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A Sanctuary In The Wilderness – Indian Wild Ass Scantuary

A safari through the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch in north west Gujarat is a migue experience—not to be had anywhere else in the country.

Well, let me tell you, I was on a visit to Ahmedabad where, by mere coincidence I happened to meet Dhanraj, the young son of Durbar Mohammed Shabbir Malik. Having found many a common interest, he invited me to be his guest at their tourist resort in Zainabad, situated on the periphery of the Little Rann of Kutch. There could have been nothing more agreeable than such a proposition, as it would give me an excellent opportunity to visit India’s largest wildlife sanctuary.

The Little Rann of Kutch which covers an area of roughly 5,000 square kilometres is primarily known as the Indian Wild Ass Sanctaury. The sanctuary is the last natural habitat of the Indian Wild Ass (Equus Hemionus Khur) with the Khur—one of the three surviving species of wild ass in the world, the other two being found in Central Asia and in and around Tibet—being high on the list of endangered species. Only 1,800 to 2,000 such animals survive today.

Besides wild ass, the sanctuary is home to a host of other animals and nearly 350 different species of birds—including the common crane, pelican and the lesser flamingo. Apart from this, one can also get a rare insight into the lifestyles of the numerous ethnic groups and local tribes which live in and around the Rann. The important being the Kolis, Rabaris, Bajanias, Kutchis, Gujjars and the Bharvads.

It was on a hot October afternoon that I boarded the bus to Dasada, a village close to Zainabad—my destination. There are very few buses which go directly up to Zainabad, so one has to either inform the camp of one’s arrival in advance—so that they may arrange to pick you up; or make do with whatever means are available at the Dasada bus stand. If you are lucky, as I was, you might be able to hitch a ride on a motorcycle from one of the local traders who use this route frequently.

At long last I espied a signboard which read: The Desert Coursers Camp, Zainabad, I had finally arrived! The sun had just about set as I made my way towards the camp. Barely a kilometre away from the village and situated near a lake amidst picturesque surroundings, my first glimpse of the quaint koobas or huts was indeed a welcome sight. After a refreshing cup of tea I was led to the Demoiselle Crane! A demoiselle crane? Yes, it was the name given to my kooba!

Built with improvisations like an attached dressing room and a bath, it still maintained the rustic flavour of the traditional styled kooba. Originally the innovation of the Bajania tribe of northern Gujarat, koobas are traditionally rounded, much lower in height and made with sticks. While the hut I was in was made of cement and mud with a thatched roof, its exterior was decorated beautifully with chaapa work-patterns made out of different sized leaves: a very typical method of decoration in this region.

The next morning I was up early enough to see the sun rise from behind the lake where village women were already busy filling their earthen runs and brass pots with water. As I ambled along, I came across a large flock of sheep and goats tended by a Rabari who invited me to a cup of fresh goat’s milk. The Rabaris, basically a nomadic tribe who crisscross northwest India in search of grazing pastures, have adapted themselves to the Hindu culture. Though originally a caste of camel breeders, they now keep only a few beasts for transportation and earn their livelihood by selling goat’s milk and sheep wool.

By the time I returned from my walk, the camp was buzzing with activity. An entire busload of school children had come down to the sanctuary on an educational tour. Very soon, I along with the group of over-excited kids and Dhanraj were heading for Zinjuwada, 20 kilometres away, in a jeep. Dhanraj, as the trip was to prove, was not only a wildlife enthusiast but also knew the Rann like the back of his hand. Zinjuwada, bang on the edge of the Rann, has an old, 11th century fort built during the Solanki era and one of the area’s largest salt works. It is worth mentioning that almost 35 per cent of India’s total salt is produced in the Rann of Kutch which was once submerged under sea water. It is for this reason that the land still has a very high salt content and becomes a large expanse of wet marshland during the monsoons. The recent rains had rendered the land beyond the salt works very slushy and we had to restrict our jeep along the baits—sort of islands which remain above the wetlands.

It was close to noon when we spotted the first Khur of the day. It was a lonesome bachelor who sped away the moment he heard the whine of our approaching vehicle. Very soon, however, we saw a whole herd which included some young foals playing antics. At closer quarters, the Indian wild ass of the Rann is a fine animal and quite unlike its domesticated cousin—the donkey. It moves fast and can attain speeds up to 70 kilometres an hour. Besides having the stamina to run for distances of up to 30 kilometres at a stretch, the animal also has the ability to turn a sharp corner while galloping at top speed.

