Where the grass is greener

The newly resurgent Blackbuck National Park of Gujarat is an endless patchwork of emerald and dark green grasses
Egrets soar over a herd of blackbucks
Egrets soar over a herd of blackbucks

Tall trees and dense forests hide big animals, but short grasses have their secrets too, better kept but often as surprising. To the untutored eye the vast savanna of the Blackbuck National Park in Gujarat looks placid, an endless patchwork of emerald, dark green and brown grasses, furrowed into waves by the gentle breeze.

Then, without warning, a small dot rockets up from the expanse, as conspicuous as a whale breaking calm waters. As it rises, the lesser florican, a critically endangered bustard, retracts its outstretched wings. Their whites and browns retreat into the jet blackness of its neck and underbelly. It climbs like an excitable child on a trampoline, its ribbon-like head feathers flailing wildly behind it. At the apogee, about five feet above the ground, it&rsquos shaped like an S, its long neck tucked back into its feathers, and its feet pulled up.

Its remarkable mating display lasts a few seconds, but repeats itself at intervals of less than a minute, endlessly. Hours might pass by, the dark monsoon clouds hovering above might deliver rain and drift on, but there&rsquos a high chance that the male florican will still be jumping.

The main inhabitant of this park, tucked away in a corner of Bhavnagar district is, as its name suggests, the blackbuck, but the florican is definitely the more flamboyant.

He&rsquos been known to jump as many as five hundred times during the course of a day, oblivious to the comings and goings of the other occupants of the grassland, driven by an unrelenting libido and the need to find a mate. The higher and more he jumps the greater his chances of charming that young lass lurking somewhere in the grasses.

Once a vidi or pasture for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar&rsquos cattle, this tiny 35 sq km park is part of the arid Bhaal region of the Saurashtra peninsula. Bhaal is Sanskrit for &lsquoforehead&rsquo, the flatness of which describes the topography of the area. It abuts the Gulf of Khambhat consequently, nearly a third of the park is tidal mudflats and saline lands. Another five square kilometres are covered by the thorny and invasive vilayati babul (Prosopis juliflora), known more caustically in Gujarati as gaando (mad) bawal, which was introduced here during the ill-conceived reforestation efforts of the 1970s.

The remaining half is grassland, a mosaic of grasses like fine-leaved jinjuva (Dicanthium annulatum) and the broader-leaved and lighter-coloured dharat (Cynodon dactylon), both favoured foods of the blackbuck and the blue bull (nilgai).

Sitting under the shade of a tree near the entrance to the park, J.S. Solanki, the portly man in charge of the park, wipes the sweat from his brow.

The humidity is high, and the late-morning sun is strong. Behind him, the grassland stretches into the horizon, interrupted occasionally by squat, sparse acacia trees, the canopies of which rise like toadstools a few feet above the grass.

A vast herd of blackbuck forages, fawn-coloured females in one corner the males in a separate group (known as a lek) that they form during the mating season. The bucks indulge in mock sparring, their glossy black fur gleaming in the sunlight as they lock intricately whorled, corkscrew horns. The faint knock of the colliding horns carries on the breeze, with the regularity and gentleness of creaking bamboo.

Contrary to first appearances, this park is not pristine wilderness. It is, says Solanki, a managed environment. In the not-so-distant past, drought, cattle grazing and predation by dogs from the surrounding villages had almost ruined the park.

Vast swathes of prosopis, which is suitable only for the nilgai, and which desiccates the soil, are cleared every year. Grasses are planted in its place, and in areas where they are sparse. Waterholes created by the Forest Department are replenished with water brought in by tankers once the rainwater dries up. And artificial mounds have been created for animals to shelter on when the park is flooded.

The park is now making a comeback. According to a March 2011 report by the Wildlife Institute of India, it&rsquos one of the few parks where the breeding population of floricans has increased over the last couple of years. This year, according to Solanki, there are 62 breeding pairs.

The population of blackbucks, he says, rattling off figures, is now 4,500, of which 1,900 live inside the park, while the rest live in the surrounding areas. There are 25 wolves distributed in three packs, and nine hyenas.

Earlier in the morning we had trailed Solanki and a few of his colleagues as they did a whistle-stop tour of the park. The park is broadly divided into two areas &mdash separated by a west-east embankment on which runs a public road. The area to the north of the road is more grassland, while that to the south, where the seasonal Paravaliyo and Alang rivers that run through the park meet, is wetlands and tidal mudflats. A small network of dirt tracks runs though these the southeastern areas of the park, however, are only accessible on foot.

