The arid grasslands in the country are under serious threat from developmental and illegal activities. Although seemingly a harsh place to survive, these grasslands support an amazing diversity of life. Our author highlights the importance of this threatened habitat in this photo essay.
There was time when grasslands spread across vast stretches of the country. Large expanses of grasslands even existed on the outskirts of major cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. But today, thanks to the greed of humankind,this entire ecosystem is on the verge of extinction and one has to travel far and wide to visit an intact patch of grassland.
The grasslands that I am referring to are dry grasslands, found in the arid regions of India, where the rainfall is scanty and scattered. These are different from terai and shola grasslands, which receive much more rainfall and are equally threatened. But while the importance of the lush grasslands is somewhat established, the arid grasslands are often looked upon as bad lands or waste lands, and are thus at a greater risk.
It is due to this inaccurate opinion that arid grasslands have become one of the most threatened habitats on the planet. India, today, is clinging on to avery small percentage of the vast grasslands that once thrived. These remaining grasslands exist in sanctuaries and other protected areas such as Great and Little Rann of Kutch, Tal Chapar, Desert National Park, Banni grassland, and some unprotected patches on the outskirts of cities like Bangalore.
There was a time when wildlife enthusiasts used to regularly spot Indian wolves, Great Indian Bustards and Lesser Floricans – denizens of the grasslands –on the outskirts of Bangalore. But those times have long gone, and today, the Garden City of India is struggling to retain what remains of the grasslands and greenery that once was.
The Chosen Ones
Seeming to possess a harsh environment and many a times appearing to be devoid of any diversity, arid grasslands are actually unique eco systems that support a variety of flora and fauna. Migratory raptors, flying in for the winters from Europe and Central Asia, find these arid grasslands a perfect place to make their temporary homes. A variety of mammals, including hyenas, wolves, foxes, jackals, Jungle cats, Blackbucks, Indian wild asses and mongooses live in such grasslands.
The Blackbuck, without a doubt, has to be the symbol representing the fauna of grasslands. The ungulate is native to the Indian subcontinent and was once distributed all over India. Now, they are classifiedas Near Threatened by IUCN on account of shrinking habitats. Blackbucks are preyed upon by hyenas, wolves and jackals, and are even hunted by humans. Blackbuck fawns are also potential prey for the mighty Bonelli’s Eagle.
The Striped hyena is the only species of hyena found in the Indian sub continent. They are mainly scavengers, but do occasionally kill. Velavadar National Park in Gujarat is probably the best place in India to see these beautiful animals. Velavadar, fondly called a Blackbuck National Park, has been a success story for the conservation of Blackbucks, Indian wolves, Striped hyenas and even the Lesser Florican to some extent. The numbers of hyenas and wolves have been reported to be on the increase in recent years.
The Golden jackal is a small predator compared to its cousin, the wolf, from the genus Canis. They survive by hunting small mammals, birds and reptiles and opportunistically scavenging. Mostly nocturnal, jackals even share urban landscapes with us, but are mostly limited to the outskirts of cities. The Desert fox, on the other hand, is restricted to the desert and semi-desert parts of north-western India. Foxes have a varied diet,which includes rodents, reptiles, crabs, termites and other insects, small birds and even fruits. Desert foxes prefer short, open grasslands and scrub or thorn forests.The Desert fox is easily distinguish able from the Indian fox – the only other fox in peninsular India – by the colour of the tail. The tail of the Desert fox is mostly whitish, while that of the Indian fox has more of black.
The Indian wild ass’ terrain once extended from western India and southern Pakistan, through Afghanistan, up to south-eastern Iran. Today, it survives only in the Great and Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.
Mammals found in arid grasslands usually show unique adaptations to cope with the harsh environments. The (from top) Blackbuck, Indian wild ass and Striped hyena (all classified as threatened) are some great examples of mammals found in the grasslands.
