Bharatpur — Can we Regain this Bird Paradise?

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Siberian Cranes in Bharatpur
Niranjan Sant
Bharatpur was the last known wintering ground in India of the western population of Siberian crane. The last pair disappeared in 2002.
Cattle grazing in a drought-hit Bharatpur
Bikram Grewal

Consistent low monsoons, along with water politics, turned this once verdant land into a virtual graveyard.

The year 2004 was a fateful one for Bharatpur, India’s most famous bird sanctuary. In order to appease farmers belonging to particular community, the then Chief Minister of Rajasthan, issued an order diverting water from the Ajan Bund away from the Bharatpur marshes and into the fields surrounding the park, unleashing catastrophic consequences for this 250 year-old artificial wetland. Since then, Bharatpur has never been the same. While various schemes to bring water to the park are under consideration, bird numbers have plummeted; fishing cats have vanished and invasive species of weeds have flourished. Can Bharatpur ever regain its lost splendour? Bikram Grewal provides us with a glimpse into the past and the present.

Historical Background

The sanctuary had its origins 250 years ago and is now named after a Keoladeo (Shiva) temple within its boundaries. Initially, it was a natural depression, which was flooded after far-seeing Maharaja Suraj Mal, the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur from 1726 to 1763, constructed the Ajan Bund.

Topography

The area consists of a flat patchwork of marshes in the Gangetic plain, artificially created in the 1850s and maintained ever since by a system of canals, sluices and dykes. Normally, water was fed into the marshes twice a year from inundations of the Ghambhir and Banganga rivers, which were impounded on arable land by means of an artificial dam called Ajan Bund, which lies south of the park. The gates were open, usually in mid-July, soon after the onset of the monsoon and the second time was in late September or in October when Ajan Bund was drained and therefore ready for cultivation in winter. Thus, the area is flooded to a depth of 1-2m throughout the monsoon (July-September), after which the water level drops. From February onwards the land begins to dry out and by June only some water remains. Soils are predominantly alluvial though some clay has formed as a result of the periodic inundations.

The careful crafting of mounds and nesting sites, the creation of food sources both in situ and introduced, the well laid-out trails, all met the high standards of the birds themselves. Humans had created a ‘designer sanctuary’ and nature had responded by filling in the details. An estimated 65 million fish fry were carried into the parks water impoundments by river flooding every year during the monsoon season, which provides the food base for large numbers of wading and fish-eating birds. Some 388 species of bird have been recorded in the park, which is considered to be one of the world’s finest areas for birds, with a unique assemblage of species.

Hunting

The park was a hunting ground for the maharajas of Bharatpur, a tradition dating back to 1850, and duck shoots were organised yearly in honor of the British viceroys. In one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds were slaughtered by the then Governor-General of India Lord Linlithgow. After India’s independence, the rulers of the princely states were allowed shooting rights until 1972. Originally the Jat rulers did not indulge in duck shootings, but it was the British, who had total influence over the two-year old Raja Kishen Singh’s court and it was they who converted the region into a duck shooting retreat that was officially inaugurated by Lord Curzon on December 1, 1902.

A Reprieve

In 1950 the late K S Dharmakumarsinhji was asked to conduct a rapid survey of the wildlife of Rajasthan. His report prompted the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to set up a committee whose recommendations to declare Bharatpur’s swamps as a bird sanctuary were accepted. Dr Salim Ali too played a major role in the stopping of the shooting and hunting. But it was not till 1956, that the late Kailash Sankhala managed to declare it a notified sanctuary. On August 26, 1981 it was elevated as the Keoladeo National Park. In 1985, UNESCO saw it fit to be declared as a World Heritage Site.

Siberian cranes

The park was the last known wintering ground in India of the western population of Siberian crane Grus leucogeranus. Bird counts in the 1960’s showed several hundred birds, but the numbers started to decline. Despite reaching a decade-high total of 41 birds during the winter of 1984-85 numbers have been steadily decreasing and in the winter of 1993 and 1994, none were observed. In 1996, four birds wintered in the park, and in 1997 two adults and a young bird were seen. The last pair disappeared in 2002.

Between December 1992 and January 1995, a collaborative project between the Governments of India and Russia, International Crane Foundation and Wild Bird Society of Japan was set up to save the Siberian crane. The project focused on releasing captivity bred cranes into the wild, tracking migratory routes of common cranes, and building up the resident crane population in the park. Although the project did not yield the desired results, the successful survival of introduced cranes in the park has given sufficient hope to develop a viable resident population in the future. If a viable population of Siberian Crane can be established between Russia and Uzbekistan, about two-thirds of the migration route to India would have to be repopulated.

Playing God with Bharatpur

With humans determining the quantum of water that is allowed to be channeled into Keoladeo, the fate of the National Park was always going to be tenuous. Alternating cycles of droughts and floods are par for Rajasthan and the ecological order has adjusted to this over the eons. But the devastating droughts of 1972 and 1979 took a vicious toll on wildlife. A Cloud now hangs over Bharatpur’s future with politicians playing the ‘water game’ to appease voters. The Pachna Dam, originally constructed to prevent Bharatpur from flooding is controlled by the Meenas, a community that lives close to the catchment areas and which has traditionally always been in conflict with the Forest Department. After yet another devastating drought in 2004, they insisted that the water from the Ajan Bund be used solely to irrigate crops. They prevailed. Water was denied to Bharatpur. The Central Government tried to intercede, but the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje refused to relent. Both animals and birds died.

