Keoladeo Sanctuary - A World Heritage Site

by Pushp K. Jain

Whenever I think of Keoladeo National Park, popularly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in the Rajasthan state of India, the picture of marshes packed with exotically colored birds flashes in the mind.

It is almost unbelievable that more than 300 species of birds are found in this small park of 29 sq. km. of which 11 sq. km. are marshes and the rest scrubland and grassland.

It is much more surprising that this unique ecosystem is manmade. Bharatpur town used to be flooded regularly every monsoon. IN 1760 an earthen dam (Ajan Dam) was constructed to save the town from annual vagary of nature. The depression created by extraction of soil for the dam was cleared and this became the Keoladeo lake. At the beginning of this century, this lake was developed and was divided into several portions. A system of small dams, dykes, sluice gates, etc., was created to control water level in different sections. Shooting buffs, hides and pavements were constructed. This became the hunting preserve of the Bharatpur royalty and one of the best duck shooting wetlands in the world. Hunting was stopped here by mid-60s. The status of this avian haven was upgraded to a National Park in 1981.

Keoladeo is a paradise for migratory birds. More than 100 species visit the park due to hostile climatic conditions and shortage of food back home. They come from as far off as Russia, Europe, China, Mongolia, Southwest Asia, Tibet, etc. Many of them even fly over highest peaks in Himalayas. September onwards, species start arriving her one after the other. By December the park is kaleidoscopic.

Migratory birds at Keoladeo include as large a bird as Dalmatian pelican, which is slightly less than two meters, and as small a bird as Siberian disky leaf warbler, which is the size of finger.

These migrants include many species of cranes, pelicans, geese, ducks, eagles, hawks, shanks, stints, wagtails, warblers, wheatears, flycatchers, buntings, larks and pipits, etc. Most of these species are present in their thousands packing the marshes like hordes at Kumbh Mela (a religious festival occurring every 12 years when millions of pilgrims assemble to take a dip in the holy Ganga river).

Geese come in large skeins probably from Central Asia. These include greylag goose and Barheaded goose.

Ducks include strikingly colored common shelduck which is chiefly black, white and chestnut with bright red upturned bill and pink legs; mallard with conspicuous glistening metallic dark green head and neck, yellowish-green bill, orange legs and two black upcurled central tail feathers; widgeon with head and neck chestnut and distinctive cream colored patch on the forehead, and squat and tubby common pochard with chestnut-red head and neck. Coot from China is uniformly colored black.

Osprey and marsh harrier are migratory birds of prey. It is a strange peculiarity in most of the raptors that the female is bigger than male.

Migratory waders include the large black-tailed godwit with long slender bill, peewit with glistening green long slender upstanding pointed crest and sparrow sized temmick's stint.

If one hears low musical group song passing from one tree to another and see the flash of rose-pink and black, one is sure they are the krosy pastors probably from Southwest Asia.

And in how flocks can Spanish sparrow, a part of whose population comes from Turkmenistan, congregate? More than a million birds! Salim Ali, the great ornithologist, once estimated.

One of the major attractions of Keoladeo, the Siberian crane or the great white crane, occasionally visits the park. Siberian crane, numbering only few hundred, is one the verge of extinction. There are two raceswestern and eastern. It is birds from the western race which used to visit Keoladeomigrating from the Ob river basin region in the Aral mountains in Siberia via Afghanistan and Pakistan, after a journey of more than 6,000 kms.

According to official records, since 1969, when 76 Siberian cranes visited the park there was consistent decline in their number every season, till 1992-93 winter when only five visited. In 1993-94 six Siberian cranes visited Rian, another known destination of this race. This is too small a number to be viable population. Extinction of this western race seems inevitable. The reasons are complex, but the more obvious one had been the persistent hunting of this crane, en route, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Locals in Iran too hunt these birds.

International Crane Foundation (USA) had been fearing this for quite some time. They launched a massive high-tech global effort to augment the western race by releasing the captive-reared juvenile and sub-adults among the few wild ones left at Siberia in 1991 and 1992 and at Keoladeo in 1993. They were banking on the basic instinct of the Siberian cranes to migrate. The great effort, unfortunately, did not succeed thought the ICF scientists have not given up as yet.

The unique mix of marshes, pastures and woodland and the floral communities at Keoladeo is suitable for high density and diversity of macro and micro fauna. This richness suits about 100 species of resident birds to breed here while a similar number of species visit the park but breed elsewhere.

Terrestrial birds like redwattled lapwing, grey partridge, black partridge, common quail, bush quail, pea fowl, jungle fowl, etc., nest on the ground in summer. Had they been breeding in monsoon, their nest would have run the risk of getting flooded. Also when the chicks arrive it is monsoon and there is ample supply of insects and vegetation for feeding young ones. Doves, kingfishers, mynas, woodpeckers, orioles, etc., breed in summer.

Onset of monsoon brings a sea change in the park. The drying lakes are recharged. Parched habitat turns green once again. Waterlily blooms all over the lake and other hydrophytes grow spontaneously. A canal form Ajan dam brings more water to the park, along with which come millions of fish fry and other microorganism. Aestivating turtles come to life once again. Frogs start croaking. Sarus cranes dance. Monsoon is the time when another major development takes place in the par; it is the formation of the world-famous heronry.

Seventeen species of birds, namely, grey heron, purple heron, night heron, large egret, median egret, little egret, cattle egret, large cormorant, Indian shag, little cormorant, darter, painted stork, open-billed stork, blacknecked stork, whitenecked stork, white ibis and spoonbill are know to breed at Keoladeo heronry.

Talking about the heronries of the world, Roger Tony Peterson wrote, "Perhaps the most impressive spectacle of all is the great assemblage at Bharatpur, near Agra, India, where half a dozen species of herons and egrets nest in association with painted storks, spoonbills, ibises and cormorants..."

He was writing a foreword to one of the most important books on herons, "The Heron Handbook" by James Hancock and James Kushlan. The heronry is almost exclusively built on modest sized Acacia trees submerged in the marshes or on islands in their lakes. Open-bill stork, not so commonly found otherwise, breeds here in large number. They are quiet and concentrate in one part of the heronry. White ibis too does not make much noise but breeds in lesser number and is more widely distributed. Painted stork needs fresh tender stems form treetops. The Indian breeds here in the largest number. The drab black shag is provided by nature, curing breeding, a white mark on the cheek to look handsome for the occasion. The spoonbill is by far the most beautiful and conspicuous.

The heronry extends to a small part of the park, where each tree is crowded with 80 to 100 nests. To a layman, it might seem strange that so many birds of so many species breed in such a small area of the park. Is there no other suitable place in the park for the birds to be more comfortable? The fact is that it is not the lack of suitable are in the park which results in crowding but these birds find security in number. Whenever a bird of prey flies low over the heronry to rob a nest, all adults jointly create such a din that the raptor even if not afraid of the birds would leave them alone.

Keoladeo heronry is full of life, action and activity. Besides the avian fauna, many species of mammals and reptiles are also common in the park. Bluebull and sambar feed on hydrophytes at the lake. Black buck and spotted deer herds graze in the extensive grasslands. Wild boar and jackal roam around in the scru bland. Fishing cat frequents the lakes to scoop away fish or steel a duck. Pythons are present in the park in large number. In winter they are invariable found basking near their hole.

With all these features and many more, it is not surprising that Keoladeo is a site recognized as Waterfowl Habitats under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Besides, it is a World Heritage Site too.

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