It was from the man who took me to see the colony of painted storks at Bhigwan — a four-hour-drive from Mumbai that I first heard about the existence of Maharashtra’s only blackbuck sanctuary. The place was a further 40 kms away, at the end of a non-existent road. It was called Rehekuri.
Acting on an impulse, I had taken that road seven years ago. Though my villager-friend had told me about a forest guest house there, I didn’t have a booking. But when I reached the sanctuary, I spotted the forest ranger whom I had met during the Tiger Census at Tadoba, a few years ago. I was welcomed to the area; he emerged as the key to my stay at the guest house. I thanked him profusely, simply because if he had turned me away, I would have had to drive all the way back to Pune, which is a good 140 kms from Rehekuri.
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The next day, it was love at first sight. A dozen blackbucks were grazing in the distance. It was only when we reached uncomfortably close that they began to run, with some of them springing into mid air, acrobatically, even as they ran. The male blackbucks were stunningly beautiful. My second sighting of blackbucks was in Jodhpur, in the friendly villages of the Bishnois. Out there, these shy creatures could be seen grazing in farmlands ready for harvest, undisturbed by the farmers who had toiled hard in the unforgiving desert raising their crops.
This act of generosity has been practiced by the Bishnois for centuries. They firmly believe that blackbucks and chinkaras have the first right to the harvest; only what is left belongs to them. It’s their fierce conservation efforts that have ensured safe havens for these animals in Rajasthan. Small wonder then that there are more blackbucks in Bishnoi villages than in all of Rajasthan’s sanctuaries, put together!
My second trip to Rehekuri was perfectly planned. The booking for the forest guest house was done; I was set for a more elaborate trip to spot the blackbuck. We set off from Pune in the same forest ranger’s car, to reach Rehekuri by late afternoon. Somewhere near a village called Rashin, I slowed down the car, almost involuntarily near a culvert. During my first trip, on a rock in the rivulet flowing under the small bridge I had spotted a water-snake basking in the afternoon sun. Subconsciously, I had applied the brakes in the hope of seeing it again. But it was conspicuous by its absence.
Further ahead, a few kms before the sanctuary, we had a flat tyre. As we waited for the tyre to be fixed, we witnessed some frenetic activity that made our wait more eventful: A honeycomb bustling with busy bees, two scarlet Minivets chasing each other around a tree, and a wily fox darting across in the hope of finding three blind mice, perhaps!
After fixing the tyre, we proceeded to the rest house. But the forest guard gave us a shock when we reached the gate. We were informed that there was no water or electricity, as a tree had fallen on the lamp-post the previous night that had snapped the wires. The news very nearly convinced us to return to Pune, 140 kms away. Refusing to get bogged down with the news, we agreed to manage with a bucketful of water, and that we’d manage without electricity. Soon, we were basking in the full moon night sitting in the verandah of a well-maintained room. Two hours later, we ate dinner, cooked at his house, which was just two furlongs away. He laid the rustic food on a long dining table lit with six candles, and our families had the most memorable candle-lit dinners of our lives.
Buck-le under pressure
Early morning, we were woken up by rose-ringed parakeets, and as we stepped out we were closely watched by a forest owlet that was still awake. Once we ventured into the scrubby grasslands, we spotted the first group of blackbucks grazing with their calves. As we walked to the watchtower, a Black-Winged Kite swooped down on a Black-Naped Hare that escaped by a hair’s breadth and lived to tell the tale. Slowly, the numbers in the herd increased till it reached a staggering forty in one group. Their population had almost trebled in the last seven years. But I have been warned by naturalists that increasing numbers in the wild is not always a healthy sign. It’s actually the health of the herd that truly matters.
Since Rehekuri is a green island surrounded by farmlands, it’s cut-off from other forests. So these animals are marooned on this island, and thus prone to in-breeding. And this naturally results in weaker off springs. To make matters worse, there are no predators here to ensure that only the fittest survive. It made me wonder; whether trans-locating half of these into a similar forest in Rajasthan would help, and as a return gift, introduce a couple of herds from there into these marooned forests: a worthwhile experiment perhaps, to improve the quality of the gene-pool of this endangered animal. Let’s hope the wildlife powers-that-be are reading this…
How to get there
>> Rehekuri is 140 kms from Pune.
>> Take the road to Solapur and after approximately 100 kms, take a left turn at Bhigwan.
>> Rehekuri is about 40 kms from there, via Rashin.
Where to stay
The Forest Guest House (it’s clean and well-appointed). Call the Chief Conservator’s office: 020-286854182 or Bhoye: 0960466537
When to go
Throughout the year. But for better sightings, visit before heavy monsoon sets in July.