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Philosophers and gurus have long advised us that “Nothing is as it seems”, a prompt for undertaking deeper personal reflection and inquiry into the nature of self and the universe. Over the centuries, we’ve found this advice to be true of most human interactions, but to see it manifest in the natural world is a rare experience that confounds and cheers in equal measure. The Little Rann of Kutch is a thriving example of these dichotomies of Nature.

Nearly fifty years ago, the region — spread over nearly 5,000 sq km — was brought under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and turned into the Wild Ass Sanctuary. This prolonged protection has allowed the region to flourish into a place where the ceaseless contradictions of Nature are in full, and fine, display. Over seven safaris organised by the Rann Riders in December 2019, I was lucky to witness a fair few of them:

It seems dry, but it is not. 
The Little Rann of Kutch is the eastern extremity of the more famous Rann of Kutch. Both regions were once vast shallows extending inwards from the Gulf of Kutch but geological events such as tectonic uplifts raised the seabed and cut off the area’s connection to the ocean. This created a salt marsh that was fed by the Ghaggar River and the monsoon, but with time, the river dried up, leaving behind a salt desert that floods with rainwater annually that creates a vast, albeit temporary, brackish lake.

This waterbody is dotted with bets — islands in Gujarati — that are formed by patches of higher ground that stay above water. There are 74 such refuges in the Little Rann and they are invaluable as a source of grazing and shelter for resident species to wait out the rains. Some like Mardak Bet rise to heights of 55 metres above ground level. They can also spread wide, like Pung Bet that sprawls over 30 sq km. We stumbled upon a communal roosting of over 20 short-eared owls in a small patch of scrub on Meldi no Dhoro, another bet in Little Rann. The presence of so many predators in a landscape that didn’t seem to support much prey was a great indicator of how life flourishes even where one might not expect it.

Hedgehogs are small, hardy, spine-covered mammals that spend their days sleeping — often curled into a ball — and emerge at night, when it is cooler, to forage for food.  Cover photo: Parts of Little Rann of Kutch provide an ideal breeding ground for lesser flamingos, and the sanctuary sees one of the largest congregations of the birds in the country.

Hedgehogs are small, hardy, spine-covered mammals that spend their days sleeping — often curled into a ball — and emerge at night, when it is cooler, to forage for food.
Cover photo: Parts of Little Rann of Kutch provide an ideal breeding ground for lesser flamingos, and the sanctuary sees one of the largest congregations of the birds in the country.

It seems empty, but it is not.
Cracked earth unfolding towards the horizon, scored with winding tyre treads — this is perhaps the most iconic image of the Little Rann and one made possible by the drying out of the annual monsoon inundation. The floodwaters start drying out as the rains retreats, but it stays long enough to attract migratory birds from around the world in winter. Over 300 species can be spotted here, making this a hotspot for birders too. But perhaps the most surprising element to this smorgasbord of species is just how many of them are aquatic — not something you’d associate with a dry, desert habitat.

The large flocks of teals, ducks, geese, and other waterfowl are quite a startling sight as they float on often large water bodies about while parched land stretches out all around them. In winter, there are also a number of large wading birds like flamingos, storks, cranes, pelicans and ibises. I spent the better part of one morning skulking behind a copse of Prosopsis juliflora trees with Rizwan Malik, the naturalist driving me around, watching a flock of pelicans alight by a small pond and preen in a repose as regal as only a pelican could manage.

Despite their temporary nature, the water bodies in the Little Rann of Kutch are hotbeds of activity, inhabited by numerous species in proximity. In the image on top, a grey heron surveys the landscape, surrounded by godwits and flamingos. The region also hosts the yellow-wattled lapwing (above left) and the sociable lapwing (above right).

It seems inhospitable, but it is not.
To employ a cliché that sounds best in the voice of one of the Attenborough brothers: “Life abounds here”. It just needs closer observation than a rainforest. The salt plains might seem to stretch lifelessly into the distance but they support species that draw naturalists and birders from around the world. Among these is the ghudkhar, the colloquial name of the Indian wild ass. The Little Rann is the last stand of the species and population estimates put their numbers at around 5,000 animals. This means there is an average of 1 animal per sq km, but these magnificent beasts can be spotted quite easily. I discovered this on my first safari when we came upon a group of wild asses, and the alpha male let us approach to within a few metres! Other mammalian species in the Little Rann include the white-footed (or desert) fox, Indian wolf, striped hyena, desert cat, chinkara, and blackbuck.

