As far as sanctuaries go, Velavadar in Gujarat is the sweetest one. It is home to Blackbucks, beautiful members of the deer family. Velavadar has the highest concentration of the endangered Blackbuck anywhere. But don’t let the gentle beauty of Blackbucks fool you. They always take home the silver medal in running events, clocking speeds upto 80 kmph (50 miles per hour). Only the Cheetah pips them to the post.
I happened to call upon the Blackbucks during their peak fawning period of March – April (the other being September – October). When the males are not mating, they are locking horns to get the women for themselves. More than a pair were spotted fighting by me. Each male has its territory, but we know how politics works. But do they really need to spar? It seemed there were more than enough females going around for all. But then again, men will be men.
The open grasslands of Velavadar suit the Blackbucks just fine. They have a life span of up to 15 years, can be 120 cms long with shoulder heights of 73-83 cms and weigh between 32 – 42 kilos (70 – 92 lb). The male Blackbucks sport horns; the younger ones have a brown coat that gets blacker as they mature. No racist talk here. Females are brown. And they all like to live in large herds.
The reserve has no predators like tigers and lions – leaving the animals largely free from danger. Romance blooms, and the population increases. Good for them! Velavadar is also mostly off the tourist circuit. All this means animals and birds lead undisturbed lives – and visitors generally have terrific sightings. I did. I could have looked at Blackbucks for hours. Even they would not stop eyeing me – curious about the Martian in their land. But you only have to take a single step in their direction before they scamper away.
When the Jungle Cat Missed a Meal
Another elusive species is the Jungle Cat. Camera shy, I was not just lucky to spot one, but it also stayed put. Why? It was out hunting for food. Rats specifically. As I watched, the Jungle Cat stood still in a crouching, alert position for a long time. And then it jumped. Literally. High up in the air to grab its prey. But missed. And walked away – pride hurt, stomach empty. It did look in my direction, embarrassed with the miss.
Tracking the Hyena Cub
I was keen to see a Hyena too – and I convinced my guide to take me to their home. It was a hole in the ground – with bones of consumed animals lying around. The species found here is the Striped Hyena.
We waited – and waited. And then, out of the blue, someone darted out of the hole into the grasses. It was a Hyena cub – quite big for a kid – who was home alone. Mom was out to pick dinner. The cub would run a few yards, stop, look back, and then be off again. Did not quite know how to react to intruders in the neighbourhood. Mom, hurry up will you!
Hyenas are not really hunters. They wait for animals to pop off, and scavenge them. There are enough animals in Velavadar for one to die naturally every few days. Hyenas even eat the remains of those hunted by others. They hunt small animals at best. Lazy guys. Hyenas have powerful jaws and large teeth – ideal for bone crushing. They chew up large bones from carcasses, thus enriching themselves with calcium and phosphorus.
As scavengers, hyenas do play an important role in sanitizing the eco-system. Just like vultures do in their own way. Everyone has their role chalked out by Mother Nature.
Despite more than a fair share of sightings, I egged my guide to show me wolves, the Indian Grey Wolf to be specific. Especially since he had been boasting there are good numbers around. His professional credibility was at stake. And he delivered.
Three wolves, that’s what I saw. At a great distance. But yes, I could see them well enough through binoculars. And they noticed me too, without any aids. And then the chase began. For miles literally, I drove towards them and they sprinted away from me. I threw caution to the winds, kicking dust as I accelerated. And they ran faster. Eventually, they won and reached the cover of forests before I could get close enough to take any pictures.
Unlike Hyenas, wolves make a greater effort to feed themselves. They hunt in packs, Blackbucks being their staple diet. For variety, they pick on rodents, hare and feral dogs.
* Approximate Distances: Ahmedabad – 200 kms (125 miles), Bhavnagar – 52 km (32 miles), Palitana – 110 kms (70 miles), Lothal – 125 kms (80 miles), Alang – 107 kms (67 miles). These distances have been taken from the official brochure, and may be approximate only.
* Safaris: You have to take your own vehicle, the park does not have any. Or ask your hotel to arrange one. Guides are usually available for a nominal fee, but some of them go off for farm work during low season. The official at the entrance will help you call them on their mobiles.
* When can you visit: The park is open from sunrise to sunset. It closes from June 16 – October 15 for the rainy season.
* Where to stay:
(a) The best option is The Blackbuck Lodge, a wonderful property a mile from the park gate. Contact them at www.blackbucklodge.com / firstname.lastname@example.org / +91.9228000496 / +91.9825161212.
(b) Alternately, you can stay at the Forest Department Guest House within the park. They have 4 rooms. Contact for booking: Assistant Conservator of Forests, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar-Bhal, F-10, Annexe, M.S. Building, Bhavnagar; +91.278.2426425. The Range Forest Officer at the park can be contacted at +91.278.2920222. Room charges are Rs. 1,500 (US$ 75 for foreigners) for air-conditioned rooms; Rs. 500 (US$ 50) for non-AC; Dormitory per person: Rs. 50 (US$ 10); Tent (per tent): Rs. 200 (US$ 20)
The only other stay options are at towns close by.
* Entry Fee (brackets give fee for non-Indians in US$, but paid in Rupee equivalent):
Adult: Rs. 20 (US$ 5)
Children (3-12 years): Rs. 10 (US$ 5)
Students on Educational Tour: Rs. 10 (US$ 5)
Vehicle Fee (for upto 6 persons): Rs. 200 (US$ 20)
Vehicle Fee (for upto 15 persons): Rs. 500 (US$ 50)
Vehicle Fee (for capacity upto 60): Rs. 1,750 (US$ 175)
Guide Fee: Rs. 50 (US$ 10) for first 4 hours; Rs. 20 (US$ 5) for every subsequent hour. But you can pay more if it pleases you.
The fee is for a full day and you can go in and out as you like.
Note: The above contacts / rates may have changed since my last visit.