Featured, Gujarat, India & Around, Nature & Wildlife, Photography, Travel
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Where cranes sing and flamingos dance: Into the Banni Grasslands Reserve

Thousands of birds call the Banni Grasslands Reserve in Kutch, Gujarat their home. An excursion into this dry but rich ecosystem, has delightful surprises unfold, as you turn every corner.

“Leave nothing but footprints; and plant trees. Lots of trees.”

Flamino with Sunrise Kutch
Flamingos against a beautiful sunrise over the Banni Grasslands. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

Only someone wise and passionate can utter these words. And they come from none other than Jugal Tiwari of the Center for Desert and Ocean (CEDO). Established in 2005, the organisation has been tireless working on ecology and conservation issues for the last 9 years. Tiwari, who is originally from Rajasthan, on a visit to Kutch, fell in love with this area.

Banni Grasslands

It’s not hard to imagine why. What appears at first sight to be dry scrub desert, has more surprises, twists and turns than a detective novel and you look forward with anticipation to the next sight!
We enter the reserve in the early morning hours. The cranes are already up, and fly across the morning sky, just beginning to glow with the first rays of the sun. In the horizon, another flock is taking off. And then yet another. Flying in their trademark V formations or sometimes in a line, behind each other.

Banni Grasslands

The common crane is resident of the reserve from September to April.

Banni Grasslands
Says Tiwari, “when they leave, it’s like your mobile has gone into silent mode”. Their song is replaced by silence. And then again in September (between 17-19) when they arrive, the skies are taken over by their happy song, heard even from a distance. This is what has kept Tiwari going, every year for the last nine years. He knows each and every specimen in this area, their behaviour, their whereabouts (most of the time!).

Banni Grasslands

As the early morning light casts a magical glow on the surroundings, I ask him why it’s called a grassland. This is something even Tiwari is not sure of. There are wetlands, dry scrub, bush, Prosopis juliflora (invasive non-native species) and weeds (as in the picture). But there is no grass anywhere. And yet this area is called a “grassland”. Perhaps, the guy who named it was sitting at a desk somewhere and somehow forgot to actually visit the region!

Lesser Flamingo2
The lesser flamingo takes flight. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

For miles on end, all around you, there are cranes everywhere. On the ground, and up in the air. Of course, you can’t really get close to them. The minute they see you approach, they take flight, gliding gracefully across the skies. In the opposite direction.

Banni Grasslands

We park in an open area where for miles we see weeds and Tiwari points out the Chari Dhandh – the main water body where the flamingos arrive in droves. The pink flamingo is resident in the park during this time. They are usually in the water, feasting on small water insects. From the distance, I can easily count hundreds. This time, the rains haven’t been good enough, says Tiwari. As a result, the water will dry up soon.

In another corner of the lake, are a flock of pelicans. These large birds float on the water and move together, as if in slow motion. It’s like watching a ballet performance. With birds. Another corner, Tiwari points out spoonbills – I drink in every sight hungrily – through the binoculars. As a city resident, the only thing we usually see around for miles are roof tops and ugly concrete structures. This is paradise; a sight to be remembered.

Banni Grasslands

Up in the air, there is more drama. A marsh harrier is being chased by a couple of smaller birds, trying to scare him off. And then a whole drove of rosy starlings sweeps across my field of view.

Banni Grasslands

After watching the watery ballet and on air drama, we move towards the dry scrub area. The birds are up early morning and they’re dancing from one shrub to another. We’re lucky to see a jackal strike a pose and look towards something.

Banni Grasslands

A little further down, a Steppe eagle is surveying his prey. It strikes a majestic pose; and when in flight it has an impressive wing span of around 6 feet. On a tree top is another bird of prey – the long-legged buzzard. They’re all looking for breakfast.

Banni Grasslands

From the shrub, we move on to an even drier area. Just small clumps and scorched earth. Even here, there are birds, small mammals and insects. You just need a keen eye. Our driver, well acquainted with the environment by now, spots a sleeping fox. She is curled up beside a shrub and let us gaze at her for a few minutes. Our few minutes of paparazzi like behaviour is more than she can take. After giving us a glance, she slinks off into the distance.