The ecosystem hosts an impressive array of birds of prey. Some of these, like the steppe eagle, greater spotted eagle, and the eastern imperial eagle, can be seen relatively easily as can four species of harriers: the marsh, Montague’s, pallid, and hen. Also unusual is the sheer range of falcons and smaller raptors that can be seen here. The laggar, saker, red-necked and peregrine falcons can be spotted perched on stumps and milestones as can the shikra, the common kestrel and the eurasian hobby. One of my most memorable experiences was watching a peregrine repeatedly divebomb and wreak havoc among a flock of waterfowl in the middle of a waterbody a short drive from Vachhraj Bet, as a group of black storks stalked the shallows on the far side. Even Juned, the guide, and Aditya, the naturalist from Rann Riders, were captivated by this uncommon behaviour.

The impressive range of raptors in the Little Rann of Kutch includes the osprey (top left), red-headed merlin (top right), common kestrel (above left), and peregrine falcon (above right). Ospreys are largely fish-eating species, while kestrels, peregrine falcons, and merlins hunt small mammals and birds.

The impressive range of raptors in the Little Rann of Kutch includes the osprey (top left), red-headed merlin (top right), common kestrel (above left), and peregrine falcon (above right). Ospreys are largely fish-eating species, while kestrels, peregrine falcons, and merlins hunt small mammals and birds.

It seems unremarkable, but it is not.
In 1972, all 4,954 sq km of the Little Rann was turned into the Wild Ass Sanctuary, ensuring the safety of this unique ecosystem and some truly rare species. In addition to the wild ass, there are other extraordinary species that can be sighted more easily here than elsewhere. Like the sociable lapwing, a critically endangered wader that migrates from Central Asia. Or Stoliczka’s bush chat, also known as the white-browed bush chat, a desert flycatcher endemic to Western and Northern India that is declining across its range. Or the hoopoe lark, a migrant that breeds in the Little Rann, so famed for its immaculate camouflage that spotting one is considered a display of true skill on the naturalist’s part. Or even MacQueen’s bustard, a.k.a. the Houbara, that is prized by Arab falconers leading to a steep decline in its numbers across its Asian range. One evening, as Juned, Aditya, and I rumbled across the plains near Jilandhar Bet, we inadvertently caused not one, or two, but five bustards to take flight a few hundred metres ahead of us! I don’t know who was more startled — the birds at our intrusion, or us humans at this once-in-a-lifetime sighting, that too of such an unheard of number of birds.

The jungle cat (top) and striped hyena (above) are both formidable land carnivores in the Little Rann of Kutch. The jungle cat is considered largely solitary while hyenas are more social in nature.

The jungle cat (top) and striped hyena (above) are both formidable land carnivores in the Little Rann of Kutch. The jungle cat is considered largely solitary while hyenas are more social in nature.

It seems unproductive, but it is not.
Productivity is a human metric and might seem out of place when applied to a saline desert but for us homo sapiens, everything is lamentably an asset that must be monetised. The Little Rann has seemingly endless reserves of salt, a legacy of its oceanic past, which has led to the formation of salt pans and an industry sprouting up around it. Crucial to this enterprise are the Agariyas, a community of traditional salt farmers that start arriving in October as the waters recede. They pump out the briny groundwater and let it evaporate in the sun until salt crystals are formed, which are then collected and sent for processing. They do this until around April, when they pack up their temporary abodes and move back to their villages in the surrounding areas. One evening, I was invited to have tea with Rajubhai, a salt farmer from the area, at his shack. As we parked and got off, I was struck by how his hut had a bank of solar panels outside and asked him if these were for electricity for his family.

He chuckled and told me that they had been provided by their contractor to power the generators that drove the water pumps. During the day, the pumps ran on the solar energy, which meant that diesel was only needed to run them are night. This ensured that half the fuel used by him was renewable, something that most urban Indians, with all the resources are their disposal cannot claim. It was heartening to see a more responsible consciousness take root in the desert.

The Indian wolf is a pack animal that hunts over large range areas. Numbers of this endangered species are dwindling due to hunting and habitat destruction.

The Indian wolf is a pack animal that hunts over large range areas. Numbers of this endangered species are dwindling due to hunting and habitat destruction.

It seems humbling, and it is
Driving through the vast, seemingly endless expanse of the Little Rann makes us wonder how insignificant we are. It’s like a Sisyphean endeavour: the destination seems unattainable regardless of how much distance you cover. On my last safari, I suddenly, and strongly, felt something most travellers do at some point — homesick, with a desire to stay still, perhaps ruminate awhile. I turned and asked Aiubbhai how much longer we’d be driving. Without taking his eyes off the road, he answered, “As far as the road takes us”. I smiled and leaned back, and as the sun set over the flats, it dawned on me. There’s no end to what one can learn on the road. Because the road, with its lessons, might seem endless. And it is.

Manan Dhuldhoya
Manan Dhuldhoya

is a Bombay-based writer who's trying to evolve from mostly writing for specimens to also writing on species.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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