Wild animals, myriad birds, salt pans: Gujarat’s Little Rann of Kutch is awe-inspiring

Little Rann of Kutch, a sanctuary for the endangered Indian wild ass, also supports a multitude of local and migratory birds, with some arriving all the way from Siberia and Europe.
A salt pan worker at Little Rann of Kutch
A salt pan worker at Little Rann of Kutch
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Shivering with cold, we set out at the crack of dawn for a jeep ride into Little Rann of Kutch Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat, renowned as the world’s last refuge of the endangered Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur). As our jeep rattled over the bumpy trail through the flat, cracked and absolutely barren land, salt mounds greeted the eye in every direction. For miles and miles, there was nothing but a vast expanse of saline desert wilderness interspersed with grass scrublands and marshes. We were bemused that the bleak landscape sustains myriads of wild animals, migratory birds and salt pan workers.

We spied from a distance a herd of wild ass. With the approach of our jeep, the docile, nimble-footed animals sprinted away. We realised the best way to get closer to them was on foot, while they grazed on shrubs and grass. Resembling a stallion, the wild ass is elegant in gait and gallop, but elusive. It has a dark mane running from its head to the neck, and a dark brown stripe on its back ending at the root of the tail. The powerful chestnut brown wild ass is capable of galloping long distances at an average speed of 70 km per hour.

In 1973, when the wild ass was in peril Little Rann was declared as a Wild Ass Sanctuary for the conservation of these magnificent equines. In local parlance, the animal is known as ghudkar. They survive off the flat, grass-covered expanses or islands, known as bets, which rise up to around 3m. Thanks to conservation efforts their number increased from 362 in 1963 to more than 6,000 now.

Indian wild ass

The territory of the wild ass once extended from western India, through Sindh and Balochistan, Afghanistan, and south-eastern Iran but currently has its last refuge in and around the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK). Considering that it sprawls over 4,953 sq km across five districts, LRK is a misnomer. It is the largest sanctuary in India, a Ramsar site (under the Ramsar Convention), and on the tentative list of UNESCO World ‘Natural Heritage’ sites.

Apart from the wild ass, if one is lucky one can spot 32 species of mammals here as well. These include Nilgai, desert foxes, jackals, wild boars, jungle cats, desert cats, blackbuck, Indian wolves, Indian gazelle, and striped hyena.  While the wild asses are easily found, these mammals are rarely spotted.

Birdwatcher’s haven

After a backbreaking drive, we reached Bajana Creek where we were treated to a fascinating sight of thousands of flamingos in the distance. We delighted in watching greater and lesser flamingos congregating at the water bodies, adding a dash of bright pink to the otherwise dull-coloured landscape. The flamingos remained unperturbed by us, but as we ventured closer to the water our feet sunk in the mud and the birds took off in spectacular unison.

LRK is on the migratory route for birds, making it a favourite feeding and nesting place for them. During the monsoon, the water rises but as it dries in winter, the land is transformed into salt-encrusted parched earth leading down to shallow lakes with small islands called ‘bets’ which attract birdlife.  It supports a multitude of local and migratory waterbirds like cranes, ducks, pelicans, flamingos and land birds like sandgrouse, francolins and the Indian bustards.

Demoiselle and common cranes, several species of ducks, pelicans and storks, also flock to this creek and adjacent areas. During winter, migratory birds from as far as Siberia congregate at watering holes here. Over 380 species of birds have been recorded in and around LRK. The common and demoiselle cranes arrive from Siberia and the blue-tailed bee-eater visits from Europe. Greater Hoopoe-lark, Pallid Scops Owl, and the threatened MacQueen’s Bustard are the Rann’s other highlights. Also present are 10 species of lark, Indian coursers, three types of ibis, stone plover, shrikes, moorhens, and a variety of other birds.

Flamingoes over a water body

The desolate salt pans

Driving in the parched landscape, punctuated by desolate salt farms, we saw mounds of white salt crystals glittering in the winter sun. Like all tourists, we also visited these salt pans to see the process of salt extraction. We came across Agariyas (salt-pan workers) digging channels, separating salt crystals, drying them out, and transporting huge piles of salt.

From September to June, when the entire area turns dry and arid, Agariyas make a living in these scattered encampments by pumping up groundwater and extracting the salt for a paltry sum. Living in shacks, sans basic facilities, they are subject to the vagaries of weather. When Little Rann is submerged under rainwater for four months during the monsoon, the Agariyas take a sabbatical from salt extraction and return to their villages on its periphery.

Though they have managed to survive despite the perennial problems plaguing them, the heartening news is that with the installation of the solar pumps the cost of salt production has drastically reduced. With the involvement of some NGOs, there is an increasing awareness among the Agariyas of their basic rights. Their access to mobile health vans, and make-shift schools providing digital learning have improved their quality of life to some extent. While returning from our jeep ride, we were all admiration for the resilient community whose efforts bring flavour to our food.

When to go: The park is open round the year, but the best time to visit is November to February when it is cooler and migratory birds arrive in thousands.

Getting there: Little Rann of Kutch Wild Ass Sanctuary is located 129 km from Ahmedabad.

All photos by Susheela Nair.

Susheela Nair is an Independent Food, Travel & Lifestyle Writer & Photographer contributing articles, content and images to several publications, travel portals, guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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