Kutch: the invisible wilderness

The salt-sprinkled chocolate browns of the estuarine mudflats are criss-crossed by the prints of carbon-black tyres. The wind is crisp, and the recurring whoop-whoop-whoop of the enormous ghostly wind turbines is ubiquitous, occasionally punctuated by sounds of trucks that trod on the pathless mudflats to reach the nearest salt port. On this truck-trodden path, we look for signs of a particular bird that blends well with the grey-brown landscape, the MacQueen’s Bustard, a rare winter migrant. It is nowhere to be found, but along sparse grasses, pale green in colour, are tracks of various birds imprinted on a layer of fine, seemingly frozen crust of sand. One of which belongs to this bird. The smaller tracks belong to, we think, Desert Warblers; those small, hypersensitive brown birds seen probing the grass strands for tiny morsels during early winters. The largest of all, the three-toed prints, belong to the Common Crane, we acknowledge without a doubt. We saw them graze in a small flock under the blades of the turbines on our way.
The three-toed footprints of the MacQueen's Bustard amidst a riot of several others
This Bustard’s footprints stand out starkly from the tracks of other birds; they are three-toed, short and stout, pressed together closely around a singular round pad, their feet placed squarely one in front of the other. We scan through binoculars for the owner of this particular set of footprints, and spot a pair of chinkara sprinting over this vast landscape, away from the noisy saltpans. It is nowhere to be found.
The Common Crane, a tall, high-flying bird on the mudflats dotted with wind turbines and sewed with electricity lines
This estuarine mudflat is dug-up, bisected, piled over, and dotted by saltpans, roads, salt heaps, and wind turbines, and amidst this cacophony of human activities are birds – resident and migratory alike – hundreds of birds feeding, roosting, breeding, and surviving. The largest of waterbirds, the pelicans and storks, and the smallest, the waders and the ducks, feed alongside in these vast shallow pools. They vehemently avoid saltpans with high salt content, and prefer waters with a profusion of algal growth; they’re more common towards the periphery of the pans where scant, weak mangroves cling onto the soft estuarine mud, where oysters still grow aplenty, and fishes like mudskippers perforate the banks with their burrows.

The Jakhau region of Kutch is unique, it is a mosaic of various kinds of ecosystems – estuarine mudflats, mangroves, oyster belts, and even saltpans which some consider wetlands but I fail to see why (saltpans are man-made waterbodies replacing the original wetland ecosystems), as well as grasslands with patches of scrub and mounds of sand that appear like dunes. It is a plethora of all sorts of flatlands one can imagine, teeming with life.
Grasslands and other flatlands are largely considered as wastelands, with a very few exceptions
such as the Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar, Gujarat which were protected in time
Yet with all its vastness and the wildlife it supports, this flatland has been given a rather unwarranted label: wasteland. And Kutch, the largest district of the state of Gujarat, has been acknowledged in official records as having the largest area of wastelands (36% of Gujarat’s wastelands; 17% of its own total area), dominated mostly by dense scrub and open scrub areas. Even before the identity of these flatlands was established scientifically, it was baptized as land open for exploitation, and the residents of this wilderness inadvertently became invisible.

The greening of the gold

The 1854 map of Kutch and the Runn compiled by Lieut. Col. Sir A Burnes, Lieut. A D Taylor, and Lieut. Grieve shows the region in two distinct stretches; to the south is an undulating terrain crisscrossed by a network of rivers flowing from north and meeting the Gulf of Kutch in the south. A large swathe of area to the north and east is shown in horizontal, shaded lines resembling the utter flatness of this region, the Rann, and sandwiched between these two lies the Banni Grasslands, then spelled as the Bunnee – with a description that is hard to read – “a tract of grassland [...] wells of drinkable water and covered with [...].”

