In India, the blackbuck is an animal as infamous as it is threatened. Better known for its role in the drama of actor Salman Khan’s life than for its own particular characteristics, this species of antelope is native to the subcontinent. A large number of blackbuck live in Gujarat’s Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, just south of Ahmedabad. It’s the park’s signature species, and it is here that you are nearly guaranteed a close encounter with this graceful animal as it crosses a road in front of you, or darts out into a meadow.
Besides herds of blackbuck grazing their way across the grassland, Velavadar is host to its larger cousin, the nilgai. It is also a birder’s delight, with over 200 avian species. In the park and in the village areas surrounding it, one can find other endangered bird species like the lesser florican, locally called kharmor or grass peacock. Predators and scavengers such as the striped hyena, the golden jackal, the Indian fox and the otherwise rarely seen Indian grey wolf roam the grasslands of the park and the jowar fields beyond it.
Spread out over 34 square kilometres, Velavadar is divided into two parts separated by a road: the Grassland Area and the Wetland Area. The grasslands, which constitute the blackbuck’s habitat, are among the most photographed areas of the national park. Because such habitats are often classified as wastelands, they are disappearing over much of India, tragically undervalued in terms of the threatened species they house and the role they play in maintaining the ecosystem.
Habitats such as the wetland area in the southern part of the park, near the Gulf of Khambat, have also been under threat. Thankfully, there has been a strong movement for their protection, as citizens have begun to recognise how vital these areas are as havens for waterbirds, waders, and a variety of aquatic life. In fact, Velavadar is classified as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, a certification of its avian diversity.
Both the grasslands and wetlands are worth visiting; more mammal sightings are likely in the grassland area, while birders might find the wetland area more rewarding. However, as with any wild haven, animals don’t follow rules, all wildlife moves freely and you never know where you might get lucky with a sighting.
The guides of the forest department are very adept at reading signs of life, and will help you get the most out of your visit if you let them know of your particular interests.
Over 5,000 members of the threatened species of Indian blackbuck congregate in the vast, open grasslands of Velavadar. They are a sight to behold, with the adult males pronking (sprinting off the ground with all four feet in the air), a behaviour designed to advertise the antelope’s fitness and ward off predators. You can tell the males by their corkscrew horns, pale black upper bodies, and white underbellies. Females and juveniles often lack horns and are a sandy brown colour. The other major ungulate, or hoofed mammal, in the park is the hulking nilgai or bluebuck, less gregarious than the blackbuck, but just as common. While generally quite languid, they can run at great speeds despite their bulk. Other easy-to-spot mammals include wild boar, the Indian grey mongoose, and the blacknaped hare.
Many wildlife enthusiasts and photographers travel to Velavadar from far away to capture two enigmatic predators: the Indian grey wolf and the largely nocturnal striped hyena. Also well represented here are the Indian fox and golden jackal in addition to wolves. Though this was once the hunting ground for the now extinct Asiatic cheetah, Velavadar’s lone feline predator is the jungle cat. Many species of butterflies and reptiles also live here, the latter including the saw-scaled viper, Indian cobra, and common krait.
For birders, Velavadar is a particularly good place to see grassland species including numerous varieties of larks, pipits, sandgrouse, francolins, quails, and bushchats. Winter certainly is the best time to come if you are an avid birdwatcher, with many migratory waterbirds and waders making the national park their home during these months (Nov to Mar). Prominent among them are flamingos, pelicans, cranes, storks, and a multitude of duck species. Majestic birds of prey make this a raptors’ paradise. They include eagle species such as steppe, tawny, and eastern imperial. There are also a huge number of roosting harriers including the pallid, Montagu’s, western marsh, and hen harriers, and the short-eared and Indian eagle owls. Velavadar is one of the largest harrier roosting sites in the world. Watching hundreds of these birds of prey taking to the air during early dawn and returning to their roosts just before dusk is a memory that’ll last a lifetime.
Velavadar National Park is closed during the monsoon, when it supports one of the highest densities of the endangered lesser florican during its breeding season. The sight of the male preening and leaping in the air repeatedly to woo his mate is one treasured by birders who come to the surrounding grasslands.
Unlike most other national parks, visitors can take their own cars into the jungle. The dirt tracks are clearly marked out, though they might be difficult to negotiate if you have a sedan with low ground clearance. An alternative is to arrange for a jeep from the Blackbuck Lodge, which charges ₹1,800 for a two-hour safari, which includes the services of a naturalist (not including park fees).
Entry to the national park costs ₹400 per vehicle (up to six people), plus ₹100 for a forest department guide, and another ₹100 for each camera you carry. The advantage of having your own car is that you can use it for the entire duration of the two time slots (6.30 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.; varies with season), whereas the lodge’s vehicles cost extra beyond two hours.
When the park is closed during the monsoon, the Blackbuck Lodge organises safaris in the surrounding grasslands and fields that also yield good sightings of birdlife and a few mammals.
There are two options for those who want to stay longer at Velavadar.
Kaliyar Bhavan Forest Lodge Owned and managed by the forest department, this is a basic, budget option in Velavadar. Its main advantage is its location within the park, surrounded by grasslands with wildlife visible from the lodge itself. The lodge has four rooms, and the caretaker cooks simple vegetarian meals. Facilities are clean but basic (0278-2426425; doubles ₹3,000 for an AC room, and ₹1,000 for a non-AC one; payment has to be made in advance via Demand Draft made out to the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar, Bahumali Bhavan, Annex building, Block No. S-10, Forest Department, Bhavnagar 364001, Gujarat).
The Blackbuck Lodge Spread out over 70 acres, this property has 14 large, well-equipped cottages. Rooms have air-conditioning, comfortable beds, large bathrooms, and rear verandas that overlook the grassland around the property. Sitting there, I spotted birds like francolins, cisticolas, lapwings. Sightings of the blackbuck and jungle cat are also common. Meals are multicuisine, service is excellent, and the in-house naturalist who accompanies you on safaris is well-informed (90999 12375; theblackbucklodge.com; doubles from ₹14,500).
During summer (Apr-Jun) the days can get hot with temperatures over 40°C. If you can bear the heat, this is a good time to see most mammals, as they congregate near water sources. Vegetation is sparser, making sightings easier. The park is closed mid-June to 14 October. After the park’s opening, the weather takes a pleasant turn. There’s a distinct nip in the air in winter (Dec-Jan) when the temperature drops to 4-5°C at night. This is a good time for birdwatching, with a sizeable number of winter migrants and resident species.
Velavadar is 65 km/1 hr north of Bhavnagar, Gujarat, the closest airport and major railhead (taxi ₹3,000 one-way). Daily buses ply this route as well (every hour; ticket ₹100). Ahmedabad is about 140km/3hr north of Velavadar.
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Golden Grasslands”.