Desert wetlands to be conserved

Posted: 6 February 2003

Author: Lisa Hadeed

Author Info: Lisa Hadeed is Communications Officer for WWF International's Living Waters Programme.

For half of the year, the Rann of Kutch is a vast salt flat - bleak, hot, and dusty, spanning the western border of India and Palkisan. But for the other half it's a huge marsh teeming with flamingos and hundreds of other bird species. Commitments by both countries to designate sites within this transboundary area for conservation under the Ramsar Convention, will help protect these unique wetlands, and the wildlife and people that depend on them.

map© WWF

In the early part of the year, it's hard to believe that the Rann of Kutch has wetlands of international importance. Bordering the Arabian Sea, the Rann of Kutch has been described as "a desolate area of unrelieved, sun-baked saline clay desert, shimmering with ... a perpetual mirage". Indeed, Rann itself means "salty desert".flamingoThe Rann of Kutch is an important breeding ground for many birds, including greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber).© Martin Harvey/WWF-CanonBut between May and October it's a different place altogether. The salt flats are flooded with run off from monsoon rains together with sea water driven by high winds and tides from the Arabian Sea, transforming them to marshes teeming with wildlife. The marshes support over 200 species of birds, including one of the world's largest breeding colonies of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber and P. minor), the threatened lesser florican (Sypheotides indica), cranes, storks, and two endangered bustards, the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) and houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata).

Shrimp farming

As well as the seasonal marshes, the area's coastal wetlands - estuaries, brackish lagoons, tidal mudflats, and permanent saline marshes - support over 40,000 wintering and resident water birds and waders. These include ducks, pelicans, egrets, herons, plovers, and sandpipers. The coastal wetlands are also an important source of shrimp farming for hundreds of communities living in the area.CaracalThe Rann of Kutch is also home to many large mammals, including caracals (Felis caracal).© Martin Harvey/WWF-CanonAnd despite the inhospitable conditions for most of the year, the Rann of Kutch is also home to many large mammals. These include the last population of the endangered Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) as well as locally endangered species such as striped hyaena (Hyaena hyaena) desert cat (Felis lybica), caracal (Felis caracal), honey badger (Mellivora capensis), chinkara (Gazella bennettii), nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), and wolf (Canis lupus). The desert is also home to a variety of reptiles, including the endangered Indian monitor (Varanus bengalensis), Indian sand boa (Erys johni), and saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus).

During the wet season, animals shelter in the few areas of higher ground. These sandy, salt-free regions are known as bets, and also provide a place for plants to grow, including the region's only large trees.

Massive earthquake

The Rann of Kutch has been shaped by a variety of geological processes. Once part of the Arabian Sea, geological uplift closed off the connection and created a vast freshwater lake that was still navigable during the time of Alexander the Great, 2,350 years ago. Over the centuries, silting created the vast mudflat that is now only flooded during the brief wet season.

Earthquakes too have played a key role. In 1819, a devastating earthquake that wiped out villages and threw up a 90km-long ridge popularly known as the Allah Bund ("wall of God") also altered the course of the Sindhu River, leaving the Rann of Kutch without a freshwater supply. A massive earthquake 800 years before this is also thought to have altered the landscape. The region is still frequently rocked by earthquakes, with the last big one in January 2001 destroying towns and killing more than 30,000 people.

While only sparsely inhabited today, the Rann of Kutch has a firm place in human history, both modern and prehistoric. Genetic scientist Spencer Wells believes that the first migration of early man from Africa to Australia 60,000 years ago occurred in three stages: the first to the Middle East, the next to the Kutch region, and the third on to Australia. Those who stayed in the Kutch might have become part of a great civilization that predates the Mesopotamians.

By 2600 BC, the Rann of Kutch was part of the Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilization, which controlled a vast area of some 650,000 square kilometres - twice as large as that controlled by Mesopotamia and Egypt at the same time. A major town from this time, Dholavira, which once controlled trade through the area, has been excavated in the Rann of Kutch. These days, 18 different tribes live in the region, each with its own language and culture.

Cut by the India-Pakistan border, the Rann of Kutch has not always been peaceful. But the wetlands hold the prospect for future cooperation. Last year, India and Pakistan committed to designate over 1.6 million hectares of the Rann of Kutch as Ramsar sites - wetlands of international importance. These commitments raise the hope that in the future, the two neighbours will work together to protect and manage one of the most biologically important wetlands in Asia.

And further protection for the area is vital. Although part of the wetlands on the Indian side are already protected, the fragile ecosystem is under threat from cattle grazing, vehicular traffic, and cutting trees to make charcoal, even within the protected areas. There are also proposals to expand commercial salt extraction, which could adversely affect the wild ass population as well as the region's threatened bird species.

Threatened species

"The Rann of Kutch is unique," says Rahat Jabeen, Wetlands Conservation Officer at WWF Pakistan. "Not only are there are many different types of wetland habitats, but there are also desert habitats. The area supports many locally endangered and globally threatened species, and is essential for maintaining biodiversity."

Archana Chatterjee, Wetland Habitats Coordinator at WWF-India, echoes this. "The Rann of Kutch is a critically important refuge for the Indian wild ass and is an important staging area for migratory waterfowl, including the Asian population of the lesser flamingo. In addition, large numbers of birds remain throughout the winter."

The designation of Ramsar sites within the Rann of Kutch will help protect these unique wetlands, and the wildlife and people that depend on them. India has pledged to designate 1.1 million hectares and Pakistan 566,375 hectares. By doing so, both India and Pakistan are also pledging to co-ordinate with each other to look after a shared natural area - a new era in the history of the Rann of Kutch.

Designation of shared wetlands or transboundary wetlands is a priority issue for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran where it was signed in 1971. The Convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation of wetlands. For further information on the Ramsar Convention, visit Ramsar or see WWF