Banni Grasslands Reserve or Banni grasslands form a belt of arid grassland ecosystem on the outer southern edge of the desert of the marshy salt flats of Rann of Kutch in Kutch District, Gujarat State, India. They are known for rich wildlife and biodiversity and are spread across an area of 3,847 square kilometres. They are currently legally protected under the status as a protected or reserve forest in India. Though declared a protected forest more than half a century ago Gujarat state's forest department has recently proposed a special plan to restore and manage this ecosystem in the most efficient way. Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has identified this grassland reserve as one of the last remaining habitats of the cheetah in India and a possible reintroduction site for the species.
The word ‘Banni’ comes from Hindi and Sanskrit word ‘banai’, meaning made. The land here was formed from the sediments that were deposited by the Indus and other rivers over thousands of years. Old villagers from this region say that before the 1819 Rann of Kutch earthquake, the river Indus flowed right through banni and the local farmers reaped a rich harvest of crops like red rice and sindhi chookha etc., red rice was the staple diet of the people of the region and it was even recommended by medical practitioners as a 'light diet' for ailing people. However since the earthquake of 1819 the river Indus changed its course and now flows through Sindh in neighbouring country of Pakistan effectively turning this entire region arid.
Banni grassland is peculiar to the Rann of Kutch, it has some forty Sindhi speaking Maldhari (cattle breeders) hamlets, home to the Halaypotra, Hingora, Hingorja, Jat and Mutwa tribes. It was first declared a "protected forest" in May 1955, using the nomenclature of the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Since then, the actual transfer of the land from the Revenue department to the Forest department has not been completed.
Vegetation in Banni is sparse and highly dependent on year-to-year variations in rainfall. Banni is dominated by low-growing forbs and graminoids, many of which are halophiles (salt tolerant), as well scatted tree cover and scrub. The tree cover is primarily composed of Salvadora spp. and the invasive Prosopis juliflora. Dominant species include Cressa cretica, Cyperus spp., grasses in the genera Sporobolus, Dichanthium, and Aristida.
he grasslands are home to mammals such as the nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), chinkara (Gazella bennettii), blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), wild boar (Sus scrofa), golden jackal (Canis aureus), Indian hare (Lepus nigricollis), Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), caracal (Caracal caracal), Asiatic wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata) and desert fox (Vulpes vulpes pusilla) etc. among others. The last Indian wild ass (Equus hemionus khur) population, which had become confined to nearby Little Rann of Kutch, has been increasing in numbers since 1976 and has recently started spilling over into adjoining areas including Greater Rann of Kutch, Banni and the adjoining villages of the neighbouring Indian state of Rajasthan.
Banni grasslands also have a rich diversity of avifauna, herpatofauna and invertebrates. During good rainfall years the seasonal water bodies of Banni form important staging grounds for thousands of flamingos, migratory cranes and also support large numbers of over 150 species of migratory and resident birds.
Seasonal wetlands and Abundance of Waterbirds:
Monsoon rains each year form several marshy wetlands which dot the Banni grasslands and the areas adjacent to it, all being ephemeral or seasonal in nature. Some better-known examples are: Vekario-Dhand, Kheerjog, Vinzar varo Thathh, Hodko Thathh, Servo-Dhand, Bhagadio Thathh, Kar near Kirro, Kunjevari Thathh, Hanjtal, and Chari-Dhand – the biggest in size among all of them. In the local Kutchhi-Sindhi language there are four terms used for wetlands in Banni and across the border in Pakistan, they are Kar (smallest), Chhachh (bigger than Kar), Thathh (bigger than Chhach) and Dhand (the biggest of the wetlands). The area of each of these seasonal freshwater wetlands during any given year depends upon the amount of rainfall received during that year.
These wetlands are located on the flyway of palaearctic migratory birds and play a very important role as foraging, roosting, resting and staging grounds for millions of waders, waterfowl, cranes and other feathered migrants that visit the area from August and staying until March every year. Thousands of flamingos in their breeding plumage, common cranes (Grus grus) and other wetland birds including hundreds of painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) and Eurasian spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) among others can be spotted in the larger of these seasonal wetlands of the Banni.
One of the largest of these seasonal wetlands in the Banni is Chari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve which has been accorded special protected status as a protected or reserve forest to conserve its wildlife and visiting migratory birds.
The Gujarat State government is developing Chari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve, along with the surrounding areas in and around the Banni grasslands in the district of Kutch, for ecotourism.
To boost tourism in the area a few of the local villages in Banni are being developed as village resorts, showcasing local arts, crafts, ancient architecture of Kutch and traditional Kutchi cuisine; these mini resorts are being run by the villagers themselves in collaboration with the formal tourism infrastructure. A 270 km stretch has also been specially created in the grasslands of the Banni for the Adani Desert Car Rally organised by Kutch Infrastructure Development Society.