Exploring The Desert

Fourteen years, plenty of wildlife trips, lots of safaris, hundreds of birds, varied habitats- semi evergreen to deciduous forests, wetlands to deserts, snowfall to the scorching summer heat with temperatures soaring above 40 C, thousands of photographs........yet, not even one-tenth of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of India covered. Only 50% of the avian biodiversity of India seen and of the other forms of biodiversity, only a single digit percentage seen yet. How about an exploratory wildlife trip then? How about visiting a protected area about which not much is known, but promises to be rich in terms of biodiversity, a national park which does not see the kind of tourist frenzy that the more popular ones do?

Day - 16th Aug 2012. Place: Desert National Park, Rajasthan. An impromptu wildlife trip with only one desire, one objective..... .the Great Indian Bustard. An absolutely royal looking bird, almost a metre in height and listed as critically endangered. As per estimates, only about 250 of them remain in the wild, making it even more endangered than the tiger but sadly it hasn’t drawn as much attention for its conservation and protection as the Royal Bengal Tiger has. Having seen the bustard only twice in the last 14 years of my wildlife trips, with the sightings being distant and far from satisfactory, it has remained high on my wish list with a lurking apprehension of whether I would be lucky enough before they are wiped out from the face of this planet. When I learnt that bustard sighting in the Desert National Park is more or less a 100% guarantee, I was willing to undertake the exploration though not much information was available about the place in terms of logistics or biodiversity. 

We reached Jaisalmer on 15th Aug and after some local sightseeing, left for the Desert National Park at 6.00 am the following morning. How laid back life in these small towns indeed is! The plan was to leave at 5am, but it was an ordeal to get the hotel staff to provide us tea and packed breakfast and another struggle to get the driver to pick us up at that unearthly hour.  Desert National Park or ‘Sudasari’ as it is known locally, is almost 70 km from Jaisalmer. Fortunately the roads were in very good condition and we reached by 7.30 am. We had been informed at Jaisalmer that all arrangements had been made, the permits done and we would find camel carts on hire to take us in the park. But on reaching there we found not a soul, forget the carts and the camel. A young guy called Hamir, who had been entrusted with the camel cart logistics for us appeared out of nowhere. Very nonchalantly he said its farming time and there was no way we would get the carts. Permits? That seemed to be a joke in itself. There was no Forest Department (FD) office nor officials, no gates for entry or exit, no signboards about the rules, dos, don't dos, no facilities for safaris- in summary not a soul except this guy Hamir. Out went my hopes of the bustard. There was no way our small car could be taken inside as there was a high risk of it getting stuck in the sand.

Desert National Park - more than 3000 sq km of desert, a unique ecosystem of the Thar desert,a vast expanse comprising of rocks, sand dunes, salt lake bottoms, patches of grassland...some green, some dried and golden. Supposedly one of the largest National Parks of India, a fragile ecosystem, home to varied forms of wildlife. And in this miles and miles of desert with its inhabitants there were only 4 more living forms of life on that day - Anjali, myself, the driver and a so-called guide. 

Yes, unbelievable but true....this treasure trove of wildlife remains largely untouched by tourists and visitors. Considering the hordes of tourists and the mania surrounding other popular wildlife spots, it is a mystery that this place remains largely unexplored and not much talked about. There are no lodging boarding facilities anywhere upto Jaisalmer which is about 70 km away, no guides, no proper tickets nor anyone to check who enters or leaves when, what anyone does inside the park. The local villagers too are completely unaware about 'birding' or ‘birders’  and were rather amused by the fact that we came to Jaisalmer to visit ‘Sudasari’ rather than the more  popular monuments or temples.......all this and more were telltale signs that the place is not frequented by wildlifers. Anyone can just enter in or walk out anytime with no questions asked. And mind you, out of the approximately 250 bustards that exist in the wild, close to 100 are estimated to be here. So much for conservation!!!

Of course our so-called guide (whose job was to fence parts of the park as instructed and was supposedly an employee of the FD) was somewhat of a smart chap who tried to convince us that a permit is needed to enter, tickets et al with vehicle and guide charges etc etc. It was very obvious that his story was more fiction than fact and the so-called receipt/permit not very authentic, which was confirmed as he handed us a make-do receipt later. It is another matter that we pretended to buy his story and indulged him coz we were at his mercy, else we 2 ladies could get lost in those 3000 kms and never find the way back.

He sensed we were willing to buy his story and so, many phone calls and more than an hour later a jeep arrived and we went in finally - me thinking we have lost the safari already as it was beyond 9 am. Some common bird sightings followed and with every minute my hopes of the bustard were vanishing in thin air. Suddenly we had 2 falcons flying close by and then one landed near a small green patch. I got some pictures while Anjali and me debated on whether it was the peregrine or the red necked. Some research in the books had the query resolved and it was a laggar.  They turned out to be our luck mascots of sorts and we were suddenly having bounties......an Egyptian vulture here, another one there, joined by a tawny eagle and we felt more energised.  But the reason we were there - the Great Indian Bustard, continued to elude us. I had given up hopes when our guide suddenly said he can see one in the far far distance. Tried as much as we could but Anjali and me couldn't. He asked us if we were willing to walk......of course we were, any distance. We just walked and walked behind him till we could see a tiny glimpse of the GIB. The trek continued till we could see it well with the binocs but it was a good 300 mts away and no chance of pics. The barren expanse gave us no chance for a stealthy approach and everytime we got even to 200 mts of it, it just flew off. DAMN!!! Doesn't matter the guide said...... there's another one there. The drama continued and there was a time when the guy was spotting GIBs like sparrows......here there everywhere. He really had some eyes!!! Anjali and me felt very sheepish about our vision but the guy didn't give up. In one hour he had shown us 13 of them and I managed some decent shots as well. The day continued with many raptors including 35 vultures at one spot, sandgrouses, fox, chinkaras and others. After the noon meal and siesta at 30 km away, we headed back and were in the park again at 4.30 pm. The evening felt as if we were in Juriassic Park!!. Varieties of huge lizards cropping up everywhere.......spiny tailed, desert monitor, water monitor - the park was just full of them. We got lucky once more when  we  spotted the desert cat but the driver's enthusiasm took him too close and drove the cat away and I regretted missing the once in a lifetime chance of a photo of this elusive species. The desert fox then appeared and assuaged my heart a little, but missing the desert cat still hurts. We ended the day on a happy note and camped at a makeshift camping site 30 km away for the night. We went back again in the morning all excited but the rain gods poured with a vengeance and we didn't see much except 2 female bustards at very close quarters and some tawnies and laggar falcons scattered on the floor all over the park. Nevertheless, we were more than happy at the end of the 3 safaris and more than that, enjoyed the exploration more than our usual wildlife trips which are planned well in advance with bird lists well in hand and a long wish list of target species to see. It is like having tasted blood now and it has now egged us to do more such explorations of wildlife spots less known.

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