India has its fair share of well-known wildlife sanctuaries. Kaziranga in the Northeast, Jim Corbett in Uttarakhand, Sariska in Rajasthan, Bandipur, Nagarhole and Periyar in the south are some of the most visited sanctuaries. Then there are roads less travelled like the desert wildlife sanctuaries to be found in Kutch, Gujarat. The Wild Ass Sanctuary is one such waiting to be discovered.
About Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch
Unlike the lush jungles of Periyar or Kaziranga the Wild Ass Sanctuary in the northwest of Gujarat covering Malia and Dhrangadhra in Kutch is an arid lunar landscape of rolling dunes of sand interspersed with vegetation. The Sanctuary covers a stupendous area of 4954 square kilometres. The sanctuary came into being in 1972. What makes it unique is that it is the last outpost for the wild ass Equus Hemionus Khur species, locally known as ghudkhar. A few animals can be found in neighboring Banaskantha, Kutch, Rajkot, Patan and Ahmedabad districts covering an area of 15000 square kilometres.
Their population elsewhere in India (and the World) has vanished into the blue. The wild ass is unlike the ordinary donkeys one is familiar with. It has a rather elongated body and neck measuring about 2 metres and its height is about 1 metre. The wild ass roams in herds and can run at speeds of 50 km if needed. The Sanctuary is home to about 4450 wild asses according to the 2015 census but their homeland is threatened with a growing number of industries on the periphery, poaching, a firing range of the BSF inside the sanctuary and dwindling resources. The greatest threat is illegal salt mining and the incessant noise of vehicles. This is ironic considering that the Sanctuary is a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve.
Take a trip to the Sanctuary and view the last of the wild asses while you can. Future generations may only read about them.
The topology of the Sanctuary itself is interesting. It is a continuum of dry area of dark silt with salt encrustation. It is believed this region was once part of the sea and such dry salty areas are interspersed with raised lands called “bets” or islands. This is where grass and vegetation grows and provides fodder for the animals. The largest such bet or plateau is Pung Bet with an area of 30.5 sq. km and the highest plateau is Mardak at a height of 55 metres. There are 74 such plateaus in the Sanctuary. The vast dry and barren flatlands are bereft of vegetation. These lands are inundated in the monsoon season and seasonal vegetation springs up.
Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) has colonized the dry areas but the plateaus are home to rich varieties of flora. There are about 253 species of flowering plants and 18 species of 5433s, 23 shrubs, 18 climbers, 157 different herbs and 37 different kinds of grasses. One can find 107 species of algae where water bodies are found.
The Wild Ass Sanctuary is home to diverse species of fauna. From frogs and toads to crustaceans and molluscs and from spiders to 93 species of invertebrates and zooplanktons, there is an abundant diversity of fauna to keep visitors engrossed if they care to delve deep. One can find 29 species of reptiles including snakes, crocodiles, lizards and turtles. Fed by the tidal waters of the Gulf of Kutch, the region is home to local species of birds and migratory birds. Over 75000 birds nest in an area of 250 acres.
The Wild Ass Sanctuary is only 130 km from Ahmedabad and 45 km from Viramgam. In fact, one could say that from Viramgam onwards one is in wild ass country. Travel by road from any of these cities is a good way to reach the sanctuary. One can take a train to Ahmedabad or to Dhrangadhra and then travel by state transport buses, local jeeps or hire a car. The main approach points are at Range Bajana, Range Aadeshwar and Dhrangadhra. Most people prefer to enter the Sanctuary at Range Bajana because this is where one can find migratory birds but Dhrangadhra town offers good accommodation, dining and transportation facilities.
As one would expect there is no amenity or facility inside the camp save for campsites on the periphery. Some might prefer the rural hut type accommodation available at Devjibhai’s Kooba, located at Jogad village, about 45 km from Dhrangadhra. There are cozy cabins, decent cuisine and one can join the Eco Camp site, go trekking. There is a Royal Safari Camp at Bajana, another place that visitors prefer to stay in because it is so close to the preferred entry point.
Best Time to Visit
Winter months of November onwards are best for a foray into the Sanctuary. It can become quite cold at nights so carry woollens, wear thick ankle high boots, sunscreen and sunglasses. Carry snacks and water bottle while inside the camp. Summers can be tough because of high temperatures and it may not be worthwhile because most animals keep away from open spaces. Dawn and dusk are the best times of the day to get a good view of birds and animals at watering holes or out in the open. Early September is when nearby Surendranagar hosts the Tarnetar fair so you can visit this rural matrimonial fair and then proceed to the wild ass sanctuary. You can just as well come to Kutch for the Rann Utsav and enjoy a side trip to this sanctuary as well as others in the Kutch region.
A visit to the Sanctuary is educational. It shows just how fragile the ecosystem is and it also shows how such an inhospitable environment can support so many life forms.