IF you are a nature lover, this is the best time of the year to be visiting the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, better known as the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. It provides a rare opportunity to meet some of the world's most exotic birds - including some threatened species -- at their festive best. The bird paradise is chock-a-block with guests from snow-bound high plateaus of Central Asia, Mongolia and Siberia. On a good day you can spot thousands of birds belonging to nearly 400 categories. The fascinating and distinguished assembly of winged visitors presents several extempore song and dance ensembles every day.
This park is a place of
halt and dispersal for migratory birds that winter in the Indian
subcontinent. It is named after Keoladeo (Shiva temple) located in the
centre of the park. As usual, ducks, geese and wader arrived in early
October, followed by Raptors, including the steppe eagle, golden eagle,
osprey and harrier. Then came two rare Siberian Crane. Old-timers recall
that Bharatpur once played host to hundreds of them. But since last
year, only one pair has been coming, to a VVIP welcome. That is a good
omen because there are some years when not even one reach here.
The park boasts of an extraordinary range of flora as well. Babul trees dominate, and provide nesting space to the birds, along with kadam trees, associated with Lord Krishna. Then there are also ber, khajur and khejri. Dozens of varieties of grass support nilgai, sambhar, wild boar, feral cattle, civet, jacket and the rhesus macaque. As you stroll on a good network of raised paths along tree-lined bundhs, you also come across fishing cat, jungle cat, otter and mongoose. Python Point is famous for some very large rock pythons.
The lakes abound with floating plants, algae, reeds, flowering plants and aquatic grasses that provide food and cover to millions of crustaceans, amphibians, insects and fish.
This man-made wilderness was created by the Maharajas some 250 years ago and was their shooting preserve. At one time, the daily shoot was reputed to be as high as 100,000 birds. The artificially created duckshoot reserve was formally inaugurated by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, on December 2, 1902. A stone pillar near the Keoladeo temple gives the exact shooting figures yearwise. The highest is 4,273 by a shooting party headed by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow. The last ruler, Maharaja Brajendra Singh, gifted it to the Rajasthan Government and it became a sanctuary in 1956.
His father, Maharaja Kishan Singh, was dismissed in the early 1920s on the grounds of gross misrule, but was a great lover of wildlife. Maharaja Kishan Singh used to spend twice the annual revenue of the whole princely state on luxuries like 30 Rolls Royces and was always accompanied by a private jazz band. He also purchased extremely costly wild animals, including dozens of lions, elephants, leopards and tigers at astronomical prices and released them into Bharatpur's jungles. The word 'ghana" in the name of the sanctuary comes from the thick forest that this place used to have. The animals have vanished along with the forest but the concentration of birds is a reminder of the colourful past.
Even when it became a sanctuary in 1956, hunting rights remained with the Maharaja, his guests and a few state guests till 1965. It was declared a Ramsar site in 1981 under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The next year, the sanctuary was upgraded to a National Park. In 1985, the park was declared a world heritage site under the World Heritage Site Convention.
So much for its rich history. Now let us come to its not so impressive present. When the migratory birds take their return flights back home some time in February-March next year, they will not be carrying very happy memories with them. One of the world's biggest freshwater marshland sanctuaries spread over 29 sq km is gasping for water. The water level recommended by the legendary Salim Ali is 5 ft. but it has fallen below even 3 ft. The scarcity of rain is the main
culprit and the problem is there in the entire Rajasthan. Four national parks, 25 sanctuaries and more than 32 closed areas for wildlife that the state has are all parched.
But what is peculiar about Bharatpur is that the situation would not have been all that desperate had water augmentation schemes been put in place over the years. Water in the Ajan dam, which feeds the Bharatpur sanctuary, could have been increased through bore wells but necessary steps have not merited the urgency that they require. Locals allege that while it was decided a long time back that the income from tickets would be spent exclusively on the maintenance of the sanctuary, this has not been done.
Water shortage is not the only problem plaguing the prestigious sanctuary. The biggest one has erupted in the shape of a growing confrontation between sanctuary authorities and the residents of about a dozen villages surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage site. Once it was declared out of bounds for them, the villagers who were dependent on this area for fuel and fodder started resenting this "encroachment". For a poor villager depending on the forest, which he considers his own, it is difficult to understand why the survival of birds is more important for the government than that of human beings.
A via media could have been found by adopting a flexible approach. But the intransigent attitude of the authorities has brought matters to a head. Exasperated villagers held a joint meeting and decided to defy the ban. A violent clash ensued. Today, they can be seen cutting grass in broad daylight. Keeping in view the drought conditions, the administration has verbally allowed them to cut fodder for the time being but that has not satisfied them.
Sanctuary officials are a hapless lot. They have neither weapons nor uniforms to tackle poachers. Under such circumstances, many birds allegedly end up on the dining tables of influential people.
Recently, a big cat strayed into the sanctuary. Till date it is not certain whether it is a panther or some other species.
Traditional vocation in the area has been dairy farming, salt mining and agriculture. Now only dairy farming is prevalent. For that, fodder is necessary. That makes residents target the Keoladeo Park. The forest department is caught in a bind because free access just cannot be allowed in a world heritage site. Some understanding forest officials had introduced a permit system earlier, under which bona fide residents of the surrounding villages were authorised to cut grass. But as it normally happens, this well-meaning scheme was misused by some to issue permits only to their favourities. The fee for obtaining permits was also hiked leading to the present confrontation. Villagers are in a foul mood and challenge the government to arrest all of them. They do not cut grass alone but also take away wood, it is alleged.
Most of the pressure on the sanctuary can be eased if there are other avenues of employment. At the moment there are very few. The area has had little industry. Most of the factories that it did have, have closed down. Naturally, the people of the area are desperate to earn a living. Factories which do not harm the environment are the need of the hour.
Many of Rajasthan's towns are thriving because of tourist traffic. However, Bharatpur has mainly the sanctuary to boast of. A forest lodge run by the Ashoka Group (ITDC) and a forest rest house at Shanti Kutir are located inside the park. The Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) operates a well-appointed Saras tourist bungalow that is barely 500 metres from the main gate. These get to display a "no-room" sign only in the bird season. If birds stop coming, so will the tourists. That will be bad news for a large number of guides and rickshawallahs who take people around. (Motorised vehicles are not allowed inside the sanctuary). It is astonishing to find that rickshawallahs can rattle off the names of various birds like experts and can speak several languages. The secret is that they are given the licence to take tourists around only after passing a course regarding birds. As far as the fluency in various languages is concerned, it has been acquired through years of interaction with foreigners.
The city cries for
better exploitation of its other attractions. For instance, there is a
century old Ganga Mata temple, which needs to be popularised because
it has a unique and imposing architecture. But most outsiders are
unaware of its existence. The museum housing the artifacts belonging
to the erstwhile ruling family also needs to be better known. The
nearby Deeg palace can attract far more tourists than it does at
present, provided it is better publicised.