Deserts are considered barren and empty with little to no life. However, this assumption is mostly inaccurate as deserts host a vast variety of species with unique adaptations to help them survive in the harsh climate. India has one such amazing arid desert, the Little Rann of Kutch. Spanning over 5,180 Km2, the Little Rann of Kutch is characterized by the huge salt flats, rocky scrublands and arid grasslands. This desert hosts some unique endemic species such as the Khur or The Indian Wild Ass, as well as numerous migrant birds which use this part of the world as a stop-over site on the Central-Asian Flyway, an important migratory path for the birds globally. Among the unique species that exist in this desert, a meso-carnivore stands out called the Desert Fox.
Many may confuse this fox with the African Desert Fox (Fennec Fox) or even the Indian Fox, but the Desert Fox or the White-footed Fox is a subspecies of the Red Fox.
Unlike the Red Fox which is widely distributed across the country, this particular subspecies is restricted to the deserts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and few parts of Haryana and Punjab in India.
Desert Fox shares its range with the Indian Fox. Although similar looking, they can be differentiated by the colour of their tail tip. The Indian Fox has a black tail tip while the Desert Fox has a white coloured tip. While the Indian Fox can remain in variety of habitats, the Desert Fox selects more open and dry habitats.
To survive in the harsh desert conditions, the Fox becomes much more nocturnal in summers while being more diurnal in winters. It has large ears that help it find the prey as it can detect very minute movement sounds. When habitat is suitable for it to stay, it finds a slightly elevated sand mound or bund to make its den. The dens are dug up in the ground with multiple openings to escape from the predators.
Like most of the grassland, open habitat species, Desert Fox is also threatened by habitat alteration. The ‘Wasteland’ tag given to these habitats, allow them to be exploited and altered by humans. In addition to the encroachment from the infrastructural developments, these lands are also altered by the highly invasive woody Prosopis juliflora also locally called Vilaiti Keekar. The Prosopis changes the habitat structure from open to woody thickets which the Desert Fox does not prefer, eventually driving them away from the region.
With the Rann of Katch facing such issues, the Desert Foxes are struggling to adapt and find new suitable habitats. Being one of the major carnivore in these systems, any sort of effect on their survival is likely to drive a cascading impact on other species. Potential cascading impacts will relate to the increase in prey species numbers and over-utilization of primary resources in the resource deficient desert.
There is not much known about this species as it hasn’t been a subject of enough research and studies. Their interaction with other species, their adaptations to deal with alteration of habitat and other behaviours remain mostly unknown. The species needs targeted research and long term strategy to keep them safe.
The Habitats Trust and Trippintoe productions present the story of these Desert Foxes and the people who study them through an episode in their docuseries “Wild You Were Sleeping”. With the hope to generate empathy and awareness among the general public, the series tries to bring people closer to the nature around them. Catch the episode on the Desert Fox here.