Keoladeo Ghana National Park

Keoladeo Ghana National Park

In the Rajasthani city of Bharatpur, Keoladeo Park is known as a bird sanctuary, but in fact has many other animals. The reserve had been for a long time a vast semi-arid region, inundated with water during the monsoon season and drying up very quickly afterwards. A long time ago, the maharaja of Bharatpur decided to deviate the water from a nearby irrigation canal, and several years later, birds started flocking to the area in great numbers. The maharaja’s purpose had been to attract waterfowl for his hunting parties and his table and served such a purpose until 1965. Inscriptions on a column near the Hindu temple show their immoderate love for hunting: they could kill 5000 ducks in one day!

Today, the Park is a protected UNESCO site and you may visit it by bike or bicycle rickshaw. The best time of year to visit is the winter, when migratory waterfowl flock to the reserve for refuge before dispersing to various regions. 354 bird species have been counted, including the Siberian crane, an endangered species.

We biked around the park, which was a mix of dry land and shrubs with wetlands and lakes. Some locals worked the rice fields. We spotted yellow and green parakeets, red-tufted woodpeckers, black cormorants, spoonbills, painted storks, white storks, and the Sarus crane. We also saw the rose-ringed parakeet, the egret, Indian pond heron, black ibis, and other giant birds that we couldn’t identify.

Aside from the birds, we also saw many antelope, deer, cows, butterflies, monkeys, and squirrels. To a lesser extent, we saw some red fox, coyotes, and the paths of pythons through the sand. It was great. The park was very quiet and peaceful – far from the noise of the city. We often came upon the animals by accident, so that we would get very close, and get a good look at them before they ran off. Though they usually ran the other way quickly, not always. We watched an antelope eating the leaves from a tree, only 10 ft. away, and it didn’t have the intention of moving for anyone. We didn’t see the sole tigress that inhabits the park, but then again, neither have some guides who have lived and worked there for years. Footprints have been found, though. Tigers generally avoid humans. The tigress’ favorite meal is cow, although she will also eat antelope and deer. We found several cow skeletons, the brittle bones picked to pieces by the birds and drying in the hot sun.

Known as a “bird’s paradise,” the park had poor turnout this year because of the poor monsoon and subsequent water shortage in the area. AS a result, many of the migratory birds flew to other lakes and rivers. Many resident birds were also unable to sustain themselves, deserting their nests and abandoning their eggs. Although the maximum bird population is during the winter, the Siberian crane has not yet been sighted at the sanctuary. The park should get about 450-550 mcft. of water annually, but actual levels of rainfall have been insufficient. Some water was released in mid-August from a dam 100 km. away, but the riverbed absorbed it all.

The problem has reached the high court, which issued a notice to the Rajasthan government, asking why its order for the release of water from the Ajun bund reservoir had not been followed. It is alleged that no water was released on the advice of a state minister, who advised that farmers launch an agitation against the release. Environmental and social organizations have urged officials to maintain the aquatic ecology of the park. The town, especially hotel owners and guides and rickshaw drivers, are dependant on tourism generated by the park. Over 100,000 visitors come to the park every year, including 35,000 foreigners (“The Times of India, New Delhi – Nov. 22, 2004).

The problem will not be easy to solve. Over the years, the villagers have been raising the height of the Ajan bund dam to conserve more water for their fields. Bharatpur’s district magistrate has affirmed that an 86-km. pipeline project will bring water from the Chambal River to the town and park by December 2005, releasing the park from its sole dependency on monsoon and the Ajan bund dam. They are also trying to bring water from the Yamuna River, but the last article I read on the “Yamuna River (Oct. 2004) describes how the river is so polluted that hardly any fish are able to survive. It is another ecological disaster.

You know you’re in India when you can read a National Park sign saying: “In your next Incarnation, you might be an endangered species. Help us Save the Siberian Crane!!!”