Little Rann of Kutch – Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary

The Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) is a huge tract of arid salt desert which forms the smaller part of the entire Rann of Kutch in the western state of Gujarat, India.

At 5000 sq km in area, it is Little only in comparison to its adjoining larger counterpart, the 7,500 sq ft Great Rann of Kutch (GRK) and is situated to its South East. Its vast expanse of nothingness also makes one feel very very Little indeed !!!

Kutch is India’s largest district, even larger in size than some of India’s states and some countries in the world and is said to have obtained its name from Kachchua meaning tortoise, due to its geographical resemblance to its humped shell. Kutch is also said to define that which is intermittently wet and dry. This district contains the large salt deserts called the Rann.

Apart from Kutch, LRK is also shared between the  districts of Surendra Nagar, Banaskantha, Patan and Rajkot.

The Wild Ass Sanctuary is located in LRK and apart from being the only natural habitat of the Indian Wild Asses (Equus hemionus khur), it also plays seasonal host to a host of migratory birds. The Wild Ass safari is the main attraction of this Sanctuary in winter.

Map source – Wikipedia

The Rann is a part of the Thar desert bio geographic area. Centuries ago this was said to be submerged under the Arabian sea and rose up as land after a series of geological uplifts, hence the concentration of salt in its soil.

LRK  seasonally alternates between dry land and wet land. The inflow of marine water here is from the Gulf of Kutch and the rainy season causes the land to become one with the sea. After the rains, the water evaporates and leaves behind broken chunks of cracked terrain that is rich in salts and minerals.

Wild Ass safari –

The Indian wild ass is also known as the Equus hemionus khur or Indian Onager or Ghudkhur or Khur. These beautiful animals are a near endangered species with only around 5000 of them left. These graceful creatures appear like a cross between a horse and a donkey with their whitish coats splashed with fawn patches and a short dark mane that runs down their neck and forms a dark line all the way to their tail.

The safari and sortie into the Little Rann of Kutch is the highlight of the winter season. One embarks on this adventure in the hope of spotting the Khur and other mammals like Chinkara (gazelle), Golden jackal, Indian fox, mongoose etc.

The region also provides a geographically conducive passage for several migratory birds that fly in from Europe, Africa etc and make the place their home for 4-5 months.

Over 350 species of birds like Desert wheatear, Indian sand grouse, Steppe eagle, Imperial eagle, Cinereous vulture, Griffon vulture, Harriers, Laggard Falcon, Owls, Flamingos, Cranes, Pelicans, Storks, Ducks, Geese etc are found here.

The great Indian bustard and the Peregrine Falcon are also found here in certain areas.

The Bajana gate near Patdi village, is one of access points of the Little Rann. This gate is advantageous since it is the closest to the wetlands and water bodies that play home to the migratory birds.

Safaris take place in the morning and evening and are usually of a 4 hour duration.

The process for embarking on a safari involves obtaining the permit from the forest department office and then setting off with a guide and vehicle which most of the resorts provide.

The permit here can be taken from the Bajana forest office and the process involves merely showing ID proof of any one person in the group.

An open jeep will be charged Rs 400-500 (weekdays/weekends) and camera charges are extra at Rs 200/-

If using your own vehicles, make sure you take a guide because LRK is a terrain of vast nothingness and GPS cannot really be relied upon. It can take mere moments to drive into oblivion and totally lose all sense of direction, even for those who are not directionally challenged like me 😀

Our safari with open jeep and guide, was organized by Bhavna resort where we were staying.

My safari –

Since we arrived at Bhavna at 11 am, we had our lunch and rested awhile before setting out for the evening safari. The timing given to us was 4 pm – 7 pm but we left at 3 pm in order to get to the forest house and complete the entry formalities and it was nearly 4 pm when we actually entered the sanctuary.

We had come with friends who had driven us down from Ahmedabad, so we were 4 people in the jeep, plus the guide cum driver.

 

The guide who accompanied us was supposed to be one of the more knowledgeable and experienced ones. While this was true, it was unfortunate that he was also one of the quiet ones. His monosyllabic responses did not give me the long answers that I needed and my mind remained hungering for information, just like the parched land seemed to be thirsting for water.

Nevertheless, he did know where the various secrets of the rann were hidden and his skill did lead to my getting quite a few interesting pictures which I was pleased with.

We began by driving straight to one of the large water bodies near the entrance and were thrilled to find it teeming with several species of water birds including cranes, painted storks, spoonbills, flamingos, greylag geese etc. A very auSpecie’ous start inded.

