24 Oct 2016 13:15 IST

Lingering wildscapes of the Rann

The endangered Indian Wild Ass helps Kutch villages enhance their income

Dasada is actually Dus-ka-adda, which literally means junction of ten paths. It seems to have got colloquially condensed over the years. Being at the crossroads connecting ten tiny rural hamlets, Dasada soon became a hub for meeting of minds. Located northwest of Ahmedabad, 120 km into the hinterland, Dasada is a lethargic rustic locality with historical connotations.

About 400 years ago, the area fell under the powerful Solankis, who ruled over much of what is present-day Gujarat and Rajasthan. An occasional gateway in ruins or a dilapidated fort wall speaks of a bygone era in the surrounding villages.

Dasada has gained international renown thanks to a mammal found here that is fast and furious, and can race at nearly 60 kmph. It is not a horse, or a mare or a mule, not even a silly filly. It is a beast that is relatively rare and simply known as the Indian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus Khur). Resembling a stallion, it is elegant in gait and gallop, but elusive and endangered.

Loitering in the vivid landscape of the barren Little Rann of Kutch, the ass is locally known as ‘khur’. During the early ’60s and ’70s it was on the brink of extinction, but has since rebounded, and the head count currently stands at 4,000. The success story of the Wild Ass is attributed not only to the concerted efforts of the Central and State governments but also mainly to the nomadic tribes and gutsy villagers of the area.

Small and medium farmers growing groundnut, bajra, cotton, wheat, and rice do not have any skirmishes with the wandering Wild Ass even if it feeds on their farm produce. The sarpanch of Dasada, Dilavarkhan Chauhan reiterates, “We never trouble them even when they munch on our leaves; instead we also provide fresh drinking water during the sizzling summers when it is scarce. After all, the khur is an extraordinary creature, and many foreigners and Indians come from far and near to see it and photograph it.”

An exclusive Wild Ass Sanctuary was created in 1967, encompassing nearly 5,000 sqkm of the Little Rann of Kutch. Almost a treeless terrain, the Rann is a sprawling, featureless wasteland encrusted with salt and accessible only a few months in a year. This is the only place on earth where the endangered Indian Wild Ass continues to endure despite all odds. They are usually seen in small herds, especially during the breeding season in October and November.

Wildlife scientist Nita Shah, a specialist on the Wild Ass, says, “The increase in the khur population in recent times can be attributed to improved agricultural practices as well as water availability due to the Sardar Sarovar Canal system. The change in cropping patterns, with more cash crops, means that the species receives better forage and water. This reduces its search for food and thereby helps it conserve its energy in an arid landscape.”

Shah, however, feels that the existing infrastructure and staff are inadequate for a sanctuary of this size. There is need for regulating the age-old tradition of salt harvesting, monitoring the ingress of cattle herds and increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The villagers have benefited immensely from the healthy population of the Wild Ass. Over the past decade they have been able to establish wildlife resorts, which fetch them tourist earnings. Rann Riders, at Dasada, is one such resort with 32 cottages spread over 35 acres and a support staff of 50. Aditya Roy and Niyati Kukadia run the resort with the help of locals.

The resort itself looks like a small village, albeit with a manicured forest, and offering cultural and wildlife experiences. The cottages, called ‘kooba’, are built from indigenous material in the local architectural tradition. Apart from a fleet of all-terrain vehicles for safaris, indigenous breeds of horses and knowledgeable guides are deployed for bird watching, photo safaris and village tours.

“Of all the lavish landscapes in the world, the barren, saline deserts of the Rann give the traveller a chance to experience a world where human encroachment is invisible — a lonely place that is immensely enchanting,” sums up Shah.

(The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida.)