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Keoladeo National Park

Posted on 08 August 2007

Keoladeo National park is a 29 square kilometer park that is located in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan (in eastern Rajasthan). It is well known to be a perfect example of a wetland. It is a RAMSAR site (it is on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance), as well as a World Heritage Site.
The train from Delhi to Bharatpur was an hour late, so I went to the cafeteria and got myself two samosas and a coffee while I waited. I was going to spend 10 days at Keoladeo bird sanctuary, looking at the work that WWF was doing there. I had heard a lot about Keoladeo National Park from just about everyone I had met and all of it had been good, so I was very excited to see it for myself.

Keoladeo National park is a 29 square kilometer park that is located in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan (in eastern Rajasthan). It is well known to be a perfect example of a wetland. It is a RAMSAR site (it is on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance), as well as a World Heritage Site.

The Park started out as duck shooting reserve of the Maharajas of Bharatpur and it was Maharaja Suraj Mal who built the Ajan Bundh, a dam that created a 3270 hectare impoundment in the 18th century. The water from this big dam is what is still being used as the source of water for the park. From 1850 to 1899 the park was altered considerably when water from rivers was regulated into a series of canals and dykes which increased the water holding capacity of the park and is what forms most of the park people see today.

On 13th March 1956, the park was designated as a bird sanctuary (although shooting rights were maintained until 1972) and became a RAMSAR site in October 1981. In 1985 it was put on the World Heritage List.

The WWF Senior project officer for Keoladeo National Park was a man called Dr Harendra Singh Bargali, a very clever and very enthusiastic man who is one of India’s foremost experts on the sloth bear, having done his Ph.D research work on sloth bear ecology, migration and human-bear conflicts from 1998-2001.

He has been working at Keoladeo National Park for four years and, as well as running all the WWF operations in the park, he has also been endlessly writing proposals and trying to get funds in order to start a sloth bear conservation project that will allow the sloth bear to receive the proper protection in areas where the sloth bear is present in large numbers, but where the tiger is not present. In the current state of affairs, the sloth bear is only protected under the umbrella of the Tiger conservation project (TCP), where, in areas where the tiger is present and the TCP is in effect, then all the sloth bears in this area will be protected just because the tiger has been protected. So, in areas where the sloth bear is present and the tiger is not, then the Sloth bear is completely open to large scale poaching and capture in order to become dancing bears, the equivalent to a lifetime of torture and abuse. The great thing about the WWF TCP is that is does not just help the Tiger, but also, the people that live in the habitat of the tiger benefit greatly, by getting funding to help them find other sources of income as well as providing them with better infrastructure and amenities like LPG gas that allows the impact on the tigers habitat to be reduced.

If Dr Harendra was able to get funding for a project like this then not only would the sloth bear be saved in the areas where it is most common, but also the people that capture them and use them in the barbaric practice of bear dancing, would be able to find other sources of income that would not harm the bears or the environment they live in.

There are a lot of organizations like the International Bear Association, the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, and NGOs like the WPCA that all work specifically to help the sloth bear, but there is no government legislation and no large scale project to protect the sloth bear and establish its long term survival. Even WWF does not recognize it as a priority species even though it is highly endangered.

The train finally arrived at 2pm and I sat down. It was not long into the journey until I realized that I was definitely on the right train. The man sitting in the seat opposite me soon got out a huge number of magazines and books and laid them all out on the table in front of me. All of these books were on Cranes and most of them had been published in part by WWF. This man was a large man who had thick long white hair and big thick glasses. He was wearing a sandy coloured corduroy suit and looked as though he was either a university professor, a physics or maths teacher. He started talking to the person next to him about all the places in the world he had traveled and that he was from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in America. He also said that he was a physics and maths teacher.

I asked him if I could look at one of his magazines and picked up one on the Siberian Crane.

The Siberian Crane is an incredibly rare species of Crane that used to be the star attraction to Keoladeo National Park until the last wild pair were seen there in 1994. These birds used to migrate down from Siberia every autumn to spend their winter feeding at Keoladeo. They have faced many threats, the two main ones being loss of habitat (wetlands) between their summer and winter feeding grounds and hunting.
The ICF soon saw the threats facing the Siberian crane and established a captive breeding centre at Oka Nature Reserve near Moscow. The ICF then established the exact migratory route of the Siberian crane and made a video to educate the people of all the countries along the migratory route. They then sent eggs and chick to Russia and India in an attempt to boost the Russian and Indian populations. The hope was that the young introduced Cranes would be able to bond with the adults and then accompany them along their migratory route. However, time and time again, the adults would leave to migrate and the introduced Siberian cranes would be left behind. Two of these re-introduced cranes were seen at Keoladeo until 2002 when the last pair were seen. Currently there are Siberian cranes migrating from Russia to China, but as yet, none have returned to Keoladeo National Park.