The guide did not rush me and allowed me to indulge in my photography until I was totally satisfied.

After spending about 30 minutes here, we were driven to another large lake that was aflame with the bright pink of the gorgeous Lesser flamingos. The flamingos thrive in this region and can be found for several months of the year.

The birds put on quite a show and it was a real treat to watch them posing and strutting like ballerinas.

We continued from here and went on to view the salt pans which LRK is well known for. More about them in the next section. En route we were lucky to sight this stern and dignified looking Short eared owl whom our guide spotted through the camouflage of dry twigs and leaves. Giving us suspicious looks, he nevertheless posed willingly until we could capture him on camera, after which he decided that enough was enough and whirred away.

Our luck continued almost instantly in the form of a graceful Harrier in flight, whom I found difficult to get  a clear shot of.

Well I had mainly come here to sight the Wild Ass and my safari luck (I usually call it Sufferi) being always poor, I was sure that I would have trouble spotting that which was supposed to be easily visible at all times. I was right of course and we went through a couple of agonizing hours on a trail of ass dung in the hope of locating their owners.

It was getting close to sunset and we had seen several birds, met the salt pan workers, taken pictures of the cracked land … but no Khur.

I was khur’sing my luck and really starting to feel like an ass myself and wondering whether declaring ‘Equus Hemionus Khur’  aloud, would act as a Harry Potter’esque magic spell and bring forth the animals … when suddenly on the horizon appeared rows and rows of these delightful khur, a sight that was so exhilarating and fulfilling and quite magical indeed.

And as if to make up for their earlier elusiveness, a couple of them gave me a pose for the upcoming Valentine’s Day, complete with their black manes forming a neat V.

Once my luck took an upturn, there was no looking back 😀 and I was again rewarded by the rare sight of 3 raptors all in a row and I gazed enrapt at the Griffon vulture, Steppe Eagle and Cinereous vulture standing in attention as if awaiting my approval !!!

One more picture of the eagle and vulture side by side and the heart was satisfied.

We spent the rest of our time harmoniously alongside the Hemionus Khur and the raptors, as we waited in the quiet of the evening for the sun to set below the edge of the cracked land. We then made our way back to the resort, with a camera that was very pleased.

LRK is also home to black bucks, chinkaras (gazelle), nilgai, desert fox, jackal, jungle cat, hare, wolf etc but Lady luck had decided that I had been granted enough for the day and hence I was not given a glimpse of any of the other mammals 😀

In any case, I was quite content with the Ghudkhur (Good-Khur ?) who had so obligingly posed for me.

Salt Panning –

Besides its wildlife and birds, LRK is also very important for its salt pans. 75 % of India’s salt is said to be generated here. The salt extraction is a long drawn and gruelling process that lasts several months. It is carried out by a community called the Agariyas (salt farmers), who live on the inhospitable land and earn low incomes very disproportionate to the effort they put in.

The process of obtaining Agar meaning salt, begins in October by boring wells to pump out the saline groundwater that lies several feet below the ground. The water is stored in rectangular tanks that have been physically prepared by the workers by stamping the clay at the base. Local grass is thrown into the pits and as the water evaporates the salt crystals adhere to the grass. As the salt crystals keep forming, they have to be constantly raked to be honed into a uniform size. The big crystals that are finally obtained after 8 months, are called Badagara (big salt).

We visited one of these salt pans and spoke to the agariya who was quite cheerful and obliging despite his not so sweet job!!! Ironically salt is called Mitha in Gujarati, which also means sweet in Hindi.

It is a beautiful sight to see the large crystals emerging out of the water, their refined sparkle contrasting with the work worn hands that created them.

Getting there –

The nearest nearest major airport is Sardar Vallabhai International airport at Ahmedabad, which is around 100 km away.

From Ahmedabad, one can get to LRK by rail, bus, cab or private vehicle.

While the easiest would be to drive down in one’s own car, the alternatives for those who travel from outside Ahmedabad would be to take a cab from the airport, or train from Ahmedabad to Viramgam or Dhrangadhra or bus to Malvan en route to Bhuj.

Most of the local resorts include a safari in their package. If you go on the safari in private vehicles, you will need to hire the services of a guide.

Since I stayed at the Bhavna Resort and Farm, my stay and safari was a part of the experience and we made use of their vehicle and guide.


For more pictures see My Facebook – Little Rann of Kutch Safari. Also catch me on My Twitter and My Instagram

Please Note – This is a collaboration, based on the invitation of Bhavna Resort and Farm and I thank them for hosting me with their warm hospitality.

The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.

Feb 8th – 9th, 2019

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