There is an abundance of bird life in grasslands. Winter migrants, including eagles, harriers, falcons ,buzzards, vultures, cranes and many other species ,prefer grassland habitats over others. Among the raptors, harriers are specialised hunters of grasslands.
By flying low over grasslands, harriers look for small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects to hunt. While the Montagu’s, Pallid and Eurasian Marsh Harriers are more widespread visitors, the Hen and Pied Harriers are restricted in their distribution in the country.Harriers, especially Montagu’s and Pallid, display dramatic sexual dimorphism. The smaller males of the two species are mostly grey in colour, while the bigger females are brown.
The list of Indian eagles found in grasslands is remarkable, including the Short-toed Snake Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Indian Spotted Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle and Eastern Imperial Eagle. Some of these, especially the group of Aquilaeagles, are of an impressive size.
Among falcons, the Laggar Falcon shows great partiality towards grassland habitats. It can be easily spotted in parts of Rajasthan, such as in the Desert National Park and Tal Chapar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Although quite common in the region, their number has been on the decline in the recent past. Kestrels are known for their ability to hover in one place while looking for prey. Lack of trees or other tall perches ingrasslands might have driven kestrels to develop this hunting strategy. While the Lesser Kestrel is a rare winter visitor, its cousin, the Common Kestrel, is widespread and quite common.
Among the other avian inhabitants of the grasslands, the Eurasian Roller is seen only for a short duration white it migrates. Its pale blue colour makes it look attractive and also differentiates it from the resident Indian Roller. The Common Stone chat is another winter visitor that uses the grasslands extensively. Besides the winter visitors, several smaller birds also live in the grasslands throughout the year, including larks, francolins, quails and many more. These birds are an important part of the food chain, and hence, an integral part of the grassland ecosystem.
Arid grasslands, with their minimal tree cover, are perfect for aerial predators. Some raptors seen exclusively in the grasslands are (clockwise from top left) Lesser Kestrel, Laggar Falcon, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Red-necked Falcon, White-eyed Buzzard, Steppe Eagle and Pallid Harrier.
It’s Now Or Never
The barren or wasteland approach given to grasslands has resulted in their degradation and destruction across India. This has resulted in large tracts of grasslands either being used for ‘developmental’ activities or for large-scale plantations by the forest department under the name of ‘habitat improvement’. Stand out examples of the latter are the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve and Ranebennur Blackbuck Sanctuary of Karnataka, where Acacia and eucalyptus plantations have destroyed the grasslands. Once home to the Great Indian Bustard, the largest flying bird of India, these forests have lost the species completely. Elsewhere, the population has dwindled by as much as 99%.
Unprotected patches of grasslands are also under tremendous strain as they are severely exploited by industries, illegal settlers and sand miners. A classic example is that of Hessara ghatta – the last remaining patch of grassland on the outskirts of Bangalore. Along with sand miners, the place is also frequented by the film industry for shooting purposes that leaves the entire place unfit for wildlife use.
Saving the grasslands is a matter of urgency now. Awareness regarding grasslands and its inhabitants must be spread among all, especially to children via schools. Government projects effecting conversion of grasslands must be strongly opposed and any untoward activity in the vicinity of grasslands should be immediately reported and stopped. All this will only be possible if like-minded people unite together and launch a staunch conservation programme. This might be our last chance to save the grasslands and its wonderful inhabitants.
Arid grasslands are generally looked upon as wastelands and hence, are easily susceptible to be utilised for developmental projects and illegal activities like sand mining.
While the Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark (left)feeds on grass seeds, the Eurasian Roller (right) is an insect eater; despite their differences in feeding strategies, both birds are able to survive in the same habitat.
The Black-winged Kite (top left) and Crested Lark (bottom left) occupy different niches in the arid grasslands. Grey mongooses and Desert foxes(below), are dynamic and opportunistic feeders, and hence can thrive in the arid grasslands.
Images :Madhu Shekar
This article was first published in the 2015 March Saevus Magazine.