Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park is still spellbinding though Siberian cranes no longer visit

For me, the charm of the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan has not diminished a bit although it is no longer graced by the migratory, and highly endangered, Siberian cranes as it used to nearly a decade ago. The bird sanctuary was once so identified by the Siberian cranes that you could hear people speculating whether they would come this year or not? Sadly, it still remains a favourite guessing game for the locals. During our brief visit to the park recently, our rickshaw-puller-cum-guide Charan Singh pointed at a tree in the middle of a brown patch of land, “I saw a Siberian crane there. Now, we pray each year for both the rains and Siberian cranes to visit this parched land.” Both still elude the once thriving sanctuary.

For the uninitiated, the Keoladeo National Park is a very popular bird sanctuary, much revered by both Indian and international birdwatchers. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1971 and is a World Heritage Site. This is not only a home for many birds but a wintering ground for many that are rare and highly endangered and come from places as far away as Siberia and Central Asia. Approx 230 is the count that we are told by the guides — Siberian crane being the most desired of the visitors.

India is a wintering ground for the gorgeous Siberian cranes who fly nearly halfway across the globe from Siberia to reach India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. But of late they are poached by gunmen in these two countries. The Siberians haven’t been spotted for nearly a decade.

Unlike other protected areas where your only mode of transport to navigate the jungle is a jeep or a canter, here you are free and have access to almost all areas. Thanks to Mr Tiger’s unavailability, you can choose to cycle the length or walk the route — and the lazy ones like me can hire a rickshaw. We opted for Charan Singh’s rickshaw and were slowly peddled into the park.

The view was spellbinding — painted storks dotted the kikar trees on both sides of the road. You could catch the young ones getting flying lessons from their hyper and enthusiastic parents. The birds appeared like white cotton spread over the horizon. It was a pleasure to be inside the park.

Below, ducks such as shovellers, spotbills, pintails swam aimlessly from one end to another and ducked sharply in the water for an occasional fish, emerging with it dangling in their beaks. It was their prize catch. But the water appeared scanty.

According to a news report, the park, plagued by unending water problems and poaching, is fighting an elephantine battle to retain its status as a UNESCO heritage sight to protect the world heritage status of the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. The chief minister Ashok Gehlot has ordered the Bharatpur city administration to ensure a regular flow of water from Pachna Dam to the dried up lake within the sanctuary.

Our guide, offering a vital piece of information that is becoming an old joke, said “Madam, the only way to distinguish between the male and female of the species (of sambar) is that male is horny and female is not horny.” I couldn’t control my laugh and said to myself, isn’t it true for all species?

Frustrated at not being able to set my eyes or my ‘binoculars’ on any new bird species, I was ready to bribe the rickshaw-puller. Totally unethical in the book of bird watching ethics and I am sure many of my bird watching peers will disown me or maybe dismiss me with “Here goes another one…”. But I feel everything is fair in love and bird watching. The deal was that my rickshaw-puller would ride slowly and look under different trees to spot birds. He asked me if I wanted to see the Collared Scops Owl.

Rs.50 was all I could spend for an owl, a species I was dying to explore. I have only seen one, the Spotted owlet. Utterly cute they are, but quite common.

Charan Singh propped the rickshaw like a Formula 1 driver but there was a speed restriction we needed to obey. We saw a group of people hungrily eyeing a palm tree. Maybe they had spotted the species. We stopped only to be told that they were staring at a parakeet pair while the second group was busy photographing the antler deer, I started yawning and gave Charan Singh a mean look. To make up for the lost time, he shared some trivia: An owl can rotate its head 360 degrees. We moved on. He decided to check out at a deserted route. And I told myself this better be the moment else I am never returning to Bharatpur. He whistled and signalled to me to leave the comfort of my rickshaw I dragged myself out. And the next thing I knew, I was staring right into the eyes of the Collared Scops Owlet.

I was in a trance. It was the most beautiful species I had ever seen. It was a pair and probably trying to catch a wink or two — they didn’t move. But I could see their ears. The pair camouflaged perfectly with the browns. I could have stayed under the tree the whole day. And asked myself, when am I coming again?

Bharatpur with or without Siberian cranes is thriving and I hope it will continue to do so. We have to take care of what we have and ensure good conditions for those species to thrive and breed and return again, again and again.

Maths in the jungle

The rickshaw-pullers charge a fee of Rs.70 for an hour to show you around inside the park. But for some reason the final bill never comes to less than 250. Even if you spend an hour and a half.