This detailed map encompassed everything that existed 160 years ago, and becomes an interesting piece of history to compare with the current geography of the region. The map depicts a very large area of the Rann as a barren flatland. Save for little islands amidst this saline land, nothing is shown to exist here. It was considered a salt desert, an inland sea that spilled into the Arabian eons ago, fast expanding its boundaries to devour all the fertile black soils of the south.

Around 1877, Tiwari (1999) writes, Prosopis juliflora was originally introduced in India to check the encroaching desert sands and as a tool in the country’s regreening efforts. [...] In the late 1930s, it was planted in certain areas around the Navlakhi fort in Morvi State, adjoining Kutch. [...] In the 1950s, under a scheme to check the Little Rann desert from spreading, about 3000 acres of Prosopis were planted annually on the edges of the Rann. Interestingly, the Forest Department considered the cattle here to be their ally because by eating the Prosopis pods, they helped to spread the plant further in the vast expanses of the Rann.
The Indian Wild Ass, an endemic Equus subspecies, feeds on the desert grass of the Little Rann of Kutch
as Prosopis, in the background, slowly reclaim the deserts
A native of South America, Prosopis juliflora is spread widely in Kutch. It is spider-like in appearance with branches spreading ever outward like the legs of a spider, and contain small prickly spines hidden beneath a lush-green down of compound leaves. Its trunk is typically short; its pods, a pale yellow, are always easily approachable for anyone to pluck and eat.

Prosopis has now taken over much of Kutch’s natural flatlands, greening the gold, displacing many of the ecosystem’s original inhabitants, and pushing some to the verge of extinction. It is perhaps a coincidence that much of Kutch’s wastelands have been demarked as dense scrub and open scrub areas – typical transformations from flatlands to scrublands brought about by Prosopis.

The wild grass

The Banni, the grassland of fair sands, is perhaps the most affected. Covering an area of 3847 sq km, Banni is famed for its grasses – the tallest ones are as tall as a person’s hip, it is flat save for areas with undulating sand dunes. In some places, such as at Chhari Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve which sits at the edge of Banni and the Rann, the sand gives way for rocky hillocks and hard saline mud.

I stood at the edge of a Castor farm that abutted the wild Banni. The sun rose low over this farmland built on sands – with crops of jowar (sorghum) sprouting from seemingly moisture-less grounds. A line of trees with leaves a light shade of green grew along the edge of the farm. We scanned these Salvadora persica trees for a rather unique winter visitor of Kutch – the Grey Hypocolius.
The pollen of the wild grass flying in the wind in one of the encroached-upon
grassland habitats of Banni
The wild grass was ripe where we stood, its long inflorescence a light shade of pink. A little shake and its sack of anthers would spill into the air and float aimlessly – some would reach the stigma of a neighbouring inflorescence, some would fall to the earth and be food for other organisms. This simple, anemophilous form of spreading of grasses worked successfully for Banni.

The animals of this region adapted to this habitat: desert gerbils fed on grass grains, nilgai and chinkara fed on wild as well as cultivated varieties of grasses, and the hunters of the herbivores, the desert fox, jackal, and the wolf followed them. However, since no trees grew in this region, this efficient ecosystem was dubbed a wasteland, and agriculture, industries, and other developmental activities encroached upon its sands.
A Greater Short-toed Lark, a victim of the high-tension wires running across the mudflats of  the inland mangroves of Kutch
From much of the area, especially along the boundaries of Banni, the natural flora and fauna has vanished. The recent maps of Kutch and the Rann are quite different from the 1854 map and 1877 predictions: the area under civilization has spread more rapidly into the Rann than the opposite which was predicted. The desertification of human civilization ran over the vastness, and Prosopis, which was meant to stop the run of the Rann into civilization, aided us in claiming the salt deserts.
The Indian desert gerbil is the subject of several studies on effects of pesticide compounds on its health.
A common resident of the sandy areas of Kutch, it lives in a group building a network of tunnels.
When alarmed, it lies flat on  the ground (second photo) and makes a throbbing, vibrating sound
to alarm its companions of danger.
The chinkara, the blackbuck, the fox and the wolf, all retreated into small pockets of flatlands. Only desert gerbils can be seen peeking from the multi-tunnelled network of burrows near farms where they live in groups consuming the dangerous pesticides.

