Some places in the world are known for lush greenery, others for steep cliffs and snowy glaciers and others still for refreshing water lapping against hot beaches. But of all the landscapes in the world, harsh deserts are perhaps the one that fewest people have experienced. Believing it to be not as pleasant as other landscapes, many people miss out on the tremendous beauty found in deserts. Precisely because there are very few people, visiting deserts like the Little Rann of Kutch which gives a traveler the chance to ponder a world before there were so many of us around.
Only after hours blanketed by the deep silences that fall on the salt flats in the middle of the day, when the only sound is the wind scraping along the sand, can you appreciate the sounds that emerge in the evening, the birds singing, insects chirping and the scuffle of small animals rustling in the brush. Only after looking out at the unending flats do you appreciate the greenery and rich wildlife that congregates on the beyts or islands that rise up out of the Rann. And only after getting to know the desert do you begin to understand a secret, that the beauty of life lies hidden in even the most seemingly desolate of places.
The Wild Ass Sanctuary of the Little Rann of Kutch, spreading across nearly 5000 square kilometers of the Little Rann, is the only place on earth where the endangered Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus khur), known locally as the ghudkhar, still lives. The only other two subspecies of wild asses live in the high arid plateaus of Tibet, making this the most accessible place to visit wild asses in their natural environs. Standing more than a meter tall at the shoulder and two meters in length, wild asses are very agile and can run long distances at a speed of 50 km/h, making them more like wild horses, and far more captivating than their domesticated cousins. Around 3000 of them live in the sanctuary, and are usually seen in herds, especially around breeding season (foals can be seen with the herds around October and November.)
But the Sanctuary is home to far more than just the wild ass. Among the 32 other species of mammals are the chinkara(Indian gazelle), two types of desert fox (Indian and White-footed), jackals, caracals (African lynx), nilgais(the largest antelope of Asia), Indian wolves, blackbucks, and striped hyenas. From the salty desert, periodically inundated during the monsoons, to wetlands where freshwater rivers draining through the Rann mix into the seawater of the Gulf of Kutch, and the scrub forests found on the beyts, the variety of vegetation types means a similar variety of animals inhabit the area.
Because of the Sanctuary's proximity to the Gulf of Kutch and its location on the migration routes of many bird species, it is a very important site for birds to feed and breed in. Every year, approximately 75,000 birds nest in the reserve. The ceraneous vulture comes from Egypt, the common and demoiselle cranes arrive from Siberia, the blue-tailed bee-eater visits from Europe, and the houbara bustard of Iran and Iraq stops over as well. All of these are commonly sighted in the sanctuary. Also present are sandgrouses, desert wheatears, ten species of lark, the white-browed bulbul, Indian coursers, stoneplovers, shrikes, ducks, geese, three types of ibis, spoonbills, godwits, stints, sandpipers, shanks, moorhens, saras cranes, both Indian flamingoes, and three species of pelican.
The Sanctuary also houses 93 species of invertebrates, including crustaceans, insects, molluscs, spiders, annelids and zooplanktons, as well as four species of frogs and toads, two species of turtles, twelve snakes, fourteen species of lizards and one kind of crocodile. The tidal wetlands along the edge of the Gulf of Kutch are a key breeding area for prawns.
Unfortunately, the Wild Ass Sanctuary is in danger from several sources, and the poachers who have begun to frequent the region are not even the greatest of these. Illegal salt mining tops the list, as a full quarter of India's salt comes from mining around the Little Rann. The noise and air pollution caused by transportation of this colossal amount of salt is gradually eating away at the wildlife habitat. The Indian Army also maintains a firing range of over 200 square km inside the sanctuary borders. (If you find live firing antithetical to a wildlife sanctuary, that's because it is.) Furthermore, the chemical factories popping up in the area, out of the way of where there are people to notice their atrocious environmental practices, are contaminating the region with dangerous industrial chemicals.
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How to get there
By road: The Wild Ass Sanctuary is 130 km from Ahmedabad, 45 km from Viramgam, 175 km from Rajkot and 265 km from Bhuj, accessible from all of these by ST buses.
By rail: The Nearest Railway stations are: Dhrangadhra - 16 kms Ahmedabad - 130 Kms Rajkot - 175 Kms The Sanctuary has three main access points: Dhrangadhra, Range Bajana, and Range Aadeshwar. Range Bajana is the best place to enter in the winter as the wetlands that house migratory birds are closest to it. Dhrandgadhra is the easiest place to find transportation and accommodation (there is a government guest house, as well as private ones).