The rains had been particularly heavy this year, pitting the tracks and flooding most of the grasslands. At the edge of a large waterbody in the southern portion of the park, Alla Rakha, one of the most experienced forest guards at the park, brought the convoy to a standstill pointing to a white speck on a mound at the edge of the water. Binoculars revealed a large lone wolf that lay sunning itself, having found a bit of dry ground, seemingly relieved that the rains had let up. A group of blue bulls &mdash half-ox, half-cow, sometimes vermin &mdash grazed in the foreground. A few painted storks &mdash large, slightly professorial birds &mdash swished their large, half-open beaks pensively in the water in search of small fish. Then waded gingerly through the water, their heads tucked firmly into their chins, giving them an appearance of great preoccupation. Cormorants sat on protruding branches, drying their outspread black wings a Eurasian spoonbill shovelled food into its beak.

As we moved into the grasslands of the park, a marsh harrier, one of the four varieties of harriers found here, swooped down into the grass, its talons already lowered to grab its unsuspecting prey. The harriers are migratory, coming to the park from Central Asia. Most of them arrive in October, but about 100 had already arrived this year. During the day the birds head out to cotton fields around the park to feed on locusts, heading back in the evening. Park authorities claim that at their peak they number nearly 1,500, making the park, as a board at the entrance proudly proclaims, &ldquothe largest communal harrier roosting site in the world&rdquo.

The revival of the park has in fact been so successful that when the government was contemplating the re-introduction of cheetahs in India, the Blackbuck National Park was considered as a possible home for them.

Seventy years ago the pet cheetahs of K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, avid hunter, falconer and brother of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, hunted blackbuck on these plains, while the princes, sahibs and their retainers looked on. These delightful and decadent hunts &mdash the fastest creature on earth chasing down the more agile but second fastest &mdash were filmed by American naturalists Frank and John Craighead who spent nine months with Dharmakumarsinhji in 1940-41.

The blindfolded cheetahs were transported to the grasslands on bullock carts. Once a herd of blackbuck was sighted, the blindfolds were removed, the handlers would gently pull the cheetahs down, and the chase would begin. A successful cheetah was rewarded with a leg and then the hunting party would move on to another location. Their film, Life with an Indian Prince, is possibly the only existing video record of these hunts, once fairly common across India.

Bringing back the cheetah to the Blackbuck National Park was, however, ruled out because of its size. &ldquoI dream that this park will one day be 300 sq km in size,&rdquo Solanki says wistfully. That is unlikely to happen, surrounded as it is by villages and fields of cotton, wheat and jowar.

As a mid-day languor settles on the park, we make our way back to The Blackbuck Lodge, a new wildlife lodge that is separated from the park by a small stretch of prosopis. The lodge is understated, fourteen earth-coloured, Mangalore-tiled cottages arranged in an arc around a small artificial waterbody. Large windows look out onto a landscape dominated by the same grasses as found in the park, giving the lodge the feeling of being an extension of it.

The similarity is deliberate, for this too, like the park, is resurrected land. &ldquoThese were agricultural fields when we bought them,&rdquo says Munna Desai, the lodge&rsquos elderly owner, as we walk down one of the pathways between the cottages. The grasses have been carefully, painstakingly cultivated. &ldquoWe wanted to attract animals from the park.&rdquo

As evening approaches, a patchwork of clouds covers the sky, filtering the sunlight into a golden yellow that dances on the grasses. A cool breeze sprinkled with a few drops of rain starts blowing. The herds of blackbuck move back into the park&rsquos grasslands, weaving their way through patches of grass that are so tall in places that you can only see disembodied heads and horns. Occasionally the herd pauses, stands still, ears cocked, sniffing the air for danger. A dominant male circles his harem of females proprietarily, ready to fend off any challengers.

I bend down to examine a curious pattern on a stone that is partially embedded in the mud along the dirt track, and find myself looking at the intricate fronds of a fossilised fern. Now that I&rsquove found one, I suddenly notice them scattered all over evidence that this land was not always so parched.

An acacia tree along our path is festooned with baya nests. The colourful yellow-headed males sit anxiously outside the nests, while the females flit agilely in and out.

