Velavadar: Life in the grasslands

I'd heard & read a lot about the bountiful wildlife that Gujarat's forests have to offer. I'd even seen photos from others' trips. Now, having visited Gujarat, I can say that no amount of research or familiarity with the wildlife there prepares you for the experience. The sense of déjà vu you're so worried about, doesn't strike. You may have seen the Sarus crane in many a photo, but, when you see it there, it still leaves you awestruck. The Wild Asses may seem familiar but when you see them gallop over the parched desert, your heart still skips a beat.

Green Bee-eater

This is the first in a three-part blog about my Gujarat trip.

A Steppe Eagle

The grasslands of Velavadar, swathes of pink & green, make for a fetching backdrop to all the action. A drive on a typical cold winter morning begins with vistas of misty grass, interspersed with horns & antlers. As the morning warms up, faces peer out from within the grass & limbs are languorously stretched. You watch as the grass rustles to reveal a curious Blackbuck fawn or a skulking Wolf. Sometimes, the rustling grass reveals the skulking Wolf to the curious fawn. And a chase ensues. Suddenly, the morning languor is all but forgotten as the agile Blackbuck out-runs the Wolf. Later in the day, in the hot sun, raptors skim the top of the grass as they scout for prey. After dusk, activity tapers down as the nip returns to the air. Harriers, in hundreds, return to a clearing, to roost. Nocturnal life is now active, but unfortunately, we have to leave the park. Sometimes, as we sit outside our rooms, we're lucky to spot a Jungle cat or a Hare, just before it turns pitch dark.

Blackbucks stretching themselves early in the morning

Blackbucks heading home as the sun sets

Pardon the anthropomorphism, as I bring you stories straight from the horses’ mouths.

Sarus Crane pair - they mate for life

She looked ravishing in the evening light. I watched her for sometime as she ate; her slender, long neck bending so gracefully. I wanted her to look at me, to notice me, to like me. But, more than that, I wanted to keep looking at her. The grass was a little tall & it kept getting in my way; that irritated me a bit. I slowly moved towards her, unsure of her response. She didn’t move away. The setting was perfect: the grass glowing with a tinge of gold and delicate pink flowers bobbing in the cool breeze. Most importantly, there was nobody else in the fields. A few vehicles occasionally drove down the dusty, narrow road but I ignored them & so did they.

Finally, I was right next to her. She lifted her head up & gazed at me. I spread my wings out & began to dance. I’d practised really hard & I hoped that she liked it. She joined me; there we were, like two excited teenagers, prancing around. I closed my eyes; this was bliss! I heard her say “lovely”, “awesome”; and I was happier. I opened my eyes to see that it wasn’t her but a group of humans who had uttered that. Both of us stopped for a minute, unsure of what to do. We flew a little further afield. I was very worried that she would fly away, but, she didn’t. She landed next to me. Our eyes locked once more. We danced once more. It was a wonderful evening!

Later, one of the other birds told me that the group of humans too had continued watching us. They’d lain on the road, concealed behind some grass & taken photos of us. Well, I’m sure she looks lovely in the photos!

I’d begun my day on a great note; I’d had a heavy breakfast. That Blackbuck was very meaty! Despite eating to my heart’s content, I still have some meat left on the leg. Tempted as I am to nap right here, I decide to walk with the carcass to my domain. There, I can eat it later; for dinner, maybe. I’m so glad I don’t have to hunt today or, even until tomorrow. I quickly begin walking towards the main road that cuts across the forest. My home is across the main road; something that I hate. But, there’s nothing I can do about it, really. All I can do is hope that I safely cross the road. Humans, with their dangerous vehicles, never care for lesser mortals like us. I’ve had friends & neighbours injured or killed by humans. They’re probably the most dangerous mammals around.

The Indian Wolf - an endangered species

Feeding on a road-kill

Prey in mouth, waiting for the Blackbuck to pass

I ensure I’m hidden behind the tall grass. I come across a couple of Blackbucks ahead & chuckle. The poor things don’t even suspect that I’m there; walking as peacefully as they are. They’re lucky that I already have food today; else I’d be chasing them right now! I ponder; should I attempt to catch one of them? I decide against it; after all, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I don’t want my arch rival snatching my carcass like he did the last time, when he caught me off-guard. I wait for the Blackbucks to cross & then move ahead.

