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Of Gerbils, Jirds And Jagnath

Of Gerbils, Jirds And Jagnath

Ranjana Pal introduces Sanctuary readers to a small, private sanctuary near Jalore, Rajasthan, where desert wildlife thrives.

The Jalore landscape surprises its visitors with shifting shapes and colours from dawn to dusk. Photo: Dr. Sumit Dookia.

Several Indian desert jirds Meriones hurrianae bustled into their burrows as we drove down the dirt road. I felt apologetic for disturbing these small burrowing rodents that were busy feeding on the recently blossomed Bui flower. As we drove away, the Jirds got back to business, and we entered the territory of Jagnath Wildlife Safari (JWS). The 400-hectare park, earlier known as Jalore Wildlife Safari, is situated a few kilometers away from Jalore city in Rajasthan. The park is part of the great Indian Thar Desert and thus is characterised by sandy trails, flat savanna, undulating grass bunds, and is surrounded by the hills and rocky ridges of the isolated Eserna range. The famous Jalore fort and Amba Mata temple lie at a distance of 13 km. from the park.

The safari came into existence in 2005, by the efforts of the local Baronet Mr. Balwant Singh Chauhan, Mr. Ravindra Singh Chouhan, Mr. Bhawani Singh Chouhan, Ms. Shanane Davis, and Mr. Gajendra Singh Chouhan. It lies on private land, dedicated to the conservation of the unique biodiversity of Jalore and is named after the famous Jagnath Mahadev Temple of the city. Seven generations ago, this land was gifted to the Kaniwara Chouhan family by the royal family of Jodhpur as a token of appreciation for helping the royal force of Jodhpur in battle. Today, the land is owned by Kaniwara Chouhan’s family, and is managed and protected by Mr. Ravindra Singh Chouhan and Mr. Bhawani Singh Chouhan.

It was in the month of January 2013 that I was given the opportunity to volunteer for a 10 day biodiversity survey of JWS by my professor, Dr. Sumit Dookia. At that time, I was pursuing a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation from GGS Indraprastha University, Delhi, and Dr. Dookia was assessing the prospect of this land as a potential conservation area.

Camera trap studies have showed the presence of several elusive species in the area. Photo: Dr. Sumit Dookia.

A Little on Flora and Fauna

JWS is connected to Eserna Reserved Forest, and hence, is part of a continuous forest tract. The faunal diversity comprises rare and endangered animals like the Indian leopard Panthera pardus fusca, striped hyena Hyena hyena, jungle cat Felis chaus, chinkara or Indian gazelle Gazella bennettii, and the elusive Asian steppe wildcat which is known in India as the Indian desert cat Felis silvestris ornata.

This area is also rich in avifaunal diversity and boasts of more than 120 species of resident birds including the Long-billed Vulture, Eurasian Griffon, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Crested White-capped Bunting, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Rock Bush Quail, and Jungle Bush Quail.

The vegetation of JWS is broadly classified as tropical thorn forest. Flora mainly consists of Mithijal Salvedura olyeoidis, Kajari Prosopis cineraria, Rohida Tecomela undulata, Tribulus rajasthanensis, various wild savannah species including Saniya Crotalaria burhia and Thor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the endangered jungle basil, indigenous fruit trees, and various wildflowers.

An eco-friendly campsite has been developed in the heart of the park with tents that ensure a comfortable stay for the guests. Photo: Dr. Sumit Dookia.

Ecotourism – More than Just a Catchphrase

I found JWS to be an excellent example of ecologically sustainable tourism in the country. An eco-friendly campsite has been developed in the heart of the park with tents that ensure a comfortable stay for guests, and only small groups of up to six visitors are allowed to visit at a time. Mornings at the resort start with a cacophony of calls from peacocks, quails, and francolins. A short walk in the park and visitors might be able to sight the magnificent raptors and ungulates of the desert. Another attraction here is the night safari, during which visitors can hope to sight elusive species like the desert cat, jungle cat, desert hare and Indian crested porcupine. Leopards occasionally visit the area as well. In the evenings, short treks into the hills provide intrepid hikers a chance to enjoy a panoramic view of the park at sunset.