I wrote in my diary, after a visit to the park in April 2005, “summer takes on a whole new meaning. Keoladeo has weathered many droughts, but I have never seen it so burnt before. Water levels have turned critical. Dead fish are everywhere. The otters have left. Each day brings new hope that waters will be released from the Ajan Bund. No such luck. The 6000 feral cattle consume what the sputtering pumps churn up. It is the summer of discontent”.

Matters went from bad to worse; consistent low monsoons, along with water politics, turned this once verdant land into a virtual graveyard. Fishing cats disappeared and turtles lay thrashing in diminishing pools. From the nearly 400 species that the park boasted of, the numbers crashed to 48 in early 2005, and the park that saw several hundred of thousands birds in a normal season, now barely held 4,000.

Collapse of Tourism

Needless to say the immediate economy, centered on the park collapsed: The hotels were empty and the rickshaw drivers starved. Bharatpur’s rickshaw-pullers did more than merely transport tourists. They were the eyes and ears of both the novice and the seasoned birders and they ensured that those who visited Bharatpur were made aware of the need to support the park.

Feeble attempts

The initial reaction to save the Ghana was as usual knee-jerk. Spluttering tube-wells, that weakly regurgitated water, were installed, which the feral cattle lapped up. A foolish plan to draw water through a pipeline from the Chambal River was scoffed by those who knew better. The water that would come all the way from Chambal would be inert and of no real use to the park. More catastrophic was the problem of Prosopis juliflora, an exotic and invasive species that rapidly spreads, hampering the growth of other native species like Salvadora persica and Balanits. Vegetation of the park started changing and with that some of the raptors and owls found their traditional hunting grounds run-over by this pernicious weed. Bharatpur was dead. So bad was the situation that there were fears that the wetland would lose its World Heritage Status. If the park was to be regained, it was essential to rid it of the Prosopis – a monumental task, with no precedent.

Getting rid of Prosopis

An innovative plan that benefited the local villagers was drawn up and the WWF pitched in financially. Through eco-development committees formed in villages surrounding the park, families were allotted plots of land from which they would clear the weed, which they could use as fuel or sell. It was a great success and about eight km of the park was cleared, and nearly one lakh quintal of wood was extracted. Many paid off old debts and made pucca houses from the money earned by selling the wood.

Problems Aplenty

Cattle: The presence of some 6000 odd cattle within the park is another cause for concern as they compete with wildlife for valuable forage. In 1982, grazing was banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between the local farmers and the government.

Pests: Larvae of an invasive alien species of moth, Parapoynx diminutalis, has also been a serious pest, and considerably inhibited the growth of Nymphoides cristatum, an important aquatic plant, during June-July 1986. A non-native water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes) was introduced in 1961, and has now proliferated to the extent that it is blocking the artificial waterways and filling the impoundments. This is significantly altering the habitat for many bird species, and is a serious management problem. Attempts to control the species have been ineffectual to date.

Pollution: High levels of pollutants in Ajan Bund are believed to be responsible for the increasing number of piscivorous birds seen in a dazed state and unable to fly. Fewer birds were recorded in 1984 than in previous years. Four Sarus Cranes and 40 ring doves were found dead outside the park during 1988 and early 1989, possibly due to pesticide poisoning, and a study of the impact of pesticide use in surrounding areas on the park has been initiated in addition to studies on heavy metal contamination. Disturbance from visitors can be a cause for concern, especially during the December and January when visitors come to see the cranes.

The Road Ahead – Regaining Paradise

All we need now is for Bharatpur to be in a position where it is not dependent for its survival on the whims of some corrupt or power-hungry politicians. The park’s future lies in the hands of the locals. They must be made aware that the sanctity of the ecosystem is crucial to their own livelihood. We must support efforts to obtain alternate water sources for farms, reserving the 540 million cubic feet of fish-rich waters from the Ajan Bund for Keoladeo.

The first step towards consolidating the Bharatpur Inheritance today must surely involve a return to the wisdom of the past, inherent in the 18th century wisdom of Raja Suraj Mal of Bharatpur who created the Ajan Bund.

Tiger in Bharatpur

A male tiger T- 7 wandered from Ranthambore and took refuge in Keoladeo in Bharatpur. This is the same tiger that attacked forest ranger Daulat Singh Shaktawat on August 20, 2010 on the periphery of the Ranthambore National Park. After the attack T-7 had made its way through Bharatpur up to Beri village near the Mathura refinery, they said. After staying for some time it headed back for Keoladeo. In February 2011, it was tranquilized and transferred to Sariska. This is not the first instance that a tiger has lived in the bird sanctuary. Earlier a female tiger had arrived, from an unknown place and lived in the park for several years before dying in 2005 of natural causes.

Current Situation

Currently (May 2011) the situation in Bharatpur is far from perfect. Western Rajasthan received less than normal rainfall in the monsoons of 2010. Little if any water remains in its pools. If the rains fail agin this year, the Bharatpur is truly doomed.

About the author

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Delhi-based Bikram Grewal has authored various best-selling guides to Indian birds and wildlife. He is a publisher by profession, loves to travel, and lives the dream that he will rediscover the now extinct Mountain Quail.

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