Just when I am beginning to have uncharitable, sleep-deprived thoughts about Pune’s ever-expanding urban sprawl, our car veers off-road, onto a dirt track flanked by a vast expanse of tawny, brown, and yellow land. It’s 6.20 am and the sun has just peeped out, slowly morphing the sky from pink to vermillion. Neither big trees nor dense vegetation obstructs our view, and it takes a while to grasp the landscape: rocky, isolated, and mostly horizontal, save for a few, medium-height trees with flat tops.
This is the Saswad Grassland, an area covering roughly 6,000 sq km that stretches from Saswad to Indapur in Maharashtra. Standing here, watching the sun’s rays light up blades of grass, it is hard to believe that we are just 40 km from Pune, and only a few kilometres from a busy highway.
Saswad might look barren to the untrained eye, but this dry, deciduous, scrubland is the breeding ground for a number of small to mid-sized wildlife, despite being termed “semi-arid wasteland” by the revenue department of the Maharashtra government.
One of my companions this morning is Mihir Godbole, founding member of The Grasslands Trust. The trust is a volunteer-run organisation tracking wildlife activity in this area. It also initially played a small part in the wolf collaring project with the Wildlife Institute of India. He says the grasslands harbour more than 350 species of birds and 25 species of mammals, including the elusive stars of the show — the Indian grey wolf and the striped hyena. Other animals you will encounter are the Bengal fox, Indian gazelle or chinkara, and various birds.
The Saswad Grasslands are one of the best places for birding close to Pune. Its denizens include the ashy-crowned sparrow-lark, yellow-wattled lapwing, grey-necked bunting, painted francolin, and the rain quail, among others. It’s also home to birds of prey like the
Bonelli's eagle, and snake eagle. Birds like the striolated bunting and white-bellied minivet are limited elsewhere, but common in this area. We sight a few raptors, their sandy-brown hue blending into the surroundings. But the reason we have arrived at daybreak is because we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive wolf — the top predator of the grassland’s food chain.
These grasslands are used as wastelands by villagers and poultry farms in the vicinity. They often dump carcasses of chickens and cattle here, which ensures enough food for all, including the areas wolves, foxes, and hyenas. Godbole and his team have been informed about one such carcass, and we hope the collared wolves the Grasslands Trust team has been tracking will appear to consume it.
We find the cow carcass between two slopes, but there is scant chance of spotting any wolves, as a pack of free-ranging stray dogs has surrounded it. Free-ranging stray dogs are a constant nuisance here. They are a threat to the wildlife of the region, and also bring with them the threat of spreading rabies.
We hear the long-tailed shrike’s sharp piercing call. And, what we spot instead of wolves, are chinkaras in great abundance. As the sun comes up further, so do these gazelles, graceful in both repose and movement. They are outnumbered only by black drongos. We see a number of these little birds, some with grasshoppers in their beaks, others taking a ride on a grazing chinkara, silhouetted against the brightening sun. Another unusual antelope one can spot in this area is the four-horned antelope or chousingha.
By this time, more of the grassland’s inhabitants start moving around. With a landscape as flat and unobstructed as this, stealth is an important tool in any grassland inhabitant’s arsenal, especially hunters like the wolf and fox. The grassland also harbours creatures that live amidst the rocky boulders: the red-tailed scorpion, and reptiles like the fan-throated lizard and fat-tailed gecko.
That afternoon we meet a shepherd of the semi-nomadic pastoral Dhangar community who says some of his sheep were taken by wolves. “I last saw a wolf more than eight days ago,” he says, his red headgear blazing in the mid-day sun. This kind of human-animal conflict is not unheard of in these parts, but it is rare, due to the abundance of waste dumped in the area. The Dhangars have been grazing their flocks in these grasslands for generations. Once the monsoon ends and the dry season starts they will move their sheep and goats to the softer grass of the Mahad region in the Konkan. “The grass here is getting harder for the sheep to graze,” he tells us. “There is a scarcity of water here once the dry spell starts.” As the day progresses, we spot several sandgrouse, a common grassland bird.
Next we move to the Morgav area, where a local has informed the Grassland Trust team about spotting hyenas on the hilly scrubland. The sun is setting as we drive, making the yellow-green landscape even more beautiful. The scenery varies as we speed past: a mosaic of white graphite rock, fawn shrub, and patches of lush agricultural land. Amidst it all we see a smattering of short, bushy trees, many with little weaver bird nests hanging off their branches.
The grasslands from Saswad to the Mayureshwar Wildlife Sanctuary form an important dispersal corridor for wildlife in this region and need to be preserved. To do this, “the ecosystem needs to be identified with the right terminology,” says Dr Sachin Punekar, an ecologist who runs the NGO Biosphere in Pune. “We need to understand that scrub forest like this is an important habitat and not a wasteland. We need a dedicated policy for the preservation of such areas.” Punekar points out that, though rarely seen, other marginal wildlife such as the Indian pangolin and porcupine, also thrive in Saswad. Long story short: “The focus of preserving ecosystems needs to move on from forests alone,” he affirms.
In the Morgav area, we don’t have much luck with spotting hyenas either, even though they usually venture out towards evening during the summer. But I’m far from disappointed, because the landscape more than makes up for a missed wildlife sighting. Before me lie swathes of meadow, dry but abundant with flaxen, yellow grass. It looks deceptively smooth enough to run through, but it is prickly and thorny, and the setting sun gives it a glow that could launch a thousand photographs.
Though grasslands like Saswad host plenty of wildlife, they face multiple threats. In addition to encroachment and construction, Saswad is vulnerable to the expansion of agricultural land. Because of their perception as a wasteland, and due to the easy availability of irrigation facilities, villagers have started using the grassland for agriculture without understanding that over-irrigation could change the habitat. There’s also a proposed international airport in the area that would change the ecosystem entirely if it is built.
Grasslands aren’t dramatic landscapes with tall trees, bright flora, and mega wildlife. But these mostly parched areas are teeming with species, unique to this habitat, many of them essential to maintaining the region’s fragile ecosystem. Recognising their value would go a long way in preserving these fragile and unique landscapes, say the experts who have been working so hard to preserve the area.
As our day’s exploration draws to a close, we get lucky. While standing atop a hillock we see an Amur falcon flying overhead, possibly on its migratory route from Siberia to southern Africa. There’s a very small window when these birds fly over India, and the birders in the team are delighted at the rare sighting. From our vantage point, I see small ponds and waterbodies glimmer before the light dies out. Birds fly home, and in the distance, shepherds herd their cattle back for the night.
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