“What do you plan to do for four days on the edge of the Thar desert?!” my friends asked in disbelief when they heard we were going on a four-day visit to Rajasthan’s Desert National Park in January 2018. The Desert National Park is located close to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. Known for its forts, palaces, and rich cultural heritage, Jaisalmer sees a heavy footfall of both Indian and foreign tourists. In comparison, the Desert National Park which is just a short drive away, attracts fewer visitors, that too mostly day-trippers who come for the customary camel rides.
The Fauna and Flora
The park is covered with flat and undulating sand formations interspersed with patches of grasslands and thorny scrubs. Some areas have waterbodies, gravel plains, sand dunes and/or rocky patches. Vegetation is visibly scanty, which makes one wonder about what kind of life this habitat supports. Milkweed plants (Calotropis sp.), thor (Euphorbia sp.) and khejri trees (Prosopis sp.) are commonly seen across the landscape. A lesser known fact about the Desert National Park is that it lies close to a rich fossil park, a protected area with deposits of fossils, where some wood fossils dating as old as 180 million years have been discovered!
Apart from being a natural habitat for Rajasthan’s state bird (great Indian bustard), animal (camel and chinkara), and tree (khejri), the Desert National Park recently came into the limelight for being one of the last remaining homes of the critically endangered great Indian bustard. Many flock to the park to get a glimpse of these large birds. During our visit, after searching for two days, we encountered the majestic bustards.
However, at no point did we forget to pay attention to the lesser-known birds of this region. Desert specialties like the trumpeter finch, desert lark, cream-coloured courser, several species of sandgrouses, greater hoopoe-lark, many species of vultures are other showstoppers of the region.
The region is also home to mammals like the Indian fox and desert fox, desert cat, hedgehogs, desert jird and reptiles such as spiny-tailed lizard, monitor lizard, and saw-scaled vipers. What is fascinating about the desert is that it offers a habitat to a variety of birds and animals all sporting hues of browns and greys. As a result, spotting well-camouflaged wildlife in the desert was not as easy task. At times, desert mirages tricked our eyes.
In the evenings, we settled near a few small waterholes. These attract a variety of birds who come down in the mornings or evenings for a sip of water or a quick splash. We were particularly interested in the sandgrouses. According to our local guide, Uras Khan, the chestnut-bellied sandgrouses were the epitome of punctuality. They start arriving around 10 am in the morning and 4 pm in the evening, in groups of five to 10, spend about a minute in the water and then fly away. We reached the spot early and settled at a distance from the waterhole, prepared with our binoculars and camera. And soon enough the first few birds arrived from nowhere. During the next hour, small flocks arrived near the waterhole, landed at a short distance away from the water, then moved into the water, took a few gulps, and flew off. We saw over a 100 sandgrouses that evening. However, we were not lucky enough to spot the rarer spotted sangrouse and the black-bellied sandgrouse which are also known to visit this waterhole. The most fascinating feature of sandgrouses is their ability to “carry water” in their feathers. They are known to fill up their belly feathers with water and carry it for their chicks.
Lives Around the Park
While the wildlife of the desert was indeed spectacular, what also caught our attention was the amazing resilience of the locals in adapting to the harsh environment. Compared to the neighbouring princely town of Jaisalmer, the population in and around the park seemed sparse, owing to the extreme conditions that prevail, specifically the scorching summer heat and the bitter cold winters. People grow bajra and jowar during summer months here and own some livestock. Huts for living are made of brick, mud and have thatched roofs. Many houses are accompanied with an enclosure for their livestock. Contrary to popular belief, locals informed us that “it is unlikely that one would find wild camels here. Most camels here have a master”.
Balancing Development and Sustainability
Recently, a lot of land in this region has been used to develop wind farms. Ironically, despite the land being used to generate electricity, the power supply in the area is unreliable. Being a fragile habitat, the region faces a conflict between preservation of local ecology and culture. Among the many issues, there are pressures from expanding wind farms, over-grazing of livestock, competition of food (carcass) amongst stray dogs and wildlife, road kill, and lack of waste management systems coupled with increased tourism and infrastructural development.
For the villagers around the Desert National Park, there is a conflict of interest between daily life and increasing tourism. For example, the effort to cordon off portions of land as protected areas results in a decrease of grazing land available for livestock. In a region of scant vegetation, losing access to such areas is a disadvantage for herdsmen. It is now more than ever that tourists visiting this area need to bear in mind the intricacies of any ecosystem and the people dependent on it. It is worth reflecting on how eco-friendly and culture-friendly tourism can be planned in the region so as to not disrupt the habitat and way of life of the local population.
As our four-day extended trip came to an end, it reinforced our belief that the desert was anything but deserted. Much to the astonishment of our acquaintances, we saw 80 species of birds, several mammals, and reptiles and got some insight into the lives of the people who inhabit this seemingly inhospitable environment.
Acknowledgements: K. Muralidhar, Ashwin Mohan, Steven Deobald