One day in september 2018, I found myself driving through a stretch of the Thar Desert. The landscape was all sand, broken by patches of shrubs, as far as the eye could see, and I felt a surreal and slightly alarming absence of greenery and human presence. I was on my first visit to Sudasari Desert National Park, about sixty kilometres away from Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. The national park is home to the great Indian bustard, a critically endangered bird species, and my travel companions and I cut trails through the desert in open jeeps in search of them. We spotted a few birds hiding in bushes. It was a brief encounter that would lead me to a much longer association with the custodians of the endangered birds. Soon after spotting the bustards, I met Pushpa Shekhawati and Pushta Pawar, two women forest guards who lived and worked in the sparse environs of the little-known park.
When I met them for the first time that day, they had just returned from patrolling a section of the park. The main mandate of the job of forest guards in Sudasari is to ensure the well-being of the great Indian bustards and record their rapidly declining numbers. The aim of a patrol is to note any unusual activity, to look for any encroachment that disrupts the habitat and to report emergencies. The guards also need to make sure that the birds and other wildlife have enough water by maintaining water-harvesting structures in the park. It is a job that requires a lot of walking around. Shekhawati and Pawar walk at least fifteen kilometres over two patrols every day.