Winter phog

The tall bush which you can see on the right hand edge of the featured photo is called phog in Hindi, and Calligonum polygonoides by botanists. Other clumps can be seen on further dunes. Each thicket can grow about as tall as a human, and spreads out in a circle. Unfortunately, I visited the Thar desert in winter, when one does not get to see the flower or berries of the phog. The flowers and buds are eaten as a raita, the shoot is used as feed for livestock and the root is used to make charcoal. The deep tap roots and lateral root system together contain a larger biomass than shoots.

As you can see from this panoramic shot, the plant grows very well in the extremely arid habitat of dunes where little else grows. As a result, it serves to stabilize the dunes. Over-exploitation of the plant to produce charcoal used by goldsmiths and local ironsmiths has begun to endanger the phog. There are attempts to propagate the plant through cultivation and replanting, but this has not been uniformly successful. Studies of competition between the phog and other varieties of desert grass shows that in more moist conditions the phog loses out. Consistent with this is the fact that growth of C. polygonoides changes soil properties less than other plants do.

Of more than 80 species of Calligonum recorded worldwide in arid areas of southern Europe, northern Africa, west and central Asia, only this one species grows in the Thar desert of India. A recent study found very high degree of genetic diversity in the phog population in Rajasthan. However, there was no geographical clustering of varieties. When I talked to an expert, I was told that the confused state of this first study makes this subject worth a second look. After reading the scant literature on this plant, I would be willing to do such a study if I had the expertise and the means.

Sandgrouse drinking

We drove to a large pond in the desert close to the border with Pakistan. In the middle of a barren landscape broken only by acacia and small shrubs, the grass around the pond looked inviting. There was livestock grazing here: sheep, goats, cows and donkeys. We had a little breakfast and then hunkered down on the edge of the water to wait for chestnut bellied sandgrouse.

This bird can be found in a long arc of arid land from Senegal and Gambia in West Africa, through Saudi Arabia and Iran up to India. We sat near the easternmost range of this sandgrouse, Pterocles exustus. We did not have a long wait. Soon flocks of these birds showed up to drink water. We could hear their tritone calls as flocks of twenty to thirty birds wheeled around the pond and landed at the edge to drink. There was much movement, noise and fluttering of wings as each flock dropped to the pond, drank and took off. Soon after that, another flock would appear. I was busy trying to photograph them and did not keep count of the total number of birds, but over 20 flocks would have watered that day, meaning there must have been more than 500 sandgrouse. My count is so bad, that it could easily have been twice as many.

The birds feed on seeds, and so must drink water. At the time I watched the birds I was not aware of the spectacular way they carry water to their young. The male, which have yellow faces, sit in the water, and let their downy belly feathers soak up water. When they come to the nest, the young suck the water from the wet feathers. Since I did not know about this, I did not look for this behaviour. Nesting season starts by the end of winter in these parts. Even so, in my photos the males are generally in the water, whereas the females are at the edge of the pond.

The IUCN entry on the chestnut bellied sandgrouse says that the Egyptian subspecies, P.exustus floweri, is extinct. So I was happy to see a report about the rediscovery of the Egyptian sandgrouse population in 2011.

Desert Hyacinth

I stumbled down the slip-face of a sand dune and heard Adesh call out to look to my right. There, poking out of the sand was a colourful spike: red with yellow flowers. “That’s a root parasite”, Adesh told me. Indeed it was a parasite, there was no green anywhere on it, so it could not possibly be synthesizing its own food. Since it was standing far from any visible plant, I was willing to take Adesh at his word. Later, when I read about the parasitic plant, the Desert Hyacinth or Cistanche tubulosa, I found that it is widespread, growing as far away as the Taklamakan and parts of the Arabian desert. It is said that the seeds are extremely hardy, and can remain alive for years, being triggered into growth when some root wanders nearby.

