Wild Ass of Kutch

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Wild Ass Kutch. Pic by Col Manoj Bhatnagar

The area bordering Arabian sea known as Rann (desert in Gujarati) is divided into Great and Little Rann of Kutch. It is a saline desert that remains submerged under water during monsoon months except few uplands known as bets. Because of salinity, no vegetation grows there except bani grass and thorny shrubs. During dry months one can see vast expanse of snow white salt spread like desert sand. The locals extract salt from salt panes by a natural process of evaporation. It is one of their occupations.

 

Rann particularly the Little Rann is the habitat of wild asses. In the last century, the animals lived all over north western India including Bikaner, Jaisalmer and western Pakistan (Sindh and Baluchistan).  Today they are found only in Little Rann and a few stray towards Great Rann.

 

I had read about wild asses in travel books but never had an occasion to see. So when my daughter Anita and son-in-law Manoj planned a trip to Gujarat and invited me to join, we included Wild Ass Sanctuary in our itinerary.

 

The sanctuary is spread over 5,000 sq kms. It is characterized by vast, salt-impregnated, sun-baked mudflats, which are dotted with small patches of bets. They represent a unique saline desert-cum-wet-land. The mudflats remain submerged for about 4 - 5 months of the year under fresh and saline water received from a few rivers and from the Arabian Sea.

 

The sanctuary was established in the year 1973 to protect the endangered wild ass. It has three main entry points namely Dharangadhra, Bajana and Adeshwar. They are connected by road from Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Bhuj. Dharangadhra is preferred as it is easy to find accommodation and transport.

 

It is preferable to travel in a vehicle to spot the asses. The entry fee is charged per vehicle. Rates vary. The present rates are Rs. 600/ for Indians and Rs. 2,600/ for foreigners in a vehicle carrying five visitors.

 

After night halt at Bhuj we left for Adeshwar and reached a little after ten. We visited the Forest office to obtain entry permit but found it closed being a Saturday, We were disappointed and had two options. Wait till Monday or visit again.

 

As we were contemplating what to do, one of the chowkidars in the office offered to show wild asses - of course expecting some tip. Our joy knew no bounds. We requested him to sit in our vehicle.  He took us inside the sanctuary where there were no roads but vast expanse of sand and salt mudflats over which one could drive.

 

After some drive on the mudflats, we spotted a herd of asses. They were grazing in the sun and were at a distance. Our Man Friday advised to continue driving for a closer view. Finding our vehicle approaching, the asses looked alarmed. They sensed an intrusion into their territory. We continued driving. This time they took to their heels. We drove faster chasing them. They started running away sprinting at a faster speed.

We chased them as far as we could till they disappeared and our vehicle could not negotiate further because of undulating broken ground. It was a thrilling and satisfying experience.

 

The asses are slightly taller than the domestic asses giving them a zebra like look. They had reddish grey sandy coat. Some were dapple with pale chestnut patches. Their erect dark mane ran from back of the head along the neck. We could notice their dark brown stripes running from back to the root of the tail in some of them. They looked graceful.

 

The asses live in herds and are one of the sturdiest animals withstanding scorching midday heat of Rann that sometime reaches 500 c without any shade or shelter facing long period of draught. They eat whatever they get - generally shrubby grass and leaves of thorny bushes. They have the strength, speed of a stallion and can run at a speed of 80 to 90 km/hr. Unlike animals in other sanctuaries, who get used to visitors, the asses are not used to intruders particularly human beings. They are shy and run away on seeing people.  

 

The asses do not have any enemy as there are no predators in the Rann or shot for meat. The only threat is epidemic that takes away the lives of herds. We were told that their population once dwindled to 350 in 1962. It increased after the establishment of the sanctuary and stands at 5,000 now. However, they are declared as endangered species.

 

Although the sanctuary is basically a vast flat desert, during monsoons many areas get filled up and attract water birds of numerous varieties. Flamingos are found to breed here.  Many migratory birds like pelicans, varieties of storks, ducks, coots visit the sanctuary during winter months. We could not watch them since we our visit did not coincide with the season.

 

After spending about two hours or so in the sanctuary we resumed our journey to Kutch. About my experience in Kutch, I shall write separately.