I’m on my first safari in the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary, and I’ve already seen about 300 blackbucks. Sure, I’d heard that conservation efforts to protect this threatened species were bearing fruit, but not in my wildest dreams did I imagine them to be so successful. We pass other vehicles, each filled to capacity with shutterbugs lugging their monster lenses, and all of them look as astounded as I am. In an area of just over seven square kilometres, there are about 2,500 blackbucks. But as I spend more time in the sanctuary, I realise that this number is not as crazy as it first sounded. Plentiful food, including grass so sweet that even humans can eat it, water all year round, acres of tal (flat land) to stroll in, and no predators—for the blackbucks here, Tal Chhapar is truly a slice of paradise.
But it’s not just the antelopes that make this sanctuary one of Rajasthan’s must-visit destinations. Chhapar is Shangri-La for a variety of other fauna too. Spiny tailed lizards, desert gerbils, jungle cats, chinkara, and a host of other land dwellers mean that a summer sojourn to Chhapar is totally worth braving the Rajasthan heat. But it’s in winter when birders from all over the world make a beeline. That’s why we visit in January.
Sparring blackbucks is a common sight at Tal Chhapar.
Around 3 p.m, when the weather gets warmer, we take off for our second safari. The morning fog is long gone, the thermals have been peeled off and there are raptors everywhere. Bhagwan Singh, a resident naturalist, has spotted an eastern imperial eagle in the distance. But as we begin to drive towards it, a red-necked falcon lands on a tall stump in front of us. He takes off before we can get a shot, but before we get too far, we spot three female harriers in the undergrowth. Just when our discussion about whether the harriers are Montagu’s or Pallid is getting interesting, Bhagwan Singh whispers “saker”. I quickly concede the debate and point my binoculars in the direction of his gaze. And there, basking in the warm evening glow of the winter sun, unbeknownst to the profound effect its presence has had on me, sits a saker falcon. The imperial eagle is quickly forgotten.
The desert tree of khejri is of immense importance to life in Rajasthan. It gives fodder and firewood, and its fruit, sangri, is used to make the popular vegetarian dish kair sangri.
It’s only after many such wonderful sightings, including that of a manic black francolin, a convocation of steppe eagles, some reticent desert foxes, and perpetually hunched demoiselle cranes that I realise how truly magical this place is. Who would say that just a few years ago this was a wind-swept wasteland with nothing except a tangle of the notorious mesquite or prosopis juliflora (an invasive species notorious for growing aggressively and replacing native vegetation)? It has taken the untiring efforts of forest range officer, Soorat Singh Poonia, to turn this place around. The prosopis needed to be cleared, which in itself would surely have been a mammoth task. Because this Caribbean import sends down roots deep into the earth—with one known instance of them going down 174 feet—and can regenerate from its roots even if the rest of the plant is chopped. But he made it happen. He also undertook rainwater harvesting, planted mothiya grass, which the blackbucks love, and dug out watering holes for a year-round supply of water.
As our first day draws to a close, animated discussions of the day’s experiences gather steam over dinner. Singh, who also helps out in the kitchen steps out to announce he’s got another treat in store. But he won’t divulge any details. All we need to do is be ready by 5 a.m. I’m up at 4. The fog hangs heavy on the cold winter morning. Just then I find out we’re going to Jorbeer, a proposed conservation reserve on Bikaner’s outskirts. The first 50 kilometres of the 138-kilometre drive are the most harrowing I’ve ever endured. Visibility is almost zero. But we hurtle through the grey abyss with abandon.
Although the Tal Chhapar Sanctuary is a safe haven for blackbucks, visitors are likely to encounter surprisingly amiable chinkaras and stumble upon rustic tomb clusters.
Jorbeer is a carcass dumping ground. As we pull in, the stench gets unbearable. And yet my jaw dropped for a totally different reason—there are more vultures here than I imagined had made it through the Diclofenac carnage. The Egyptian vultures, just a little larger than a pariah kite, are relegated to the fringes, and the mammoth cinerous breed keep to themselves. But it’s the incredible number of griffons that hog centrestage. They squabble, screech and jostle in one mad melee. Hundreds circle overhead, some taking off with a noisy, laborious flapping, others clumsily landing barely a few feet from us. And then there are the steppe eagles. In Chhapar, I was thrilled to see a group of five. Here, I count 17 of them perched on a single tree. Hours slip by before we realise we are way past our lunch time. At 4 p.m., Singh gently reminds us that perhaps we should be heading back. We accede, looking back wistfully as we pull away. Jorbeer has been a singular revelation.
It’s sheer greed that takes us back to the sanctuary the next morning, squeezing in one last short drive before we head back to the train station. Apart from a few chinkaras, another 100 blackbucks and a couple of grey francolin, we don’t spot much; but I’m not complaining. I’d thought three days would be sufficient for such a tiny place. But I was wrong. I could stay here for a month and still not have enough of Chhapar.
The black francolin’s call sounds shrill yet splendid.
Getting There The Tal Chhapar Sanctuary is located in Rajasthan’s Churu district and the closest airport is Jaipur International Airport (228 km/4 hr southeast). By rail, Ratangarh Junction is well-connected to major cities, and Chhapar is 42 km/1 hr northeast from the junction.
Visit Blackbucks can be spotted here round the year. The months between October and February is the busiest time at the sanctuary. Tal Chhapar remains closed from July to September.
Entry The park fee is Rs20 per person per day. The safari costs Rs3,500. A day trip to Jorbeer is for Rs4,500.
Stay The Forest Rest House, located on the edge of the sanctuary, is a well-maintained facility with spacious rooms. Its in-house restaurant serves simple vegetarian food (www.taalchhapar.com; doubles from Rs3,000).
quit medical school to pursue his passion for writing. A well-heeled traveller, intrepid birder and wildlife enthusiast, he is currently working on a memoir of the 15 years he spent with "the dog who didn't know better".
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