What was this one parasitizing? Looking around I could see only one tree nearby. You can see it in the photo above, behind the Desert Hyacinth. This is the ubiquitous Capparis decidua, the tree called ker. This bears the sour berry which is one of the ingredients of the desert food called ker sangri. The tree is highly branched. The branches are green, and there are seldom any leaves. I’d been very excited to spot a leaf emerging from a split in a stem earlier in the day. You can see that in the photo alongside. In any case, this was very likely to be the tree that the parasite was feeding upon. It makes sense that the roots of the ker tree range far in search of water, and therefore are vulnerable to parasites.

It seems that the Desert Hyacinth is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for erectile dysfunction. I guess any upright and unbranched plant looks like it could be a cure for such matters. Since they are often in the mind, the “cure” could even work in a significant number of cases. A quick look at Google Scholar shows that several chemicals extracted from this parasite have interesting possible effects: from protecting the liver, slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to helping with diabetes.

Adesh pointed out another interesting thing which you can see in the featured photo: there is the track of a beetle which circles the parasitic plant before burrowing into the sand at the base of the flowering stalk. It was clearly after food. I wonder whether it was the host or the parasite which would become the beetle’s food. When you look closely, the desert is alive.

Cranes of Khichan

We took a detour between Jodhpur and the Desert National Park to pass by the now-famous village of Khichan. This is a place to go to if you want to see Demoiselle cranes in winter. These elegant gray cranes, Anthropoides virgo, come to north India for the winter. Khichan became a wintering ground some time in the 1970s when the local Jain community started feeding birds. (Interestingly, the person who started the feeding of cranes remembers the month, September, when he first saw them, but is a little vague about the year.) This attracted the birds in growing numbers, and the locals responded with enthusiasm. Now several thousand birds can be seen feeding here in season. We came on them in the mid-morning, and saw a flock of several hundred picking at the seeds put out by the villagers.

Looking at a large mass of birds can be a treat. When many species are declining, it is nice to come across as species which is actually increasing in numbers. The Demoiselle has accomplished this by adjusting to a life on farmlands instead of the ever-declining grasslands habitat. Of course, this brings it into conflict with humans. After a while I began to pick out groups of birds which seemed to move together or cluster near each other. This was not an illusion. The large migratory flocks of the Grus virgo are made of smaller social groups. Apparently they live in smaller flocks during the breeding season, gathering together only for the migration and wintering.

The birds are monogamous, a breeding pair stays together. One of the things that we were unable to see is the spectacular courtship dance. The cranes of Khichan would have finished their dances and courtship calls in the grasslands of Mongolia, and raised their young during the long summer. We could still see the differences in plumage between the adults and immature birds. As you can see in the photos above, adults of both sexes are blue-grey in colour, the head is lighter gray, the neck black, there is a long white plume from its eyes hanging down to the back, and their eyes are red. The immature are duller in colour, and the plume may be less well-developed. The legs and feet are black, and the bills are light yellow turning to a pink or orange at the tip. I found the multiple levels of social organization amazing: small flocks of breeding pairs coming together into a large migration.

We watched the Demoiselles until they took flight. All cranes have similar postures in flight: neck and bill held out in a line, the body straight, and the legs lifted into a straight line perfectly aligned with the bill. There are scattered references to an unpublished satellite tracking study of the migration of Demoiselle cranes from Mongolia to India. Apparently it was found that flocks which winter in India travel over the Himalayas with extremely few rest stops. The path over the Annapurna range is supposed to be the most difficult high altitude migration route taken by any species of cranes. It seems that the Kali Gandaki river valley provides an access path through this high range; in 1979 more than 61,000 A. virgo were counted passing through a point in this river valley in twelve days. Demoiselle cranes were observed to fly at heights of between 5 and 8 Kms above sea level, and descended to lower altitudes over the valley only in bad weather.

It seems that all cranes are able to store fat in their bodies so that they can make longer flights without stopping. Interestingly, it seems that this does not elevate blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels in these birds. If only this were also true of humans!