At night, there&rsquos a nip in the air. The dim lights of the lodge leave the darkness of the night intact. The grass comes alive with the cacophony of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. The next day, a walk along the embankment road that runs through the park offers a synopsis of it.

The tidal mudflats at the eastern edge of the park are the haunt of an assortment of wader birds. The grass here is sparse, and there are fewer trees. A dignified grey heron pauses, startled by our presence. There&rsquos a flash of blue, turquoise and indigo as an Indian roller flies off an electricity wire. Mudskippers, amphibious fish found in inter-tidal habitats, burrow in the soft soil along a culvert, their gills enlarged by the precious bubble of stored oxygen that allows them to survive outside water. Their laboured movement over land (using their pectoral fins) turns into a series of light, rapid skips across the surface as they disappear into the water.

As we move west, the grasslands start, separated from the road by rows of acacia trees on either side. A large desert monitor lizard suns itself, camouflaged on the mound of twigs it sits on. The macabre sight of a large cattle egret gulping down a small chick unfolds on a tree above. The chick puts up a struggle one entire wing emerges suddenly from the side of the egret&rsquos bill. Then with one big gulp the hapless creature disappears down its gullet.

The only traffic on the road is a few colourful chakdas &mdash a motorcycle paired with a cart, a uniquely Gujarati vehicle that at all times bristles with passengers.

The grass that lines the road is a micro-cosmos of activity. A step into it releases an avalanche of multi-coloured grasshoppers, green, brown and some seemingly albino. Often their hops end in the dexterous, sail-like webs that spiders have spun between strands of grass. Once caught the grasshopper has little chance of surviving. The spider seems to know this too &mdash it lets the grasshopper tire itself out struggling, before picking its way gingerly across the web to deliver its poisonous bite.

A break in the acacia trees gives us a final glimpse of the grassland. A wild boar sow makes her way, largely hidden by the grass. Three piglets trudge behind her.

A short distance from them, a massive blackbuck herd, the largest we&rsquove seen so far, is on the move. They must number at least 300. They move nimbly, jumping looping jumps that are so gentle that they barely seem to touch the ground, and so long that it seems like we&rsquore watching them in slow motion. A cloud of egrets trails above them, hovering, taking turns at darting to the ground to pounce on insects churned up by their trampling. Blackbucks that have been sitting concealed in the grass get up to join the herd and soon they dot the landscape, one for every blade of grass.

The information

Getting there

By air
The Blackbuck National Park is located close to Velavadar, a small village in Gujarat. Bhavnagar (65km/1hr) is the closest airport, and is connected to Mumbai by daily flights on Kingfisher Red and Jet Konnect (from Rs 3,200 one way). The alternative is to fly to Ahmedabad, from where Velavadar is a 160km/4hr drive.
By train
Bhavnagar, the nearest railhead, is connected to Mumbai by the overnight Bhavnagar Express (departs Bandra 9.25pm, arrives 11.30am Rs 1,112 on 2A).

Where to stay
The only place that offers comfort approaching luxury is The Blackbuck Lodge (Rs 7,000-8,500 079-40020901-03, theblackbucklodge.com) which shares a boundary with the park, and is located less than a kilometre from the park entrance. The fourteen air-conditioned cottages are spacious and luxurious &mdash each has an open shower and an observation deck that looks out on to the grassland. The lodge has a restaurant, and a lounge that is well stocked with wildlife books. Of course, they also organise safaris into the park (Rs 2,200 per jeep with five people).

The Forest Department guesthouse, Kaliyar Bhavan, is just inside the main entrance of the park. It has four clean and basic rooms (Rs 1,500 AC rooms/Rs 500 non-AC) and a canteen. For bookings contact the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Blackbuck National Park, F-10, Annexe, M.S. Building, Bhavnagar (0278-2426425, fo-n-bav@gujarat.gov.in).

Visiting the park
The entrance fee for adults is Rs 20 and for children (up to 12 years) Rs 10. You need to have a vehicle to venture inside the park, since walking is not allowed. The fee for vehicles is Rs 200. It's mandatory to hire a guide from the park. They charge Rs 50 for the first four hours and Rs 20 for every additional hour.

When to go
The park is closed during the monsoon (June 16-October 15). Late October to end-February is generally the best time to visit the park. This is when migratory birds are around, there&rsquos enough water in the park and the grass is short enough to allow for easy spotting.

Top tip
Be sure to pack your binoculars &mdash without them sightings will be difficult and you really won&rsquot enjoy the park.

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