On our way back to Zainabad, we were fortunate to come across a number of different bird species: a rare ceraneous vulture, a pair of houbara bustards, common cranes and even flamingos feeding on shrimps at a little rivulet! Interestingly, the Little Rann gets a fair number of winged visitors in the winter months. Among these, the blue-tailed bee-eater which comes all the way from Europe; the common crane and the demoiselle crane from Siberia; the ceraneous vulture from Egypt and the houbara bustard from Iran and Iraq, are mentionable. We also encountered a deadly, two and a half feet long scaled viper. It is a rather sleek reptile with beautiful markings and is known as the saw scaled viper because of the saw like sound it makes when waiting to strike its prey. Considered one of the most poisonous snakes in India, a victim of its bite can die within two hours.

The next morning I decided to call on Dhanraj’s father—the present Durbar of Zainabad, Mohammed Shabbir Malik—at his residence the Zeenat Manzil to find out more about the history of Zainabad.

As it turned out, Zainabad had been founded by his grandfather in the early part of this century. His ancestors originally came down here from Multan around the middle of the 13th century to settle down in Dasada. It was only around 1912 that the then Duarbar decided to shift his capital to a village called Karala, which was later renamed Zainabad.

On my way back, I paid a casual visit to a little dargah (mosque) called the Navshaheed Dargah. What struck me as rather unusual was the fact that pilgrims came here to pay their respects to a Muslim lady.

It was my last night at the Rann. Incidentally, it also turned out to be the full moon night of Sharad Purnima. So a night drive into the Rann was next on the agenda—a fitting finale to my Rann Safari. As we set of towards the Rann after a sumptuous Gujarati dinner, the full moon was already above the yonder horizon—saturating the entire landscape with its cool brilliance. It was yet another unforgettable experience. We spotted a feeding wolf, a few wild access, several nocturnal birds and even a solitary Rabari with his flock of sheep—the latter, quite oblivious to the fact that for miles around him there was nothing but the desolate wilderness of the Rann.

And as I boarded my bus back to Ahmedabad, I began to realise, for the first time, the vast potential the Little Rann of Kutch held as a unique and somewhat offbeat tourist destination. And what better place to base your safari than at the Desert Coursers Camp in Zainabad. In fact, it is the only place in the Rann with adequate facilities and properly organized safaris geared to initiate you into the nuances of this wild wonderland.


The Gir Forest at Sasan, 65 kilometres from junagadh, is the last natural habitat of the Asiatic lion—a species which had become almost extinct at the beginning of this century. The story goes that Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, was invited for a shikar (hunt) by the Nawab of Junagadh. This evoked a reaction in certain quarters and the appropriateness of hunting down an endangered species was questioned. Hearing the public outcry, it is said that Lord Curzon cancelled his visit and instead advised the Nawab to declare the lion a protected animal.

The Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, as it is called, spread over 1,400 square kilometres of area is primarily meant for the protection of the Asiatic lion. The terrain is mainly undulating with several rivers flowing through the region. The forests vary from open scrub, dry deciduous and thorn forests to ones with evergreens.

Apart from lions which are normally to be found in packs of eight or 10, the Park also supports a variety of other fauna. These include bears, hyenas, foxes, many species of deer and antelope like the nilgai, chinkara gazelle, chowsingha and barking deer; panthers and monkeys. The marsh crocodile also finds ideal habitation in the Park’s many rivers and a crocodile breeding farm has been set up at Sasan.

Though open throughout the year, except during the monsoon months, the ideal time to visit the sanctuary is during winter. Safaris conducted in open vehicles allow the visitor to see lions at close quarters. The Lion Safari Lodge here offers suitable accommodation.


Velavadar National Park and wildlife Sanctuary, 65 kilometres from Bhavnagar, has the highest concentration of black buck. The best time to visit it is between October and June.

Marine National Park and Sanctuary, 7 kilometres from Jamnagar, is located at Pirotan Island. It is a fascinating place to see coral, puffer fish, crabs, and the green sea, leather backed and olive ridley turtles. The best time to visit the Park is between November and February.

Khijadiya Wildlife Sanctuary, another wildlife attraction near Jamnagar, is situated 16 kilometres from the city. It is mainly known for its bird life, especially the spoonbills and waterfowls. It is best visited between the winter months of October to February.

The Dhumkhal Sloth Bear Sanctuary located in Bharuch district also has other attractions like the tiger and leopard. The best time to visit is between October and February.

The Bansda National Park, situated in Bulsar district is home to the leopard, tiger, panther and wild boar. It is best visited between the months of October ad March.

The Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, 61 kilometres from Ahmedabad, nestles around a lake with almost 360 islands. Almost 300 species of migratory birds have been sighted here. The best time to visit is between November and March.

Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary, 28 kilometres from Palanpur in north Gujarat, is another important habitat for the sloth bear. Nilgai and leopard are the other major attractions. The best time to visit the Park is between November and February.