A little further, we come across another bunch of Khur – waiting out on the salt flats. Occupying their grazing ground is a herd of domesticated cattle. Even in their last refuge – a so called protected sanctuary they are being squeezed out slowly. The locals can’t help it either – strong winds remove the fertile top soil and seawater intrusion during the rains leaves the soil and water saline. Denudation of natural vegetation means that very little land is left for agriculture and grazing. And it is the humans and their flock that win the battle invariably.
We come across the incredible sight of a marooned boat in the middle of the desert. Devijibhai tells us that the seawater intrusion in the monsoon provides another opportunity to the locals to supplement their livelihoods. The water is seeded with marine life which thrives during the rains and then later farmed. Shrimps and small fish are the chief catch. The forest department discourages this shrimping but the vast tracts of the Rann are simply too big for it to police.
The biggest threat however is the mushrooming of the salt pans in the Rann. The salt contractors increasingly encroach on the scant grassland leading to the disturbance of wildlife. The Great Indian Bustard was once found aplenty here, but Devjibhai confirms that it is rarely seen now. A few friends of mine had toured these parts looking for the and they too returned empty handed.
With little or no income from agriculture and increasing competition from cheap, migrant labour the local populace falls easy prey to the salt companies. Overworked, exploited and underpaid – the salt pan workers toil in the blazing sun for meagre returns.
In a cruel twist of fate, the little agriculture that survives is now under threat from the Khur themselves. Under pressure from man and cattle, incidents of Khur attacking standing crops in search of food are increasing. The locals for the moment are content with shooing the wild animals away, but one wonders how long before the first shot is fired or the first wild ass is poisoned?
With these questions, we step on to what is known as the White Rann – the pristine salt covered flatland that isfeatures on virtually every tourist brochure or postcard on these parts. It is a vista straight out of Star Wars – Tattooine is what comes to mind.
It is the beginning of the dry season – and soil under the salt is still soft. The first foray by a vehicle into these parts was only made the previous day – a forest department Jeep drove all the way to a nearby ‘Bet’ or island to set up a watchtower. The Bets are nothing but patches of high ground that are marooned in the monsoon and repopulated in the dry weather. We towards one, but our Jeep gets bogged down in the mush. It takes all of the engine’s the 72 horse power and the strength of three men to push it out. We return, but the sight of three clay figurines alone in the emptyRann remain with me. As the sun sets, the Khur return to the sanctuary of the bushes – they will venture out again in the night. An uneasy calm prevails in the Jeep.
Gazillions of crickets shatter the quiet of the night. Under a starry blanket we wonder about the future of this unique but increasingly fragile Eden. A shooting star wheels overhead. Our wish is not a secret