The Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, is in the northwestern part of India and the states of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan. It has an unforgiving climate with minimal vegetation, but still manages to house diverse species of animals. There are several threats to the natural balance of the desert's ecosystem, including climate change, making life even harder. However, 4,500 years ago, the ninth largest subtropical desert was home to two of the oldest civilizations in the world: the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro along the Indus River.
There are three major geographic regions within the Thar: sand, plains and hills, with a sprinkling of lakes and salt marshes. The arid region receives less than 10 inches of rainfall a year, typically between July and September. Temperatures vary widely, from freezing in the winter to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months. Animals in search of water, bush or sand can find it all in the Thar Desert.
Despite the unpredictable climate, the Thar has become a safe haven for more than 60 species of mammals, both native and imported, such as the desert fox, chinkara, blackbuck and caracal. Even threatened species, like the blackbuck, great Indian bustard and Indian spiny-tailed lizard, can find refuge. There are 350 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles, 142 species of fish, five species of amphibians and hundreds of types of insects in the Thar Desert. Some birds, like the demoiselle cranes, visit the area for four to five months of the year. Desert snakes hide in the sand and eat lizards and insects. The black cobra, sand boa and large rat snake are the deadliest snakes of the region.
In order to combat the heat and lack of water, animals are smaller and primarily nocturnal. They can also conserve the amount of water longer in the desert climate. The chinkara is the smallest of the Asiatic antelopes, with a shorter life expectancy than relatives outside of the region. It can survive without water for long stretches of time, sometimes only obtaining moisture through plants. Termites typically prefer a humid environment; however, more than 40 species of this insect thrive in the arid desert.
Threats and Conservation
The Thar Desert is the most populated desert in the world and is not untouched. Its residents include many invasive livestock. The land has been altered for water systems and crops, and there are other changes. In 1974, in the Indian state of Rajasthan performed its first nuclear test there. Destruction of the natural habitat is always a threat, especially with farming and construction. Many insects, including white grubs and stem borers, have invaded the Thar through crop cultivation. Currently, 11 national parks covering 44,000 square kilometers in the Indian portions of the desert provide threatened animals like the Indian wild ass and the great Indian bustard their only source of protection.
- Biodiversity: Perception, Peril and Preservation; Prabodh K. Malti (Prentice-Hall of India Pvt.Ltd, 2011)
- India & the Himalayas: Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro
- Walk Through India: 7 Wild Animals of the Great Thar Desert of India
- Infoplease: Thar Desert
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images