Slithering sands... Inhabitants of the Thar
Toadhead-Agama in ambush
Desert. By definition, a region so arid because of little rainfall that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all. Traditionally called wastelands as they are thought to be completely barren and of little use to humankind for commercial or agricultural purposes. But wait, is it really true? That deserts are just barren landscapes, devoid of lifeforms or is it that we need to take a closer, more careful look?
With many such questions in mind I boarded a train to the city of Jodhpur, a curious boy of age thirteen, when my father was posted to a defence campus in Jaisalmer. As the car raced towards our new home on impeccable roads(unusual for its time), I was awestruck by vastness of the landscape, the heat, and dusty environment.
Fast forward a couple of decades...I'm travelling again, on the same route, from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer by road. But this time with a group of friends and a very different goal. Well, I photograph wildlife now and we’re on a quest to find the rarest inhabitants of The Great Thar. Now, to give an idea of the vastness, let me put some numbers to explain; The Thar spreads across a staggering 1,70,000 sq. km. in India which is around 75 percent of the total area and remaining 25 percent is in Pakistan. The most pristine dunes and rocky habitats can be found in Barmer, Bikaner and Jaisalmer sectors of Rajasthan and Jaisalmer is my place of choice.
It’ll be unfair not to declare now that I’ve had a few visits to Jaisalmer, looking for birds and mammals in last few years and the habitat is known to me. But this time we were after the most seclusive lifeforms of the region, desert reptiles. The popular tourist village of Sam became our base for this trip as it is not crowded between months of May to September and gives easy access to various areas of interest for reptile photography. Reaching at afternoon, we started our preparations for an evening search for reptiles at a rocky/hilly habitat to try and find geckos, scorpions and various other reptile species. A brief warm-up session at the location got us three different species of geckos and we left for base planning to return again at night. Sustenance in a desert is difficult given the harsh climatic conditions and various species have adapted themselves accordingly, some species found here are strictly nocturnal and can be found only starting very late in evening.
We started back for the hills after dark and barely 15 mins into drive, spotted a saw-scaled viper by roadside. After spending some time with it, the highly venomous snake calmed down, no longer rubbing its scales to give warnings and let us approach it close to make some great images. Reaching back to spot we found two more saw-scaled beauties amongst the thorny bushes and simultaneously spotted a keeled rock-gecko trying to hide in plain sight by the side of a rock; two different species of scorpions were also found and we decided to call it a day as everyone was satisfied photographing the various subjects we found. On our way back to hotel, we spotted two more saw-scaled vipers, taking the count to five within a couple of hours!!
Next morning was reserved for scouting grassy flats near the hotel as spiny tailed lizards inhabit the area along with two different species of monitor lizards. After photographing various available species here, we decided to break for lunch and take rest before starting out for the evening session. We started for the planned location by late afternoon to reach the vast dunes which stretch across a distance of more than 15 km and is my personal favourite location from this region. The dunes here are devoid of any human interference and as a result wildlife is found in profusion, making it one of the best dune habitat to photograph endemic Thar desert species. The first find of the evening was three Longewala toad-headed agamas, a creature built to live on dunes; with flattened bodies, thick skin and a coloration to camouflage perfectly with its surroundings. A mild sandstorm made the settings dreamlike and kept all of us busy for a long time. We were also able to witness how these agamas bury their bodies into sand which is used both as a defensive technique as well as to ambush prey. As the sun set over the horizon, it was time for the nocturnal creatures to come out of hiding, and one can easily conclude that the dunes are more happening during night than day; a sand-fish glided under a thin layer of sand occasionally revealing itself looking for prey, a couple of Sind awl-headed snakes slithering through sand effortlessly and a Sind-sand gecko running over the dunes stopping intermittently, licking its eyes clean of the flying sand.
Each and every creature perfectly adapted in their own unique way to live on the dunes of The Great Thar. As for the dunes, they seem alive too; shape shifting to the tune of the winds howling over their shoulders. Our footprints on sand were gone by the time we had reached our vehicle and only a faint trail was all that was remaining. I’ve always felt that the dunes have this obssesive nature of being perfect, as soon as foot is raised, sand rushes to fill in the gap left, thereby obliterating any signs of movement over their otherwise perfectly patterned bodies. It was time to call it a day as dunes drain energy way faster than one can realise. We left the spot and decided to come back again the next day. While on our way back we found a hedgehog gently making its way through some small dunes and we did not think twice before grabbing the opportunity to make a few images of the creature, after all, its one of the rarest subjects to come by in the wild.
Toad-headed agama in a sandstorm
After scouting the nearby areas of the hotel in the morning, post-lunch we headed to our beloved dunes. Even though everyone had visited the spot once, it was amusing to see childlike wonder on their faces as they set foot on the dunes. The first highlight of the day was a Brilliant agama, named so, probably because of the brilliant blue coloration it attained once threatened or approached close; another perfectly adapted desert dweller, the agama is otherwise sand coloured and blends very well with it’s surrounding. As expected the dunes again gave us an opportunity to fine-tune our toad-headed agama images as we found a couple of them again. After sunset, we quickly headed to the rocky areas we had visited on day, this time for the Persian dwarf-gecko, which is one of, if not the most beautiful of all geckos found in India. True to its name, adults are only about 4 cm in length and if habitat and timings aren’t correct, are almost impossible to find. After bagging all our primary target species, we headed to the hotel for dinner and post dinner again went out for a last session around the grassy flats close to the area. Our viper luck continued and we found the largest specimen I’ve personally seen till now. At around 3ft, it was a huge specimen for the species and was resting in an open area after feeding, we gave it a wide berth and continued with our search for other reptiles for sometime before calling it a day. The next morning we left really early from Sam for Jodhpur. Driving back on the same road which had once brought a curious boy of age 13 to the magical place called Jaisalmer!
Text and images: Soumabrata Moulick