Indian Eagle OWl
The Indian Eagle Owl in all it’s glory. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

Painted Sandgrouse
The painted sandgrouse. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

There are many birds – including bulbuls, the desert warblers, drongos, larks, babblers, bee eaters – this is truly birder’s paradise. I have limited knowledge of birds, but am always fascinated by these tiny creatures, with their rich plumage and beautiful and distinctive markings. It’s not difficult to imagine how bird watching can become an all consuming and addictive hobby.

Banni Grasslands

As we wander around, suddenly we notice a huge herd of cows walk purposefully towards the Chari Dandh. They have been grazing all night and are now all thirsty. All of them rush towards the water.

Banni Grasslands

Having had their fill, they move away, and we’re treated to yet another beautiful sight – hundreds of camels moving towards their water. It’s time for the cows to go home and give way to the camels.

Banni Grasslands

They enter the water one after another and one of the herders also goes in with them. I read somewhere that a 600 kg camel can drink 300 litres of water in 3 minutes. How’s that for a guzzler?

Banni Grasslands

Tiwari tells me a little more about the extensive research he has conducted in this area. He is hopeful about putting it all together in a book – he has pictures of even the rarer creatures like the striped hyena, the nightjar and the owl. All he needs is a bit of help on the writing front. If he can get some funding, Tiwari is confident about publishing a book on this region – an area that needs more awareness. After all, this rich bio diversity and wildlife should be acknowledged and recognized.

Banni Grasslands

I have no doubts that there’s enough in this dry desert landscape to fill a book. Tiwari has accompanied many photographers into the field on different assignments, helped channels such as Discovery (one of these programs is being currently aired) and National Geographic to portray and take back data, photos and documentation from this region.

Banni Grasslands

What upsets him however is the lack of etiquette of people. Whether it is the way plastic is being used and consumed to the irresponsible behaviour towards our natural environment – Tiwari expresses his disappointment. And rightly so. Even I was alarmed. The day before, when walking on a dry river bed near CEDO, he points out rocks that age to the Jurassic era.

Banni Grasslands

This is very close to the town and yet hardly anyone knows about it. Which is probably a good thing. Except that some irresponsible campers found their way here. Using some of these pre-historic stones as props for making a fire, they’ve left behind remnants of their celebrations – banana skin, tissue paper, charcoal and firewood. What a shame. There are some things Indians shouldn’t do. Camping for one. They have no idea about etiquette. They’re so used to littering everywhere, that their natural instinct is to leave behind all the rubbish. Even if it’s a beautiful viewpoint or a place of historical importance. As a collective people, we don’t have enough sense or responsibility about the impact of the damage we’re doing. There is absolutely no respect for nature. Look at all the plastic people throw around carelessly. No one cares. This beautiful area should be safeguarded and treated as a “historical” site, and yet, people do the only thing they know – trash it.

This is where Tiwari utters his words about “leaving nothing but footprints”.

Why do we go to national heritage monuments, and beautiful view points and leave behind all our rubbish? Something that confounds me greatly. Much as I’m proud of this beautiful and diverse country, I am ashamed at the way we treat our national and natural treasures.

Tiwari’s foundation today is doing some great work in both conservation and helping villages by bringing them the power of solar energy. All this, he does apart from his work and his homestay, which brings him some income. All the rest of his initiatives like workshops, awareness sessions, and planting trees – especially for schools are all free.

His message resounds in my mind long after I’ve left. Plant more trees – everyone in their lifetime should plan at least a few 100 trees. Don’t leave planet earth without planting a few trees. Actually, at least a hundred. It’s the very least one can do to preserve our beautiful and diverse planet.

(Note: With many thanks to Jugal Tiwari for being a wonderful guide to the Banni. And also for the usage of some of his beautiful pictures, as I wasn’t equipped for bird photography!).

Flickr Album: Into the Banni Grasslands

Update: Discovery is currently showing this show: Revealed: The Rann of Kutch. Two more days to catch it!
12/12/2014 02:00 PM
14/12/2014 01:00 PM

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