I look back for good measure & am surprised to see a jeep-full of people looking at me. They’re all desperately trying to photograph me but I’m too far away. I laugh; I’m no good looker, but, people seem to get really excited when they see me. Their expressions, exclamations & the incessant photo-taking of my every move amuses me. I’m tempted to go towards them, just to see the wonderment on their faces. I decide against it & move towards the road. There’s that whirring noise, now! Do they have to cut grass early in the morning? For that matter, do they have to cut it at all? I’m quite happy when the grass is tall & it makes it easier for me to skulk around. I sulk a little & wait. As the grass-cutter moves away, I break into a trot & run towards the road. I now spot a man with a bike right in my path. Bah! But, suddenly, I hear voices call out to him & he climbs up the embankment & onto the road. Great! I hurry up the embankment myself; I can’t wait to go home. Maybe I’ll hide the carcass here & come back for it later; I don’t want my neighbours to spot it & fight me for it.

Walking right next to the jeep

I’m almost at the road now & am startled to see that the same jeep from below is now up here, with a lady peering straight at me. Drat! They must’ve known where I’m headed & then driven here & stalked me. The lady looks as shocked as I am & mumbles urgently to her friends (who haven’t noticed me) “Kya yeh kutta hai? Dekho, dekho!” I chortle; me? A dog? She must be seeing me for the first time & lost her mind in the excitement; I tend to do that to people. A quick scan for other cars & I run across the road, right under the lady’s nose. She tries photographing me but I’ve been too close for her to even focus. I bet this is one ‘sighting’ she’ll remember. Yes, ‘sighting’ is what humans say when they see any of us. With a quick look back to see the four stunned faces looking at me, I dart homewards. What an amusing morning!

A male Blackbuck - an antelope that can run at speeds of 80 kmph

Nilgai - cozy in the grass

I love how the forest looks, this time of the year. The grass is tall & a beautiful shade of pink. It’s also really cozy to lie in, in the mornings. Why, the Nilgai, won’t even get up from the grass until the sun is overhead. I’m with my group this morning. We’ve been lying around in the grass, with just our antlers showing. There’s a cold nip in the air & the sun is just making an appearance. The young ones are beginning to get restless. We decide to move to the nearby meadow for some grass. I rise, to lead the herd. I have to carefully scan the area for that pest, the wolf, before we go there. The last time someone disobeyed me & strayed, they were the wolf’s lunch. Okay, the area looks wolf-free. I signal the others to walk behind me. Despite the cold morning, a group of humans has already arrived. I stop to look at them & they fire a strange weapon at me ‘rat-tat-tat’. I’ve never seen this one before; perhaps it’s that thing my friend told me about; called a camera. He says that humans like to take photos of us to show their friends. This group whispers how beautiful I look, with the ‘morning light’ on my face.

I move ahead. The rest of my herd follows, casting cautious glances at the humans. The little ones are unafraid & glad to be moving. They pronk; a few of the adults join in as well. In any case, I think it’s better to make it amply clear to the humans that we’re not to be messed with. Surprisingly, the pronking has them going ga-ga over us; maybe these guys mean no harm anyways or maybe they just didn’t understand what we are hinting at! We reach the other side & busy ourselves eating. A couple of my friends spar a bit over this beautiful girl. The ‘rat-tat-tat’ from the humans reaches a crescendo.

Pronking - an action involving jumping high up in the air. This is used to warn predators & threats that " I am fit & not to be messed with". Pronking is also used to show-off while attracting a mate and sometimes, also in play.

Males sparring over a female

A female devoid of colour, with her fawn

That evening, my friend saw the humans near the watering-hole, as his herd went there for a drink. One of the females in the herd is white as a ghost, absolutely colourless. The humans wanted to probably look at her; many have been coming by since word spread about the ‘albino Blackbuck’.

Another evening, the humans (do they call themselves ‘gang’?) were watching a fellow Blackbuck’s herd. Unknown to the herd, a wolf had been lurking on the opposite side of the road, carefully watching them. The jeep was on the road, right between the wolf & the herd. The gang must’ve spotted the wolf, for they all turned away to admire him. I wish the head of the herd had sensed something amiss when the entire gang suddenly began watching someone else. The wolf mustn’t have budgeted for the humans turning up at his hunt, but, he guessed their jeep would probably make for a good cover as he crossed the road. He didn’t worry about the gang anymore; he realised that they wouldn’t make any noise & disturb the hunt. He knew how thrilled they’d all be, to see him so close; they’d definitely not want to chase him away. Soon, hidden by the jeep, he reached the road & darted across. The herd finally sensed him & scooted, faster than the gaping humans could have imagined. The wolf had to give up his chase, though; he was hunting alone & there was no way he could go for the kill. My friend & his herd had a lucky escape.