When one thinks of the Thar desert, what comes to mind is a landscape full of sand. But there is more to Thar, the vast desert expanse located in the northwestern part of India. It is also home to several unique flora and fauna species. Many of these are captured in the book, The National Park: A Jewel in the Vibrant Thar by Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj.

However, the rich biodiversity of the Thar desert is facing many threats, claims the writer who has spent around six years investigating and following and photographing the flora and fauna of the region. Bhardwaj is a 1994 batch Indian Forest Service officer and currently holds the post of Member Secretary in the Rajasthan Pollution Control Board. He has also served in various capacities in different forest divisions of Rajasthan including managing one of the best tiger reserves of the country, Ranthambhore National Park.

In an interview with Mongabay-India, Bhardwaj discusses his experience with the Thar desert and provides a snapshot of its biodiversity through his eyes.

Excerpts from the interview along with selected photographs from the book:

Could you share the journey of your book Desert National Park: A Jewel in the Vibrant Thar? What motivated you to focus on the Thar ecology?
It was the scenic beauty of the landscape, rich in local culture, along with vast biological diversity that compelled me to document the landscape so that the common person can understand the importance of this area. In fact, when I was serving as chief conservator of that area, I got an opportunity to observe that area closely as far as management is concerned. It was in the year 2015, the idea of writing a book came to mind.

An alert chinkara on a sand dune. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj
Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus) in Thar. Of the nine species of vultures found in India, seven have been observed in the Great Indian Thar desert of Rajasthan. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

What were some of your unique experiences while working on the book? What are the major challenges of documenting the wildlife of the Thar as compared to any other landscape?
Truly speaking, my whole experiences in the desert ecosystem were unique.

Every season offers unique biological diversities among floral and faunal elements: sighting a great Indian bustard or observing an eagle take off from a sand dune, hunting sequence of a laggar falcon preying upon a spiny-tailed lizard, or a scorpion burrowing itself in the sand as an anti-predatory strategy, a dung beetle rolling a ball of dung, or a white-browed bushchat doing its puff and roll dance.

As such I could not find any major challenge in documenting the wildlife of Thar desert except that it took a considerable amount of time as many of the floral and faunal elements are uncommon and rare and were difficult to observe.

Dung beetle in Thar desert. A total of 73 species, identified under ten genera, are recorded in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

What are the major challenges the Thar ecology is facing?
Thar desert is one of the deserts across the world where there is maximum human density. Anthropogenic forces including the development of unplanned infrastructure and rapid change in land use patterns are the major challenges.

In fact, among all the ecosystems in the country, the desert ecosystem is the most threatened.

The Thar ecology consists of several plants, wildlife and also migratory birds. Are we able to protect this heritage?
With an objective to conserve biological diversity and ecological processes, including the socio-economics of local communities, Desert Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 1980. Covering an area of 3,162 sq km and spreading over two districts of Rajasthan, namely, Jaisalmer and Barmer, Desert National Park is a vast and unique assemblage of floral and biological diversity including critically endangered great Indian bustard.

Thar is the only landscape having the only breeding population of great Indian bustard which also the state bird of Rajasthan. This statement is sufficient to claim our ability to protect this heritage.

Tephrosia falciformis. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj
Indian desert fox. It is found mainly in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

The state bird of Rajasthan, the great Indian bustard, is on the verge of extinction. There are several reports highlighting the impact of power transmission lines on the great Indian bustard. Still, several similar projects are under installation. What is the way out?
We need to adopt mitigation measures as we need green energy but also need to protect the species. Cost may be a bit higher but we need to adopt mitigation measures as suggested by scientific institutions like the Wildlife Institute of India.

The great Indian bustard inhabits dry grasslands and scrublands of western India. Thar holds one of the last populations of this critically endangered bird. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj
A great Indian bustard near a windmill in the Thar landscape. The bird faces threats from power transmission lines and windmill blades. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

While working on your book, how did you see the role of the local community in preserving Thar ecology?
While managing the Desert National Park it was felt the role of local communities in the conservation of this landscape cannot be ignored.

Regular meetings with them, understanding their needs and making plans accordingly will always help in achieving the objectives. In fact, the conservation approach for the great Indian bustard, especially through the creation of closures (inviolate spaces) could not get success unless the local communities were involved. The role of closing the areas could be impressed upon only through convincing them by comparing the inviolate breeding closures with maternity wards.

The role of communities was further extended through launching the program of “Godawan bachao inaam paao” for strengthening the existing great Indian bustard monitoring protocol.

Desert cats in Thar. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

After the locust attack, it was reported that the great Indian bustard laid more than one egg. Using this as an example, one section of society claimed that this bird is not getting sufficient food in general. What is your understanding of food ecology of Thar in general and food availability for great Indian bustard in particular?
There is sufficient food for great Indian bustard in the landscape. The need for the species is only inviolate space and least disturbance.

Many types of vegetation are dying in the desert. One of them is sewan grass. This used to be a major source of nutrition for birds and animals of Rajasthan. Now, it is extinct. What is your understanding of the vegetation of Thar and what is the way to preserve it?
Sewan (Lasiurus sindicus) is not extinct, although there are reports of a decrease in its abundance due to increase in anthropogenic pressures. Most of the closures raised by park authorities have luxuriant vegetation of sewn grass. This grass is not only palatable to local livestock, but also important roosting habitat for a number of animals including the great Indian bustard.

‘Arnebia hispidissima’, which belongs to the family Boraginaceae, is an important medicinal plant of the Indian Thar desert. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

Water scarcity in Thar is commonly known, as is the people’s innovative approaches to conserve water. In this journey, did you get any opportunity to explore the subject? Do you have any interesting observations regarding methods of water conservations and water bodies?
Water is still a critical natural resource. Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojna has already brought a great socio-economic change among the local communities, however, it has also changed the ecology of the landscape. There are some places especially some areas of the national park and Shahgarh bulge where water is still a scarce resource and the villagers have to depend on traditional water harvesting structures including taankas.

Spiny-tailed lizards. The species is found in patches across the Thar desert, Kutch and surrounding arid zones in India and Pakistan. Photo credit: Gobind Sagar Bhardwaj

Pasturelands (orans) of Jaisalmer and Badmer are habitats of wildlife and other bird species. What is your observation about the health of Oran and will be able to provide shelter to these species in future?
Most of the orans in Thar still have elements of biological diversity but these are also under pressure of anthropogenic forces including linear infrastructure.

These orans can be seen as escape refuge for so many species – not only birds but also floral elements and should be preserved as such.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.