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.Supporting livestock
The majority of India’s grasslands are now under agriculture production or converted for developmental activities such as irrigation projects. The few, remnant, fragmented patches are therefore very important, both in terms of supporting threatened species and in terms of provision of fodder for India’s livestock population, one of the largest in the world.
Our destination on this journey was a grassland patch called 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 promises an exciting safari experience, one where jeeps are replaced by feet, lions by wolves, wildebeest by blackbuck and ostriches by the famous Great Indian bustard. The endangered wolf and the critically endangered bustard, vie for the right to survive, along with near threatened species like blackbuck and pallid harriers, and domestic species like goats or cattle.
Our guide, Chaitanya Krishna had been researching interactions between farmers and the blackbuck for three years, in this semi-agricultural landscape. As we made for the sanctuary, 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. 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 behaviour 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.
The hypnotic haze of the afternoon sun was disrupted by a staccato boom from the distance. The viewfinder of the spotting scope shook as the Great Indian Bustard came into full view. 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. From vineyards to poultry farms, land is slowly being converted for ‘better’, agricultural uses. With the advent of irrigation, many farmers who depend on the monsoon began to complain of early drying of the soil 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. Man-animal conflict
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 now, 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.
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 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 privatisation 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 the agenda of economic development makes its way into the grasslands, fewer wolves attack blackbuck and livestock, fewer bustards arrive every monsoon and fewer harriers congregate every winter.
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?