The beginning of the fall of grasslands

But the demise of the flatlands, and grasslands in particular, began long before. The most enigmatic cats of India is said to have once roamed the grasslands of Gujarat. However, although no concrete evidence exists that suggests the presence of the Asiatic cheetah in Kutch, Divyabhanusinh (1995) mentions records of the Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) from Kutch region, one from 1839 observed by Postans, and another in 1872 by Stoliczka – both these records, although unclear about the locality and the exact identity of the animal (as leopards are often mistakenly identified as cheetahs), signify a decline in the ecosystem health of Kutch and the surrounding grasslands that began much before the introduction of Prosopis and before it was labelled wasteland.
The female and a sub-adult blackbuck pronging through the grasslands of Velavadar, with no one to chase them
The current plan of reintroduction of the cheetah in India’s grasslands is put on hold. It is being looked upon by some as a makeover for an invisible wilderness by introducing an enigmatic species, some look at it from an economic perspective, while some from an ecologically unproductive point of view. Ranjitsinh (2010) has concluded his views of the reintroduction process in the best possible way:

“The venture must be viewed not simply as an introduction of a species, however charismatic it may be, but as an endeavour to better manage and restore some of our most valuable yet most neglected ecosystems and the species dependent upon them.”
Down to the basics, conservationists yearn to brand grasslands in any way possible for their existence. Yet it is not the only way one could save this invisible wilderness. Perhaps, by focusing on the introduction of an exotic species of cat, we’re ignoring the existing wildlife of the region. One in particular could use our undivided attention if we’re to prevent it from following the demise of the Asiatic cheetah.

The golden bird in peril

I first heard of the Great Indian Bustard in a poem I read in school, Maldhok it was called. I remember it vaguely, it describes this bird and its poetic courtship display, but I don’t recollect it talking about how endangered it is. After school, though, I was oblivious to it until I took keen interest in wildlife and conservation, but it was in the back of my mind, and always has been. I had not seen it until that day when we stood at the edge of a farmland with people striving to protect this species from extinction.
Two Great Indian Bustards in their part-scrub, part-grassland habitat
There, nearly a quarter mile away under the shadow of Ber (Ziziphus sp.) were two Great Indian Birds sauntering in the midday sun. The hot air rising from the ground obscured them a little, but this large bird with its white neck, black cape and bronzed wings was distinctly clear in the vanishing landscape.

Their habitat looked quite unlike any most of us associate wildlife with; it was full of brambles, thorny, dusty, dried shrubs under a dull grey sky. Whatever stood taller than five feet was skeleton-like. It almost seemed barren, unproductive, and ready for exploitation.
A Ziziphus sp., full of Ber fruits, one of the important parts of a Bustard's diet
This scrub forest, which was declared a Protected Area called the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary, is the only stronghold of the Great Indian Bustard in the Kutch region. An estimated 30 bustards live in and around this sanctuary. It is 2 sq km in area.

The Corbett Foundation’s report The Last Call to Save Indian Bustard in Kutch, Gujarat, India (2012) mentions:

