Wisdom, Wildlife, and Wastelands: The Importance of Conserving Grasslands, Wetlands, and Deserts
Speckled with flecks of dark green that verges almost gray, Kalo Dungar rises incongruously over the Greater Rann of Kutch. The Black Hills tower over the glistening, patchy, white salt desert and offer a vantage point like none other, like a lighthouse above a sea of sand and salt. The horizons of the flatland extend as far as the eye can see in this northwest frontier along the infamous border shared between India and Pakistan. With nothing to break the visual, it’s an overwhelming vastness with an immense stillness that belies the hyperactive contentious borders of our collective imagination.
A little after sunset, bells chime at the Dattatrey temple that sits atop Kalo Dungar, resonating discordantly in every direction, breaking the eerie silence of this remote hilltop, surrounded by thorny scrub forests and the ubiquitous invasive mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) that the locals call gando baval (or mad tree). The bells are an announcement for the neighborhood wildlife to gather around on a small cylindrical slab that happens to be a feeding area of sorts. The temple priest heads down with a small bucket of food and dumps it on the round cement slab that’s a short walk from the main temple. All the while, the bells continue to clang, as darkness descends.
From the viewing gallery in the temple compound, a hush falls on the small crowd gathered and the tolling of the bells stops, as silhouettes of four-legged critters appear. Initially there’s a hierarchy that dissipates as more animals appear. The first to feed are the golden jackals (Canis aureus) and pecking order established, the next to join the feeding jackals are a trio of wild boars (Sus scrofa). This motley crew is then joined by a pair of Indian crested porcupines (Hystrix indica) that amble in. This rather unusual assortment of mammals continues feeding, more or less amicably, before disappearing into the surrounding shrub forest that by this time is enveloped in darkness. As the gallery thins out, we stumble on an Indian long-eared hedgehog (Hemiechinus collaris) curled under a bush inside the temple compound.
Legend has it that a monk used to feed wild jackals and one day when he had no food to offer the jackals, offered himself for the jackals to feed on so they don’t starve. The temple was supposedly built in his honor and for hundreds of years the temple priests have continued this ritual of feeding the jackals. There are several versions of the legend, some more vivid than the others, but this legend could be one of many reasons why jackals are more easily seen in the region.
Come during a weekend, say late morning under cloudless periwinkle blue skies and blazing sunshine, and you will encounter a very different vibe. There’s more energy, several hawkers selling their colorful and fascinating wares to a festive crowd of locals and tourists. Tourists wait impatiently in line for their turn to sit on or ride the star attraction, other than the temple itself and the stunning views, in the temple complex – a pair of camels, Shahrukh Khan and Kajol, the male and female respectively named after Bollywood stars, that make the trip up to the temple almost daily. These camels probably have a very different lifestyle relative to the wandering camel herds encountered around Kutch.
The communities of Kutch have traditionally been nomadic pastoralists, traversing the length and breadth of the region as the seasons changed, with the ebb and flow of grasslands that their cows and buffaloes, goats and sheep, and camels grazed and browsed on. The communities, although distinctive in their cultures and husbandry practices, are united in their love for their herds and their knowledge of the native wildlife and vegetation. This is encapsulated in a proverb often quoted by the Rabari community of camel herders: maal che to mobo che, which loosely translated means, if one has animals, one has dignity.
I was setting up trail cameras to understand the distribution of mammals in the Banni grasslands in Kutch. These seasonal grasslands that transform the arid land into a veritable smorgasbord of lush grass after the monsoons are the life blood of the pastoralists and their livestock, as well as the rich biodiversity that the region harbors. The bane of the otherwise much enjoyable endeavor of setting up camera traps was navigating the thorny Prosopis maze that has been spreading like wildfire through the region. This invasive is an active player that has been reshuffling and completely changing the socio-ecological dynamics of the Banni. It has spawned livelihoods through the rise of a parallel economy running on charcoal and on the flip side ruined the grasslands, negatively impacting the livestock and the pastoralists who depend on them, as well as the wildlife and vegetation of the area. Another player that has also become a double edged sword is tourism.
The salt desert is rife with fantastic storytellers, for many of the pastoralists are poets at heart. One of the best known storytellers of the grasslands was Salim Mama, the wise agyavan (pastoralist leader) of the village of Sargu in Kutch, not far from the foothills of Kalo Dungar. Pastoralists from far and wide would flock to him for advice, remedies, and treatments for any ills that befall their beloved livestock, reaching out to trained veterinarians only after a consult with Salim Mama. During our first meeting, once he realized that I spoke fluent Tamil, commented warmly, “Isn’t it curious that the Tamil words for little calf, kannu (or kandru) kutti, is used as an endearment for children?” I had heard a lot about Salim Mama and that initial conversation cemented the enormous knowledge he had accumulated about all creatures great and small and shared freely with one and all.
The advent of Prosopis has been the unfortunate consequence of an attempt at ‘greening’ the desert. What is often forgotten is how unique deserts and grasslands are as habitats that support human, wildlife, and vegetation communities that are often not found elsewhere. Ill- informed attempts at modifying landscapes is the sad legacy of a colonial hangover of land classification from the British, who classified any land that did not generate revenue for the Crown’s coffers as wastelands. Under this classification, typically monocultures and plantations where timber could be harvested were considered productive while wetlands, deserts, and grasslands got relegated to being termed wastelands. This categorization, rather unfortunately, is continuing to be applied and used today and amazing landscapes with unique, endemic faunal and floral communities are vanishing.
The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) used to be common in the lush grasslands of India until the 1948 when the last three of the species on Indian soil were hunted to extinction. The pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) that was once distributed along the riverine swamps of the Gangetic plains has been considered extinct since the 1950s. Another grassland specialist, the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), once touted to be the national bird of India and narrowly edged out by the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), is critically endangered and hanging by a thin line from being wiped out forever. These are but a handful of examples in the tragic collapse of biodiversity and extinction of species that been taking place during the anthropocene. If we scramble now, we might still be able to save the great Indian bustard and other critically endangered species from disappearing forever from the face of Earth. The first step is to ensure that the landscapes and habitats these species depend on are not wiped out through ill-informed initiatives that ignore the socio-ecological dimensions of development.
One of the folktales Salim Mama narrated to me, perhaps on my last ever visit to his house, now acts as an apt metaphor for conservation in Kutch and the modification of the landscape by Prosopis. In a forest not far from Banni, there was an Acacia tree. There was a lone nest of a baya weaver on the tree and with the monsoon in full swing, the female occupying the nest was getting ready to lay eggs. One particular day, there was a huge downpour and animals in the forest started seeking shelter under trees. A lion took refuge under the Acacia tree in which the female baya weaver was nesting. The protective weaver bird indignantly rebuked the lion for taking cover under her tiny nest, of all the locations in the forest that the big cat could have chosen. As the lion left to find another tree where it was not bothering anyone, a troop of noisy monkeys landed on the Acacia where the female weaver’s nest was dangling. And thereby hangs a tale. While Salim Mama is no more, he will always live on through his stories, the people he helped, and the legacy he left behind.