Sands and Wetlands

A girl with hazel eyes disappeared in a cloud of glimmering sand. She wore a maroon dress. Wrapping her head was a long red scarf, her large green eyes – a symbol of this region – gleaming through her half covered face. We came to a halt at a village by the sandy road, our guide addressing the folks for directions in Kutchi. I was in an unfamiliar terrain in one of the corners of India, where the language is strangely beautiful to hear – a mix of sindhi, gujarati and rajasthani. An amalgamation that is only unique to the Kutch region of Gujarat.
The semi-arid regions of Kutch
For as far as my eyes could see, the earth stretched for miles – its flat surface laid out for our feet to explore. A number of shrubs prospered in this semi-arid landscape, thriving on the scarce water received six months ago. This unique region, a part of the famed Banni Grasslands, forms a crucial habitat for many animals, resident as well as migratory.

On our way through the desert we glimpsed a large mirage stretching from one corner of the eye to the other – shimmering in the afternoon sun. A vision of an oasis was planted in my brain. As we drove on, this vision grew larger and larger, and more complex – with trees lining the mirage, dancing in the blistering heat. And as we drove further on, the land gave way for water, so vast in its content that the other shore remained hidden beyond the horizon.
Chhari Dhand - an oasis
This is Chhari Dhand, a large swathe of wetland that appears as a mirage in the middle of a desert – an oasis a lost soul would never dream of.  Dhand is a shallow catchment of all the rainwater and the floodwaters of neighbouring rivers, collecting into a depression over this flat terrain. Its alkaline soils give it the name Chhari. During the odd seasons, its swampy shores and the lakebed form a murky, drying saucer of mud slowly baking in the sun.  It is only during the exceptionally good rains that this catchment is full of water, and literally teems with life during this time of the year.
Wetland biodiversity of Chhari Dhand
Chhari Dhand was declared a Conservation Reserve in 2002 after realizing its potential for wildlife conservation, and at the same time its importance for the local communities depending upon the wetland. It’s “lesser” conservation status gives the locals a chance to use – not exploit – this resource, to obtain food, water, and other basic necessities.

This seasonal wetland is rather exploited by the birds, as they feast on the invertebrate diversity until all the water evaporates. And to feast on them, the Eagles and Hawks, Harriers and Kites, and Foxes and Wolves scan its sides from all directions.
A harrier of the skies
A pair of Eurasian Marsh Harriers soared above the marshes at the edge of the lake, swooping down only to disappear into the thick reeds, as we stood by the shore watching in amazement. And there were Red-wattled Lapwings in their tens, asking questions “did-you-do-it?” to one another, only to receive that exact question as response.
Did you do it?
As the Lapwings waded around the edge of the lake, a Great Egret sat poised in the shadow of a bare tree, focusing on the passing-by fishes. By his side sat a Bar-tailed Godwit in contemplation. Over a yard away sat another Harrier, and about five yards from them, flocks of Common Teal, Northern Shovellers, and Common Coots with their families fed along the edge of the sedges. I could think of only one word to define this wetland: complete. I wondered if it was a dream. Would I wake up and all of this disappear?

Chhari Dhand comes under the salt-marsh biosphere called Little Rann of Kutch, and lies strategically in the middle of three ecosystems – the grasslands, shrublands, and deserts. Its residents, therefore, are unique. And at the ecotone of Chhari Dhand they find their abode as the boundaries of their ecological niches disappear, and a clearer, peaceful world for all appears. It is not everywhere that you see a tiger and deer comfortably together, except perhaps near a wetland.
Indian Bushlark
There were also birds that were more at home in the aridity of Kutch. One turn of the head and you’ll find yourself looking at something really different. There is no wetland in your view. Only a vast, flat land lying bone dry but not empty. This is the beauty of Kutch. 
Desert Wheatear on the lookout
Birds that are associated with arid habitats are common here, from a variety of Larks and Wheatears, to Montagu’s Harriers and Bustards. It is in these arid landscapes that you will see the Indian Wild Ass, Desert Fox, and, if you’re lucky, the Indian Wolf or the Striped Hyena. While my trip lasted for only a few hours, I had a fleeting glimpse of a Desert Fox running under the thickets.

The desert of Kutch did not seem deserted anymore, yet we were in for a bigger surprise – a social bird that I can associate with so closely – one of the most majestic of all the birds – and ancient – and intelligent – the crane. In flocks of hundreds, they took to the air at the sound of our vehicle, filling the skies with their characteristic trumpet-like calls. They soared over the thermals, picking altitude, and, swaying effortlessly over the wind, they turned and passed over the setting sun. Dazed, we looked on. The clatter in the air was music for our ears.
Common Cranes take to the air
Grus grus, the Common Crane, visit northern India during winter from the colder northern countries. They come in their thousands, and spend their time feeding and breeding in and around the wetlands, before they embark on their journey back north. The Common Crane is amongst several others that visit the Little Rann of Kutch during winters.
Great Egret of the Little Rann of Kutch 
Several hundred species of migratory birds and a hundred more residents call this mirror of the desert their home for a few critical months. It is indeed a relief to see it preserved without the bias of neglecting the necessities of the local communities. I was in Gujarat to attend a conference on Wetland Conservation for Sustainable Development, organized by the kind folks at Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology. It opened my eyes to various aspects of wetlands. We have been thriving – rather we thrived solely because we had a wetland for our use and disposal. In a way, we are like any other species that depend on the classical elements to survive. We are a part of the ecosystem. And although we may have distanced ourselves, there are many of us who survive solely on natural wetlands like the one at Chhari Dhand.