If you are looking for a little piece of African safari in India, head to Tal Chapar, a lesser-known wildlife sanctuary in Rajasthan’s desert district of Churu, which has a grand expanse of rippling grassland that’s home to its star attraction—the blackbuck.
Thanks to timely conservation efforts, the number of blackbucks, a species of antelope found only in India, has reached an impressive count of 2,500 in Tal Chapar, according to its forest range officer Surat Singh Poonia. Tal Chapar is about 400km from Delhi—a roughly 10-hour drive. There are no big cats here but the acres of gold and green grass are also home to its other major attraction—birds.
Laggar Falcon. Photo by Ananda Banerjee
Though Tal Chapar will forever be associated with blackbucks, over time the birds have taken centre stage in terms of attracting visitors, especially in winter, stretching up to March.
The last few years have witnessed a stream of birders from across the globe making a beeline to Tal Chapar to tick off “wanted” species on their lists. With migratory eagles, buzzards, falcons, harriers and hawks flying all around, this is raptor country: Up to 36 different species of raptors, or birds of prey, have been recorded till date, according to Poonia. On a recent weekend visit, I spotted 25 of them, which is quite an achievement.
The grasslands, where food is aplenty, are preferred spots for birds of prey to roost. You’ll also see thousands of Desert Gerbils (commonly called desert rats) and Spiny-tailed Lizards—both of which are found here—alongside larks, pipits, quails, partridges and a host of insects which are an integral part of the raptor food chain.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
The Lesser Kestrel is one sought-after raptor— a passage migrant in India which draws scores of birders. The bird breeds in China and Mongolia, and is said to enter India from Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, but some are believed to fly across the high Himalayas and cut across north-west India before heading towards Africa.
The prominent birds of prey I spotted are the Eurasian Hobby, Long-legged Buzzard, Red-necked Falcon, Greater Spotted Eagle, Pied Harrier, Laggar Falcon, Common Kestrel and Marsh Harrier, to name a few. Sharing aerospace with them were hundreds of Yellow-eyed Pigeons, another must-see species, and a thousand-odd Demoiselle Cranes, which come to India to avoid the cold winter months in Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The flourishing grassland ecosystem of Tal Chapar has a tale of its own. Till the 1940s, it was a hunting ground and horse pasture belonging to Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. The area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1966. Much before this, the hillocks on the western side of the sanctuary used to channelize the meagre rainwater into the sanctuary area. But salt mining in adjacent areas completely altered the natural watershed of the region and affected the native vegetation. Nothing much grew in these parts except the Prosopis juliflora, an invasive plant species that had pushed out native plants.
In 2006, the Rajasthan government prepared a five-year action plan for the integrated development of the sanctuary and included it on the state’s tourism map. And unlike other fruitless action plans, this one worked. The turnaround can mostly be credited to Poonia.
Pooniaji (as he is popularly known) started with the systemic eradication of Prosopis juliflora by planting a grass species locally known as mothiya (a particular favourite of the blackbuck). He also propagated rainwater harvesting. It’s been five years, and the results are clearly visible.
But it’s for another reason that visitors to this birding paradise seek Pooniaji for company. His passion for, and knowledge of, birds is second to none, and he can effortlessly spot birds such as the Lesser Kestrel or Spotted Creeper. He knows, for instance, which tree a particular bird will come to roost on, what time it will come to drink water and even what time it will go out looking for prey. He is the man who has managed to turn the dusty desert scrubland into green, raptor country.
A birders’ paradise: The grasslands of Tal Chapar make for a stunning landscape. With plenty of food, the grasslands are preferred spots for birds of prey to roost.Photo by Mayank Bhatnagar
A Eurasian Eagle Owl in flight. This fiery raptor is a resident species and the biggest owl in the subcontinent. Photo by Ananda Banerjee
The Laggar Falcon—another resident raptor and one of the largest falcons found in the subcontinent. Photo by Gaurav Bhatnagar
A thousand-odd Demoiselle Cranes come to India between September and March to avoid the harsh winter in Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Ananda Banerjee
The kestrel passes through the subcontinent on its migratory flight from China or Mongolia to Africa. Photo by Thinkstock
Male blackbucks entwined in a territorial fight. Tal Chapar, which was a hunting ground and horse pasture belonging to Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner till the 1940s, is one of the more famous blackbuck sanctuaries in the country. Photo by Ananda Banerjee