“[...] the breeding grounds of [Great Indian] Bustards in Abdasa taluka of Kutch, once considered quite safe in Gujarat, have been lost to industrial infrastructure and conversion to agricultural fields. Several hectares of ‘Waste Land’ (kharabo – as categorized in the Government Records) that is actually good Bustard habitat has been encroached upon by local farmers for agricultural purposes. Unknowingly, the habitat of these rare birds is being taken away from them.”
Most of these birds risk their lives by living outside the Protected Area, often to feed and even breed in private and revenue lands. Threats from mechanized farming, cattle grazing, as well as feral dogs further weaken the existing recovery plans for this species which lays only one egg a year. It is perhaps the most endangered species of India living in the most threatened ecosystem, and yet it is invisible to most of us. Just the way the poem Maldhok vanished from most and probably all records of Marathi literature with mockery for its English name, I fear so will this bird.
Bustards walking against the silhouette of large trees in the background of a mix of Acacia nilotica and
  Prosopis juliflora scrubland in the background
The two lone bachelor Great Indian Bustards were looked upon with wonder and awe – with all the adjectives I can fathom – tears even, for we could see but do nothing.

One lifetime is not enough to fully understand even one species of an animal or a plant – but it is enough to wipe out its existence. I believe our generation is witnessing, albeit unknowingly, the most massive extinction that ever took place in one lifetime. Unfortunately, this extinction is followed by, or preceded by, the destruction of entire ecosystems. Any possibilities of saving – or bringing back – a species are now becoming virtually impossible. Even if a species is brought back from extinction, we just don’t have the space for them to roam free.

As entire ecosystems are threatened, we’re unwillingly entering a phase I call the dead-end conservation: we have all the technical and scientific know-how of what to do to save a species or an ecosystem, but no political will to do it.

Species such as the Great Indian Bustard are not even represented on many of the information generating and disseminating websites, which represent some of the less threatened – but threatened nonetheless – animals.

One reason for this could be that a country like India could not celebrate – or cash-in – on the bustard as it did with the charismatic tiger. Second, could be because nobody really connected with this bird of grasslands, like they do with the tiger or the lion. In case of the bustard, both these reasons, unfortunately, hold true.

Great Indian Bustard’s extinction will not be a result of a complicated history it shared with humans: hunting, agriculture, development. It is rooted in the most basic fact, that we are calling its habitat a wasteland: this is probably something we won’t find in most of the animals that became extinct in the last century.
Grasslands are like miniature forests, supporting a variety of animals, from little beetles to ungulates to carnivores
The grassland is not just a flatland. It is a living, breathing, prosperous ecosystem that is probably the most resilient of all, self-reliant of all, and unique if not as rich as the rainforests; for it can withstand extremes of the climates – drought and flood, fire and frost. Every individual here counts: grass, lark, lizard, beetle, and contributes to this ecosystem’s functioning – much like that of any other – but it is so profound here, in the dust, where water is often scarce, that every cluster of grass that blossoms and spreads its pollen is the most hopeful thing to witness.

Very few grassland areas are now protected solely as grassland ecosystems, while most were brought under cultivation or, ironically, reforestation. The entirety of grasslands, however, vanished when the cheetah became extinct, and if the Great Indian Bustard is not protected, it will be a symbolic demise of any grassland ecosystem of India.

