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Every winter, flamingos flock to small islands in the Rann of Kutch. The story of a near-endangered species and how it has made the seasonal salt marsh in the Thar Desert home.
In a small island in Gujarat's Great Rann of Kutch, a low-lying stretch of land that alternates between desert and lagoon, hordes of Greater and Lesser Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor) fly in from central Asia after each monsoon to build their nests, breeding in shifts through the winter and dispersing, as summer approaches, to wetlands near and far, sometimes even to the opposite ends of the Indian landmass.
The Lesser Flamingos are a near-endangered species, but here, in the Rann, flocks of pink dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. The aggressive tourism industry has been promoting the Gujarat state bird enthusiastically, offering sites that host large populations of the birds, including Nalsarovar and Thol wetlands closer to Ahmedabad. Winters are a great draw, because the birds can be easily spotted before they migrate to the eastern part of the country, to lakes in Chilika and Bharatpur. This year, the 45-day Rann Utsav (from December 15-January 31) was fully pre-booked as early as November, with registrations thrown open for the next year. Over two crore foreign and domestic tourists had come to Gujarat as of March 2012, according to the state government, with most of them making a beeline for Kutch. The third edition of the Global Birdwatcher's Conference, being hosted at Dhordho in the last three days of January, just west of the Rann, has seen a gathering of ornithologists and bird watchers from across the US, Europe and Asia.
The story of what was christened by the late Dr Salim Ali, India's pioneer ornithologist, as 'Flamingo city' after he visited the region in 1945, is believed to have begun with a massive earthquake in 1819, whose magnitude on the Richter scale was estimated at 7.9, and by some accounts, was felt as far as Calcutta (now Kolkata). The earthquake created what is known as the Allah Bund in the north of the Great Rann, a ridge that rises up to six metres in some places and stretches for more than 80 km from west to east, blocking the flow of northern rivers and buckling, like a table cloth, the Rann's western terrain, causing the inundation, by a mix of salt and fresh water, of almost the whole region during the cold months that follow the monsoon.