IT WAS A LITTLE PAST 5 AM as we drove out from Jaisalmer into the alternately sandy and rocky terrain of the Desert National Park, a 3,162 square-kilometre swathe of the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. We were heading specifically for a large dune that goes by the evocative name of Gaja Matha—“elephant head”. For the first time in four days, Pradip Krishen reserved the front seat of the Innova for himself. He had to direct the driver, he said, and proceeded to do so silently, with several elegant turns of the wrist. Just as the driver began to enjoy speeding through the smoky pre-dawn darkness, Krishen uttered a gentle but firm injunction: “Thoda haule le lo, chinkara vagairah aa jaate hain” (Take it slow, there might be chinkaras). Reluctantly, the driver decelerated, lulling the other four still-drowsy passengers back into a potential return to slumber. Krishen, though, remained thoroughly awake. Within minutes, he brought us to a stop with a quiet exclamation: “Was that a hedgehog?”
We drove back a few hundred metres. Sure enough, there was a sad, not-very-spiny ball of quills, rolled up in the middle of the road. Krishen and the rest of us got out for a look: Mithva, Krishen’s younger daughter, accompanying her father into the desert for the first time; Arati Kumar-Rao, a freelance photojournalist working with Krishen; Nishikant Jadhav, a retired Indian Forest Service officer whom Krishen affectionately calls his “Tree Guru”; and myself.
“He’ll go to hedgehog heaven,” said Mithva, as tender an animal-lover as her father.