The echoes of children’s voices from far away broke the stillness of the morning air. The belled goats that they herded lent music to the whispers of the breeze. A golden billowing grassland was waking up in southern Maharashtra, close to the city of Solapur, abutting the tiny village of Nannaj. This was a landscape that distinguished large parts of central and western India; the Indian semi-arid grassland.
The yellowing grass like an Indian ‘Serengeti’, was marred only by occasional farms and villages. Shaped by the aluminium-rich soil, extremes of temperature and pitiful rainfall, the occasional stunted trees seemed to bow in shame as around them the grass glistened and danced. Grasslands are some of the most used landscapes of the Indian subcontinent, the fertile soil tilled under various crops, and the grass fed to livestock. Here, scenes of rural routine played out as bullock carts skirted the roads.
After taking it all in we reached our intended destination, the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary. This wildlife rich landscape ranks low on the tourists’ itinerary, allowing us a more personal glimpse. Named for its magnificent and enigmatic occupant, the sanctuary promised an exciting safari experience, albeit where jeeps were replaced by feet, lions by wolves, wildebeest by blackbuck and ostriches by the famous Great Indian bustard.
Our guide was Chaitanya Krishna who made this sanctuary home for three years and was researching interactions between farmers and blackbuck in this semi-agricultural landscape. As we made for the first stop on our tour, a startled blackbuck leaped across the road ahead of us. He was followed by a host of females as another male brought up the rear, painted in striking black with dazzling eye patches. His head was held high, curlicue horns flattened against his back, as he advanced slowly on the females. A series of chases ensued with each male trying to entice the majority of the females onto his territorial patch. The males often displayed in this fashion on small territories in a congregation called a ‘lek’. This behavior is peculiar to animals that live in open spaces either on land or sea where males can aggregate and attract females from far and wide.
As the sun dispelled the mists, the hypnotic haze had us transfixed when a staccato boom from the distance shook us out of our reverie. The viewfinder of the spotting scope shook in my excited hands, and I could just make out a large white object at the far end of the grassland. As the spotting scope steadied, the Great Indian Bustard came into full view. It put all my imaginings to shame and nothing could have prepared me for its size, majesty and splendor. Another inhabitant that ‘leks’, the bird stood in an open patch calling loudly to attract females, while another male looked on from close by. They only congregate in this protected grassland during the monsoon breeding season, and travel to unknown locations for the rest of the year. One of the rarest birds in the subcontinent, their numbers have dropped drastically from a reported 45 every monsoon, to about eight individuals in the past few years.
The fate of the fauna of this landscape seems to hang in precarious balance, facing varied threats. The vista from the top of the tower was evidence of the gradual human takeover of the grasslands below. From vineyards to poultry farms, land is slowly being converted to ‘better’, agricultural uses. With the advent of irrigation, many of the farmers who depend on the monsoon began to complain of early drying of the soils and decline in rainfall in the area. The hot belly of India, these dry central Indian grasslands and forests are key to the augmentation of large low pressure belts that attract the Indian monsoon. The humidity that results from irrigated fields offsets this low pressure, reducing the force of the monsoon. The new canal being constructed at the edge of the sanctuary threatens to further modify land-use and traditional agricultural practices in the village of Nannaj. Even at present drought-starved herbivores from the protected area exit its boundaries and feed in the cropland. This situation will only be exacerbated when the differences between irrigated cropland and non-irrigated sanctuary land become more stark. Although some farmers can afford such losses, small landholders are being hit hard by both climatic forces, lack of access to this modern technology and wildlife.
But these issues were far from our thoughts as we hurtled down the highway towards a small dargah on a hill. Sitting atop it in the reddish-orange sunset, we waited for the migratory birds-of-prey that called it their home. Skimming the surface of the grass, the harriers homed in. There were at least two species gathering forces for the days’ final dance. The slender Pallid Harrier and the more mottled Montagu’s Harriers joined the rising mass of circling birds. As some dropped down to their nightly roosts, others rose back up into the clouds. Finally, as twilight dimmed our vision and dulled our hearing, all fell quiet and it was time for us to leave.
As the moon climbed over the horizon, I heard wolves howling amidst the eerie calls of jackals and spotted owlets. The strong fragrance of night-blooming flowers wafted by, as the village lights turned off and starlight illuminated the earth. In the serenity of the night it was easy to slip into reminiscences of times past, when cheetahs roamed these plains. One could only hope that the cheetah’s fall into oblivion does not foreshadow the fortunes of the rest of the animals in this ever-shrinking ecosystem. Grasslands are arguably created by herbivores and possibly by regimes of fire. Yet large hordes of herbivorous cattle are threatening the survival of their wild cousins. At the same time the forest department is taking active steps to prevent the frequent burning of the landscape, either accidently, during summer when the grass is dry and flammable or deliberately, in retaliation to the exclusion of people from the landscape. Here again, the familiar story of people versus conservation plays out, against a backdrop of land privatization and development which insidiously takes over the rest of the landscape.
A far cry from the Serengeti, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, grassland and agriculture, pastoralism and cultivation, blackbuck and cattle are highly visible. As pressures for economic development push into the grassland, fewer wolves attack blackbuck and livestock, fewer bustards arrive every monsoon and fewer harriers congregate every winter. As visitors, who just see a snapshot in time, we are left wondering about the meaning of these changes in the larger scheme of life. Indian grasslands are not only an important reminder of our wild, natural wealth, but also of our rich traditions of nomadism and pastoralism. Are we willing to lose it all, in the modern world?
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald on 8th Nov 2011. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/203110/grasslands-dying-slowly.html