi community of the area is also instrumental in the conservation practices surrounding the blackbuck and other ungulates. Such is their devotion towards wildlife and its conservation that they don’t hesitate to take on even a celebrity for the protection of an animal. Case in point, the ongoing litigation against Salman Khan and other Bollywood starlets for shooting blackbuck. If not for the Bishnois, this incident would have never made it to a national headline.
As the days of our study neared towards its end, we couldn’t help but feel sad about leaving the sanctuary and getting back to the fast monotonous life of the city. Till today, each of us feels nostalgic whenever we see a picture from Talchhapar anywhere; as it reminds us of the wonderful time we spent there. That is the beauty of nature; it connects us to our inner soul as we ourselves are a part of it.
This is a joint article by Rajlakshmi Mishra & Kalpana Das
She is currently pursuing her Ph. D on ecomorphology of tropical frogs from Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany. An avid nature lover, the diversity of life intrigues her. She is also interested in wildlife photography, conservation and science communication.
Cover Photo: The small puddles created by the monsoon rain in the sanctuary acts like an oasis for the animals like the blackbuck
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