The golden carpet

Conservationists now believe that salvation is the only way for protection. Save whatever you can, in whatever numbers you can. The Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar, Gujarat, is 34 sq km in area, a fraction of the vast grassland of Saurashtra in the district of Bhavnagar along the Gulf of Khambhat.
The blackbuck, under whose aegis the grasslands of Velavadar are protected,
is a flagship antelope species of India's grasslands
It is a large swathe of flatland dominated by grasses nigh knee-high tall, with the estuary of the Gulf of Khambhat covering much of its southern area. Herds of blackbucks are seen sprinting and pronging along its grasslands, with the tall nilgai seen strolling and feeding on Ber. It is known for its conservation management for blackbucks, nilgai, grasses, and also the Indian wolf and the lesser florican. It is said to be the world’s largest roosting site of several species of harriers.
A scattered herd of nilgai in vastness of Velavadar's grasslands
From certain areas it looks like a vast, open, endless golden carpet in the early morning rays. But up closer, or way above from space, you will see that it is fenced from all sides by Prosopis. It is the national park’s management that has kept Prosopis at bay, had it not been protected, quite simply, it would have been run over by Prosopis, affecting the wildlife of the region beyond repair.
A bachelor herd of blackbucks, comprising of sub-adults and non-territorial males graze in the grasslands of Velavadar
It is here that you’ll see the spiral horns of blackbucks wreathed in a cloud of grass; a fast running grazer which was once chased by the now extinct Asiatic cheetah, they are the flagship species of Velavadar’s grasslands, and share an intricate albeit subtle bond with the grasses by feeding on them, spreading their seeds, and providing manure. The jungle cats, the hyena, the Bengal monitor, all of them call this their home. The wolves of Velavadar are secretive, and are rarely ever sighted during dawn and dusk, but just knowing that this enigmatic and probably the most threatened carnivore of India walks here as I do fills my mind with their primeval howls.
A full moon over the grasslands, and the wolves would be on a hunt
Why can we not look at grasslands as a wild, untamed land the way we look at forests? Just like forests, grasslands form various niches, each occupied by a unique type of grass or herb, unique sets of invertebrates, as well as large mammals. Grasslands may appear like monocultures from above, but are filled with animals that hunt at night, graze by day, and form herds and packs and defend their territories with might. It is a forest in itself. Where are we lacking in our understanding, I wondered, as a full moon rose above the sea of grass, and bathed everything with its silver light.

Of what was once pure

One such area which I now lament for is the Chhari Dhand Conservation Reserve, an 80 sq km lake in the desert that I visited in February 2012. Now, as then, it was teeming with birdlife in its deep waters, but along its edges to the south, which once also teemed with desert and wetland birds, the hooves of cattle have trampled a vast ground to dust.

Near the watchtower built to observe birds, a large cowshed is built, and several cattle now bathe and swim and feed along the lush shores of this lake. The egrets and the waders, the desert wheatears and the larks, all have forsaken this place, which is now teeming with piles of dung left under the sun to rot.Only a handful of flies savour the moist dung piles which have polluted this place for as far as one can see.

The Kankrej breed of cattle of Kutch on their way to the pasture lands
Cattle provide one of the most important livelihoods for the people of Kutch, an occupation adopted centuries before by the tribal nomadic communities of the region, and grasslands the inevitable source of nourishment. It is not cattle grazing that has put Kutch’s invisible wilderness in peril, many conservationists maintain, but the excess of it has compounded to its destruction.
A boma-like temporary settlement of the semi-nomadic Maldhari tribe of Kutch in the Banni grasslannds
Up north in Banni, large herds of cattle can be seen loitering around wetlands, with birds such as flamingos and cranes feeding a few yards away. The problems arose when grazing areas shrank under the pressure from agriculture and industrialization, when cattle competed against wildlife for space, food, and a place to rest.

Chhari Dhand’s southern shore is won over by livestock. Its dung now numbers more than birds seen in the area. I was especially surprised to see so much of dung, a priceless resource of nourishment and fuel, being left to rot; my first thought went to insects; why were there none of them to be found? The season was right; it was humid and not so cold for insects to hibernate. A number of them should have been visiting to feed and breed in. Where were the dung flies, the dung beetles?
The southern shore of Chhari Dhand is littered by undegraded dung, increasing the toxicity of the soil where no plant can grow
Our experts at The Corbett Foundation shared a very curious paper on the impact of ivermectin, a deworming drug used in cattle, on the dung beetle populations of Japan (Iwasa et al 2007). This drug is ejected through faeces of treated cattle since it is not metabolized, which if used by dung beetles to lay eggs, affects their brood size and adult emergence. It could perhaps be the reason for seeing no dung beetles at Chhari Dhand, but this is just a speculation.

