Red Earth | Environment

How the demoiselle crane has turned a Rajasthani village into a tourist hub

The straight road out of Jodhpur cuts through Rajasthan’s arid land dotted with kikar and babul trees. Three hours later, Google Maps tells me I have reached my destination, and the cacophony confirms it. I am in Khichan village where small brick homes and havelis dot jowar and bajra fields. The loud trumpeting comes from winter visitors to the village — thousands of demoiselle cranes that have migrated from eastern and central Asia.

And in Khichan, these birds are treated like royalty. On every day of their stay between September and March, residents feed them at the bird granary or pakshi chugga ghar that they have created. Here, every morning, residents — many from the Jain community — spread out sackfuls of grain for the descending flocks. Ram Chand, tells me: “They are like our guests. We must feed them every time they visit.”

I head to the Khichan water reservoir where the noise gets deafening. A sea of ash grey plumes transforms the desert landscape. When they fly, their huge wings whooshing, the birds look pale blue and the black pattern on their underbelly looks like they’re wearing black ties. There must be some 500 cranes at the reservoir, preening their feathers, drinking water from a small pond, looking towards the afternoon sun.

Proud ambassadors

The local community members are proud ambassadors of the cranes, always eager to take birdwatchers around the village. Many have built viewing platforms on their terraces, a great vantage for visitors to watch the birds from. Tour operators from Jodhpur and Jaisalmer routinely bring in tourists who are willing to travel the distance just to see the cranes. On a typical winter Sunday, you would have at least 10 cars coming into Khichan with tourists.

At a grocery shop I meet little Champa. She is all of five, but tells me the cranes have migrated from Turkey. She watches the birds with me, deftly peering through my binoculars.

There haven’t always been so many demoiselles at Khichan. It all started 70 years ago when one Khichan resident started feeding a few dozen cranes. Ratanlal Maloo was conferred the Salim Ali Nature Conservation Award in 2009 by the Bombay Natural History Society for his work in conserving the cranes. Maloo passed away in 2011. Over the next years the numbers increased and some winters have had 20,000 birds visiting.

Habitat loss

Demoiselle cranes are found in 47 countries around the world, and although they are not endangered, they face threats from habitat loss. They feed on plants, insects, grains and small mammals. This village is ideal habitat, with its matrix of wetlands, cultivated lands, ponds and food provisioning grounds.

Although the crane’s population increase is seen as a conservation success, the idea of artificially feeding these wild birds has drawn criticism too. “Providing food artificially can cause unnatural flocking in some areas,” says K.S. Gopi Sundar, scientist, Cranes and Wetlands Programme, Nature Conservation Foundation. Research says that while artificial feeding may be good to rapidly bolster crane populations, it is not a good long-term conservation measure.

Feeding on crops

The birds also take a toll on the crops. “Cranes feeding on crops is not always welcome,” Sundar points out. This will have to be monitored so that the positive attitude of the area’s inhabitants is not damaged. Happily, some of the major threats to the cranes have been resolved. High tension electricity wires once killed several cranes but Sundar says that “with local lobbying and a court verdict, the lines have moved underground.” Then there were feral dogs who hunted the cranes, but the feeding area has now been fenced off so that dogs can’t enter.

With the growing numbers of tourists, a delicate balance will have to be struck in Khichan: as big a draw as they are, the birds also need to be left undisturbed while they feed at the ponds and wetlands and food provisioning grounds. The cranes, meanwhile, have learnt remarkably well to co-exist with villagers, tourists and domestic animals in this arid landscape.

When not working in the forest, the writer loves to cook from YouTube recipes.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 10:54:00 AM |

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