The Wild Ass Sanctuary, home to the last of the Indian wild ass, is the largest wildlife sanctuary in India. It's spread over almost 5,000 square kilometers. The unusual, vast terrain is a salt marsh that features barren mudflats dotted with small islands (locally known as bets).
The sanctuary was set up in 1973 to protect the endangered wild ass. These creatures look like a cross between a donkey and a horse. They're slightly bigger than a donkey, and are fast and strong like a horse. How fast? They can run an average of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour over long distances!
The Wild Ass Sanctuary is part of the Little Rann of Kutch (not to be confused with the Great Rann of Kutch), in the Kutch region of Gujarat state. It's 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Ahmedabad, 45 kilometers (28 miles) northwest of Viramgam, 175 kilometers (108 miles) north of Rajkot, and 265 kilometers (165 miles) east of Bhuj. There are two main entrances to the sanctuary -- Dhrangadhra and Bajana.
How to Get There
If you wish to enter from Bajana, the railway station at Viramgam is more convenient albeit still a distance away. The same trains stop there.
Travel time to Dhrangadhra by road from Ahmedabad is 2-3 hours. If you're heading to Bajana and surroundings, it's about the same. However, Dhrangadhra is more readily accessible by public transport, as it's situated on the Ahmedabad-Kutch National Highway. All buses from Ahmedabad to Kutch stop there.
Alternatively, your accommodations will provide transfers from Ahmedabad, at a cost.
When to Visit
The Little Rann of Kutch and Wild Ass Sanctuary are open daily from dawn until dusk, except in the monsoon season from June to September. The Rann fills with water during this time.
An ideal time to visit the sanctuary is just after the monsoon and breeding season, in October to November. The grasslands are fresh and tender for grazing, and foals can often be seen out playing.
Temperature-wise, the weather is coolest from December to March, which is the peak winter season. From April onward, the summer heat starts building and gets quite unbearable, so visiting isn't advisable then.
How to Visit
A jeep safari is the best way to explore the Little Rann and Sanctuary, with early mornings being optimal for wildlife. Afternoon safaris are conducted too.
Permits are required for the Rann, although it's possible to go in and out from the many unofficial entry and exit points. You'll be fined heavily (20,000 rupees) if caught without a permit though! Patrol cars do drive around and check vehicles. The permits can be obtained from the forest department at Dhrangadhra and Bajana. Most accommodations provide jeep safaris and will take care of the permit arrangements.
The permit fee is charged per vehicle of up to six people. During the week, from Monday to Friday, the rate is 600 rupees for Indians and 2,600 rupees for foreigners. It increases by 25% on Saturdays and Sundays, and 50% on holidays including Diwali, Navratri, Holi, Christmas, and New Year's Day. It's necessary for a naturalist guide to accompany visitors on safaris. Expect to pay around 300 rupees for that. There's also a camera charge of 200 rupees for Indians and an expensive 1,200 rupees for foreigners.
In addition, if the safari isn't included in your accommodation package, expect to pay a jeep hire charge of 2,000-3,000 rupees per vehicle.
It's possible to go on organized jeep and minibus safaris from Dhrangadhra, Patadi or Zainabad. Private jeeps are available for hire at these places too. Dhrangadhra has the most options for transport and accommodations.
The Bajana entrance is close to the wetlands where migratory birds settle in winter. There's a safari route to Bajana Creek where these migratory birds can be seen. Many people who enter the sanctuary at Bajana stay in the towns of Zainabad or Dasada, 30-40 minutes north. Zainabad is about 10 minutes from Dasada. Another safari route heads to the salt hills of Zinzuwada (also known as Jhinjhuvada), about 40 minutes west of Dasada.
What to See
Apart from the Indian Wild Ass, you'll be able to spot many types of birds and wildlife such as wolves, desert foxes, jackals, antelopes, and snakes. Notably, Little Rann of Kutch wetlands is the largest breeding site in world for the magnificent Lesser Flamingo.
The name "Rann" means salty desert, so expect to cover a seemingly endless expanse of parched, cracked land. The salt pans on the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch near Dhrangadhra are an interesting attraction. India is the world's third largest producer of salt, and about 80% of it comes from Gujarat. The salt is harvested by local salt farmers known as Agariyas. They toil under the scorching sun every day from October to June.
There's an 18th century palace and darbargarh, plus some elegant colonial buildings, at Dhrangadhra. Colonial architecture also remains at Kalaghoda, where a British salt trading post once existed. Highlights include a cricket pavilion and bandstand.
The remains of Zinzuwada Fort date back to the 11th century and have intricately carved gateways.
From Zinzuwada, you can also go deep inside the Rann to the temple of Varchara Dada, a folk deity and warrior-hero of Gujarat. Permits for this aren't required, as anyone visiting the temple is considered to be a pilgrim. The entry is from Mandapol gate.
Where to Stay
At Dhrangadhra, don't pass up the opportunity to stay at the home of wildlife photographer and guide Devjibhai Dhamecha, and go on one of his exclusive safaris. He also offers stays in traditional kooba huts, as well as camping, on the edge of the Little Rann at Eco Tour Camp. Facilities are basic though.
Near Dasada, Rann Riders (read reviews) is really popular although pricey. It's an ethnically designed eco-resort, set amid wetlands and agricultural fields. All kinds of safaris are offered including horse, camel and jeep safaris. The resort also has a focus on sustainable tourism. It provides a place for local artisans, such as weavers, to sell their handicrafts and operates excursions to nearby villages.
Desert Coursers resort at Zainabad also accommodates guests in eco-friendly cottages by a lake. It's run by Dhanraj Malek, a scion of the royal family of Zainabad. Dhanraj is a passionate birder and knows the area, along with the local communities, intimately. Prices are reasonable and include room, jeep safari, and meals. Luxury camping trips are organized upon request, and you can go into the Little Rann on excursions lasting up to three days.
If you want to stay close to the Bajana entrance, The Royal Safari Camp is the place! It's relatively new and great facilities.
What Else to Do Nearby
It's worth setting aside some time to explore other parts of the Kutch region, especially the Great Rann of Kutch and its white salt desert.
If traveling between Ahmedabad and the Little Rann of Kutch, Rani ki Vav stepwell and the Modhera Sun Temple can be visited on the way. They're among the top attractions in Gujarat and definitely shouldn't be missed.