However, if it is true, the concentrated piles of dung will take longer to decompose and degrade, drastically increasing the fertility of the ground so much that it becomes toxic for any plant to take root; as put forth by the authors: “The elimination of dung-decomposing insects, which help to return nutrients to the soil, may lead to important consequences in pasture ecosystems, as undegraded dung pats increase, fouling the grassland and reducing available grazing area.
The rose-like pugmark of a striped hyena, a lesser known resident of Kutch's flatlands
Every ecosystem has its own issues. We perhaps cannot rank which requires more protection than the other. The focus on all kinds of flatlands is not because it has more issues than others – it is because it is more neglected than others, perhaps more than freshwater ecosystems. Its wildlife is at much at risk as that of any other, but we don’t know who calls grasslands homes, why do they need protection as much as the tiger or the lion.

The shrinking little desert

The fact remains that as forests are shrinking, so are grasslands. I was especially amazed at the flatness of Kutch in the Little Rann, a smaller part of the Rann shrinking rapidly from urbanization. A large swathe of over 4954 sq km, the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch is perhaps the flattest region in India.
A pair of Indian wild ass in the vastness of the Little Rann of Kutch
The soil of Rann is saline, brown, flaky, cracked, treeless, and vast. It is a saline desert where only a few hardy species of grasses and other plants can survive. The other ubiquitous plant whose roots sought this soil is Prosopis. One peculiar subspecies of an Equus that lives nowhere else on the planet is found here, Equus hemionus khur, the India wild ass.
A lone Indian wild ass sprinting through the vast salt desert, with a layer of Prosopis reflecting like a dark cloud in the mirage
With a curious look on its face, the Indian wild ass is the shade of the land it lives on, dusted along the edges and corners of its figure in powdery white. Its ears are always held up while looking at you, and its mane, a line of short, trimmed dark brown hair are held upright on its neck.

When you look at them, you don’t think that they’re out of place. Almost all Equus species adapted to vast plains. The Khur, as it is locally called, is much at home here in this arid region, feeding on the scant grasses and Prosopis pods. The grasses that grow here during monsoon when much of the Rann is pooled by the water from Gulf of Kutch, sustains all the life of this region. Cranes, in their hundreds, feed on the grains and seeds and invertebrates. Vast stretches of ground can be seen ploughed by cranes using their feet and beaks.
A family of Common Cranes along the wetlands of the Little Rann of Kutch
The Rann has several inlets of saline water from the Gulf, created artificially by the saltpan workers. These inlets serve as rich feeding grounds for birds like flamingos, ducks and geese, storks and cranes, and the ones that hunt other birds: the falcons and eagles.

I met a Peregrine Falcon, the fastest of birds, for the first time in the Little Rann, while it sat on a milestone besides a small estuary one cold November morning basking under the rising sun. This bird of prey is the king of open air and open plains, as much as it is of sheer cliffs of the Western Ghats. The one that sat close to us was probably courting the one that sat far behind it. And as I crouched behind the lens to capture every bit of its sinewy beauty, it shuffled its wings, and took to the air and vanished into the sky that strangely matched its colour.
The Peregrine Falcon takes to wing
A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off, said J A Baker (1967) who studied the Peregrine Falcon for over ten years, but he also added: “Now it has gone. The long pursuit is over. Few peregrines are left, there will be fewer, they may not survive. Many die on their backs, clutching insanely at the sky in their last convulsions, withered and burnt away by the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals.”

Glowing still

The falcon and the bustard. The wolf and the hyena. The crane and the vulture. They’ve all remained invisible to us not because they’re shaped differently or coloured wrongly, but because we chose not to see them. We have cursed them with invisibility, much like how we choose to ignore the things we don’t understand.
The sun shines over Naliya grasslands one winter evening, a prime Bustard habitat under peril
The flatlands of Kutch – the grasslands and the scrublands, the salt lakes and the mudflats have their own uniqueness, their own identity, their own names in ancient cultures. They are dressed in different kinds of plants, roamed on by different kinds of birds and animals.

They are not wastelands. They are home, as much to the wildlife that lives here as to human communities that sustain a living here.

And, in Baker’s words, it is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.