Forty per cent of funds received from guests goes back into the protection and maintenance of the park, and some part is spent on schemes for local villages. Ecotourism initiatives and outreach programs have significantly helped in controlling poaching in the Jagnath Safari area and its surroundings. Various water-harvesting systems have been adopted in the safari area that makes water available for wildlife year-round. Other initiatives at JWS include purchasing, and planting various indigenous trees and plants in a reforestation effort. For all these factors, JWS is a perfect base for researchers and innumerable research projects and conservation programs have been implemented here.

JWS regularly surprises naturalists, and Dr. Dookia recently recorded on camera the presence of ruddy mongoose Herpestes smitthii in this area. The mongooses here are believed to be an extension from the nearest population in Kumbhalgarh. JWS is one of the few areas known to have sizeable number of Indian desert cats, and camera trap studies conducted in and around the park have confirmed the presence of around 10 hyenas in the park. The co-owner of JWS, Ravindra Singh Chouhan wants to extend his ambitions and intends to sensitize the populace, especially school children of Jalore towards wildlife and the importance of conservation. He wishes to increase ecotourism in this area, believing that this can help locals by providing new job opportunities. He says, “ These initiatives can give Jalore, this small beautiful town of ours, a global identity”. In this mission, he is now seeking support from government agencies, and desires help in controlling poaching in the park and adjoining forest area.

Home and hope for the desert fox.
Photo: Dr. Sumit Dookia.

Preserving Jagnath

Interestingly, Jalore is also known as the granite city of Rajasthan. Since 1991, continuous mining activity has drastically affected the biodiversity of this area. Granite mining has caused large-scale deforestation. Besides clearing wild habitat for the mining area, an increase in human activities is taking a toll on the local wildlife. Grazing and granite mining are the prime threats to this scrub landscape. In fact, the Jagnath Wildlife Safari is the only undisturbed land left in this region. Desert foxes have started to abandon their dens in and around the mining sites, and vultures, once commonly seen, have moved out of this area and migrated to other hills at a distance from the safari. Remains of scrapped, deformed and blasted granite hills can be seen around the park. These abandoned waste lands, if given some attention, can be restored back to life.

Jird and gerbil colonies are also present in the park. Burrowing animals like these are also known as ecosystem engineers – their underground burrowing system provides water infiltration and fecal deposition that increases the soil quality. Overgrazing can harm these rodents, so no trespassing by local villagers is allowed inside the park. The presence of these jird and gerbil holes in JWS clearly shows the effect of overgrazing in the surrounding forestland from where they are missing. These rodents also form an important part of the diet of the lesser cat population in the area.

The park is surrounded by more than five villages and is under continuous pressure of human and livestock encroachment. Unfortunately, JWS is too small to sustain wild animal diversity on its own and is highly dependent on the surrounding forest areas, all of which are under continuous threat from mining and grazing. The park’s existence and the long-term survival of its wildlife depends upon the continued existence of its surrounding forests. If mining and grazing activities are prevented, we will see a rise in the populations of these species. Conservation of this area and the surrounding forests will go a long way in providing the local wildlife with a safe haven to flourish for generations to come.

Ranjana Pal is a Researcher in the DST – National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) project with the Wildlife Institute of India.

Read More: Searching for Arcadia: Private Nature Reserves and the Promise that they Hold


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March 14, 2016, 06:07 AM
 Its time we changed the ground rules. Public lands have long been usurped by private profiteers. Not only must we stop that, but must simultaneously start turning our private lands to public purpose, by allowing biodiversity to regenerate naturally. This will help restore depleted soils, restock aquifers and bring carbon down from the atmosphere