Flatland

I’m a city person. I seldom see the horizon. What I probably share with you, whether you are a city person or not, is the habit of looking at tall things. Trees, poles for street lights, even buildings, set a scale for my judgment of distance. I found myself completely lost in the desert. In the flat landscape which extends all the way to the horizon, I could not gauge distances. I saw a man striding towards me, and took the featured photo. I thought it might take him a quarter of an hour to get near us. It was more like five minutes.

Later I saw this cow sitting in the distance, chewing its cud. Far far away, I thought. It got up, ambled past us and was lost in the distance; all in the space of ten minutes. My eyes could not adjust to this completely flat landscape. If there was a line of electricity pole marching from horizon to horizon, I might have been able to use that to estimate distances. But without any vertical cues, I completely failed.

A little walk later I saw this tree sandwiched between two hills. Later I looked at the photo and thought, “Just a minute. Hills?” No, in this desert there are no hills. The tree is the usual stunted acacia tree. It gives us a scale for how large things are. The bumps around the tree are just two heaps of sand, not very high. Looking again at it, I realized that the picture also has two electricity poles which are higher than the “hills”. The poles here are not very high, so that limits how high these piles of sand and dust are.

I didn’t stay in the desert long enough to get used to gauging distances. Wherever I looked I was deceived.

New Year? Get outta here

On my last night in the desert, a friend asked me whether I’d taken any photos of camels. “Too trite”, I replied. But when I woke before dawn the next morning I remembered the question. I walked out into the sands outside our little mud hut and looked at camels munching away on thorn bushes. The sun was just breaking through the clouds while the camels looked terribly bored and sleepy.

“You got up just to look at this s***?”, it seemed to think. “Why did you even bother?” it might have asked in that sleepy, the morning after the night out look, that a camel always has. I couldn’t forget this image. So, at the crack of a dawn that brings on a new year, I’m posting this photo.

“New year? Really, why did you think it might be interesting?” the supercilious chap seems to ask. I don’t want to argue with it, but a happy new year to you.

Sunset of the Bustards

In other times the featured photo would be a grand sighting: four individuals of the Great Indian Bustard and four Chinkara (Indian gazelle) lined up in the scrub inside the Thar desert. Unfortunately, what you see is probably 4% of the world population of the Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps). This bird is almost surely dwindling into the mists of extinction. A decade ago I saw a single individual in a different habitat. I fear that this habitat, one of the last large refuges for it, will also see the last of them in a couple of decades.

This species is listed as Critically Endangered because it has an extremely small population that has undergone an extremely rapid decline owing to a multitude of threats including habitat loss and degradation, hunting and direct disturbance. It now requires an urgent acceleration in targeted conservation actions in order to prevent it from becoming functionally extinct within a few decades.
IUCN Red List

A century ago the Great Indian Bustard was visible in Rajasthan, all the way south to Maharashtra, and east to Madhya Pradesh. Why are they endangered now? Two decades ago it was due to hunting. The number of bustards fell from over 2000 in the 1960s to about 200 in the last decade. Since then it has plummeted because of habitat degradation. The bustard lives in scrublands, lays a single egg in a nest in rocky ground, and incubates it for about a month. Natural predators include foxes, mongoose and monitor lizards, which eat the eggs, and cats, jackals and dogs, which eat the chicks before they are a month old. The greatest danger to eggs, apparently is due to cattle stepping on them. Habitat loss to humans, and the resulting increased danger from cattle and feral dogs, has been the main cause of the total population of this bird diving below a hundred since 2011.

I never got less than a kilometer away from a bustard. That’s what you see in the featured photo, which is the best that I could do with a 1500 mm zoom. In 2009 I had seen a single bird at roughly the same distance in Maharashtra. At that time I saw a feather from its back (photo above) in a forest guards’ hide. I took the shot as a record, knowing fully well that I would never get closer to a bustard than this.

