The Bharatpur exodus

A wetland is dying. Not just a wetland but the mother of all Indian wetlands: the first notified Ramsar site or wetland of international importance in the country, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a National Park that is visited by thousands of people every year. A wetland that still counts 375 species of birds as park residents

and winter visitors. The Keoladeo Ghana in Rajasthan is not dying suddenly, but has been on its way to ruin in an agonisingly lingering manner over several years.
The Keoladeo Ghana is named so for the temple of Keoladeo that lies in its heart and the dense (ghana) vegetation that surrounds it. But it is neither vegetation nor the temple that draws visitors in the thousands to the area. The Ghana is a traditional seasonal wetland on the western fringe of the Ganges, formed by the natural depressions of the confluence of the Banganga and the Gambhiri rivers in Rajasthan. Three man-made bunds, the Upper Ajan, the Lower Ajan and the Upper Sewar, constructed by the royalty of Bharatpur in the 1700s control the flow of water into the park. Thus, a perfect duck shooting ground for the king and his guests took shape. Even today, in the middle of the park, half-a-dozen stone slabs proclaim the heights of this sport when the viceroys and noblemen practised a most ignoble sport of hunting birds.
Preservation of the king’s hunt started in the 19th century with the area being declared a royal hunting preserve, and in 1956 it was declared a sanctuary. But in the Eighties, the reserve got a facelift, becoming one of Independent India’s premier conservation parks. Visitors came in numbers rivaling the ducks, and the rickshaw-wallahs of Bharatpur became India’s first barefoot nature interpreters, explaining to the visitors in English, French and the occasional Latin, the wonders of the avian world. The Ghana became better known as Bharatpur, the name of the nearest town, and its mascot was the most enigmatic of wetland visitors to India, the beautiful Siberian crane. The western population of what naturalist Spitzer described as the “lily of birds” used to breed in Siberia and spend the winter in Bharatpur. About 200 of these birds used to visit the park every year in the Sixties. The numbers dwindled over the years and finally they stopped visiting the park in 2002. I wrote an article, “Requiem for the Snow Wreath”, in 1997. But no conservationist really thought that the wetland itself was in danger.
The troubles had actually started in the early Eighties, when the Banganga stopped flowing through Bharatpur. In 2003, the Gambhiri’s flow was greatly reduced when the fertile lands of Karauli, in its upstream, kept back the waters for the fields of the Meenas and the Gujjars. The Jamwa Ramgarh reservoir started the damage to the park; the Pachna dam completed the rituals. Politician after politician promised the birds water but none could withstand the political onslaught of these two powerful Rajasthan votebanks.
About 550 million cubic feet of water is required for Bharatpur to be at its peak form; below 350 million cubic feet (mcft), it starts to seriously suffer. For five years, i.e. 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009, the park received no water at all. In 1999-2000, the otter deserted the park. That year Bharatpur’s ducks dipped from an annual number of 20,000-15,000 a year to 6,206. The fishing eagle stopped breeding in the Nineties and the brown fish owl was last sighted in 2002.
The clamorous heronries of the park took a hit too and in 2006 and 2009 there were no new nests in the park. The fishing cat, the other wetland mammal closely associated with the park, was last recorded in 2008. When the birds start deserting the wetland, when species that have the word “fish” attached to it are no longer seen, the writing is on the wall. The wetland was drying up and Bharatpur was in clear danger.
I visited the park again this winter with my two sons as I was keen that they experience the wonders of the Ghana as well. And just as I had hoped, there were enough birds fluttering around Shanti Kutir, enough painted storks on the wattles to elicit excited screams from the kids. The energetic park director Anoop explained the management measures with consummate ease and the old war hound Bholu gave insights as only he could. But to the experienced eye, Bharatpur was no longer what it was in the Eighties. The deep-diving ducks were gone, the mixed heronries were no longer as mixed, the duck were in the hundreds not thousands and for every two compartments filled with water there were many others dry and forbidding. The nilgai and chital were doing better than ever and in fact the boys and I looked for the pugmarks of the lone tigress who had made Bharatpur her temporary home. It was a nice ecosystem still, one that held many promises. But was it still a wetland of international importance, a world heritage site? As it stands, I would have to say no. Does that mean that Bharatpur is dead?
Not in the least. The Rajasthan government must do one of the two things that the wildlife department of the state has been requesting for many years. Either make sure that the Public Health Engineering Department do their work quickly in fabricating the connection of the park to the Goverdhan Drain Project which will give the park 350 mcft of water annually. Or get requisite central clearances for finishing the Chambal Bharatpur Drinking Water Project which has as a prerequisite the commitment of 310 mcft water to Bharatpur.
The recovery of the park in 2008-09 when water flowed to the park gives hope. Nature is forgiving, even if year after year we mistreat her. Water is undoubtedly the most precious commodity for the Gujjars and the Meenas, but so it is for 350 species of birds that depend on the sagacity of Rajasthan’s politicians and bureaucrats. If those who can do so act, it is still not too late. The jewel in India’s wetland crown will not be a memory of the past like the beauteous Siberian crane, and the holy Kumbh of birdwatchers can flourish once again.

Vivek Menon is a practising wildlife conservationist and environmental commentator

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