Not so deserted, after all!

To an onlooker, the landscape of the Thar Desert appears stark and barren. That, however, is far from the truth

 

The Thar Desert is where the civilisations of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa once thrived. It is one of the largest and the most populated deserts in the world, extending all the way from the Aravalli hills in Rajasthan, to the Sind and Punjab provinces of Pakistan.

Its vast expanse of sand, parched earth and thorny shrubs are testimony to the harsh climate experienced by this region. Temperatures here range from 50ºC in the summer to sub-zero in the winter. Rainfall is minimal. Vegetation is sparse. Habitations are scattered. To an onlooker, the landscape appears stark and barren.

However, even a casual look around you will perhaps reveal a bird or two fluttering about in search of grub or water during the day. You may see some ravens scavenging on the leftovers offered by the villagers. On a closer look, you may find vultures trying to acquire their share of the meal.

By now, you’re hopeful about spotting more animals. If your eyes carefully scan the horizon for bigger creatures, you may find a fox or a jackal. These are  scavengers  which sometimes lurk around human habitation and forage on the waste we throw.

Soon enough, the ringing of a hundred cow bells and the loud ‘tch’ of the herders grazing their cattle may distract you. You may notice women collecting their dung. Cow dung is precious in arid regions like this where fuel is scarce; it is dried to make dung cakes, which are burnt to make a fire.

Dung is also important for another creature – the dung beetle. With immense grit, these tiny black creatures carefully roll the dung into balls, which become their source of food or shelter, where their babies can grow.

And hey, what’s that hiding under a shrub! It is a spiny-tailed lizard. No, it is not stalking the beetle but quietly munching on the leaves. This is a herbivorous lizard with large spines on its tail (hence its name). The beautiful blue tinge on the tail may have evolved to attract mates but many people mistakenly believe that the tail has medicinal properties, which can relieve joint aches. These lizards, therefore, are illegally killed in large numbers to heal a variety of joint ailments.

When left to themselves, the natural predators of the spiny-tailed lizards would be raptors like falcons and eagles. These birds of prey also eat snakes and rodents. In the desert, you may find rare and endemic snakes like the Red-spotted Royal snake and the Awl-headed snake.

An animal or plant is known as ‘endemic’ when it is found only in a particular area or region, and not outside of it. Both these snakes have only been reported from some districts in Rajasthan.

Similarly and as the name suggests, the desert gird, a tiny and hyper-active rodent, is restricted only to the arid regions like the Thar. The gird builds burrows with multiple entrances so that it can escape from predators.

A large number of animals and plants here are well adapted to the harsh conditions and the lack of cover. Many species are active at night when temperatures are cooler and predators are resting. They seek respite in crevices and rocks during the day.

The Thar Desert is also home to threatened species like the blackbuck, and the great Indian bustard. It has over 350 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles, 142 species of fish and many unknown and undocumented invertebrates and medicinal plants.

The Thar and its wondrous wildlife are being affected by many things: by fields and farmlands expanding into the desert as water is brought in from far away places, by global warming, by commercial salt production, by the spread of an invasive plant called Prosopis juliflora  that renders the land unusable, and by mining for crude oil.

It would surely be a shame if these sands were to erode away and its unique desert animals were to disappear.

 

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 6 November 2013.

 

Photo: Sachin Rai