I’d seen birds move through grass, hunker down under shrubs, but never seen it fly. This time around, we spotted three of them at a distance. As we watched, a car drove past us right towards the trio. I managed to take a photo, without getting its number plates (photo above). Two of the birds slipped behind a thicket and could not be seen any more. The third ran away as the car approached. The birds are excitable, and encounters of this kind visibly agitates them. There is also a chance that unscrupulous tourists like this could drive over eggs. The late fame of this bird could be the last straw.

The government has declared the bird protected, with legal provisions similar to the protection given to tigers. The state of Rajasthan has adopted it as its state bird. There seems to be some confusion about how to go about increasing the population. I sincerely hope that the Great Indian Bustard, one of the largest flying birds in the world, does not follow the Indian Cheetah into extinction, but I am very afraid that it will.

A de Chirico landscape

As we drove through the Thar desert, I was intrigued by villages which seemed half-built and deserted. Often blocks of yellow Jaisalmer sandstone would be piled up at several places, enhancing the impression that the houses in the village were unfinished. Eventually we stopped at one of these. Indeed, as you can see from the photo above, the village looks like a painting by Giorgio de Chirico: surreal empty blocks of buildings, open plazas, blue skies, bright sun, and not a living soul in sight.

The buildings are made entirely of Jaisalmer yellow sandstone mortared together. The stone is common in this region, but not easily seen elsewhere. We found a few buildings which had been left unfinished. Sand had piled up against the boundary wall you see in the photo above. The electrical lines which cut through this empty village marched away to the horizon. Sand had also blown into the unfinished houses, and piled up in great drifts inside.

It was only when a bunch of children came running towards us that we noticed the real village. It was a couple of hundred meters away; a cluster of mud huts. The children gathered around us discussing every move we made in Hindi. There was some controversy about whether we were “English”. I decided to talk about very mundane things with them, in Hindi: like why they were not at school (it was after school hours) and whether they liked math more than Hindi (there was no consensus). After this conversation quietened them down, I asked them to pose for a photo. Only four did, and you can see them in the photo above. After this they decided there was no entertainment left in us, and they ran off. We were left alone in the deserted village, wondering why it came into being when there was a real live village right next to it.

Desert livelihoods

As we traveled westwards from Jodhpur into the deep desert, we raced past tiny villages. A day later, as we stood in a little oasis in the desert and saw a herd of sheep come in to graze and drink water, I started to wonder about the livelihood of people who live here. The desert covers about 60% of Rajasthan. The population density of about 80 persons per square kilometer is about a fifth of the rest of Rajasthan. Still, the desert holds more than 15 million people. How do they live, what do they do?

Herding is a major traditional livelihood. Apart from sheep we saw goats, cows and donkeys. The photo which you see above was taken near one of the largest oases in the western desert. Ground water is scarce in the desert; we hardly saw any wells. Because of this, traditional herders were nomadic, driving their livestock from one oasis to another. I don’t know whether this lifestyle is still possible today. I suspect that the slightly improved supply of water, from the Indira Gandhi Canal, has contributed to the settling of nomads. Another factor in the settling of nomads is the plentiful electricity from wind generators: you need to have a settled address in order to tap into the electric grid

There was evidence of subsistence farming, as in the photo above. I had to keep my nose and mouth constantly covered against blowing dust, so I suspect that there is little soil here. Farming cannot be a paying proposition. The article on the Thar desert in Wikipedia claims that a third of crops fail. This figure is not referenced, and may be inaccurate. New crops are constantly tried out, and it was clear that pearl millet (bajra) is a success. We had wonderful bajra roti all through our trip. The Family pointed out that the bajra is better than what we get in Mumbai. On the other hand, it is also clear that there is a constant battle to contain the desert.

One possible future for India due to global warming is widespread desertification of the country. This is not inevitable, because good policies and innovation in large-scale rain and ground water management could lead to a different future. The Thar desert is a laboratory for how we could try to manage this kind of disastrous future.