I arrived at Bharatpur at about 5pm and met Sandeep, the WWF field officer for the park. He then accompanied me to the Pratrap Hotel, where I would spend the next nine nights. I dumped all my stuff in my room and then spent the rest of the day at the hotel.

In the morning I met with Sandeep and he drove me by motorbike into the park and to the WWF office. I then went with him and he showed me around the Salim Ali Visitor Interpretation Centre that is currently being built as one of WWF’s biggest projects in the Park. The interpretation centre is a huge and very modern looking building that is located right in the centre of the Park. This Interpretation centre is funded by Swarovski and WWF is the implementing agency and is going to provide a crucially needed centre for education about the problems facing the park and the things that people can do to ensure the long term survival of the park and all the Fauna (especially Avifauna) and Flora in the park. The interpretation centre has a very open plan design and mainly constitutes five halls. These halls will be taken up by five exhibits. The first will be about the importance of water, to the park and to all life and will illustrate how wetlands only take up a tiny proportion of the worlds water resources and that is what makes them so important to conserve. It will also have an illustration of the water cycle. The second hall will explain about the history of Bharatpur and Keoladeo National Park and about seasonality and show photos of how the park looks in the different seasons throughout the year. The third will be on bird migrations and will show maps of the migratory routes that different birds take. The fourth will be on Heronry and the different waterbirds that can be seen in the park. Finally, the fifth will be on important conservation messages and the conservation oath that people will have to take that says that they will do their bit to conserve water and wildlife.

Also in the interpretation centre there will be a library, cafeteria, open air theatre and the most amazing conference centre/auditorium that I have seen, with a specially angulated roof and a hexagon shaped room that bounces the sound waves back and forth providing incredible acoustics.

The Salim Ali Interpretation Centre is going to be ready for the 17th January 2006 when it will be officially opened by the Indian President.

The centre is named after Salim Ali, who was a world renowned bird expert, who first came to Keoladeo in 1935 and it soon became his main centre for avifaunal study and a large water bird ringing programme. Later in 1980 he lead the Keoladeo National Park Ecology Project until his death in 1987.

After looking round the Interpretation centre, I went for my first venture into the park. Sandeep had some work to do back at the office, so I went and rented a bike (for only Rs25 a day), and armed with my binoculars (or should I say WWF’s binoculars that borrowed), my WWF guide to birds, my own bird book and a map of the park, I was ready to go.

The park itself was absolutely incredible. There is one main of tarmac, and coming off this road are lots of smaller gravel and dirt roads that go off and form a square grid pattern of interconnecting roads and tracks. In between these is water, almost as far a you can see and dispersed everywhere throughout this water are little islands.

In the water, and in the trees and flying overhead and everywhere you look there are birds, thousands and thousands of birds. On the islands dotted throughout the wetlands you can clearly see, a very short distance away, lots of different species of deer, the main ones being Sambar, Spotted Dear and Blue Bull.

It is as if you had set foot in a time machine and gone back a million years to the land before time. It was an incredible peaceful place to be and I was very happy to go out in the park myself and just listen to the birds call and observe them and look up any that I did not recognize.

The most obvious bird that you first notice upon entering the park is the Painted stork. I did not have to ride into the park far before they started growing on trees in the wetlands to the left of me. It was young rearing season and every tree to my left as I rode along was packed full of adult and juvenile painted storks, and the noise they made was incredible. Every tree was just a moving mass of Painted storks. It was quite a spectical.

I then cycled up to the Keoladeo Temple (from which the park was named) and I spoke to a guide there who said he could show me a python. So I followed him into the woods and we walked up to a break in the wood by the water, and sure enough, there lying in the undergrowth right in front of me, was a python. So I took a photo of him sleeping and then carefully backed away (just in case we was not actually sleeping). I found throughout my time in the park, that certain animals can always be found in the same place during the day in the park. These were namely the pythons and the spotted owlets. It was later that Sandeep pointed out a family of eight spotted owlets sitting and sleeping in this one tree, and throughout my time in the park I went back three times during the day and always found all eight sitting, huddled together on the same branch that I originally saw them.

On my first day in the park I saw a jungle cat, a python, a ring-tailed fishing eagle, a jackal, lots of blue bull and spotted deer, a few sambar, a turtle, a stalk-beaked kingfisher, and thousands of waterfowl, egrets, stalks, spoonbills, herons, parakeets and cormorants. After my first day in the park I had completely fallen in love with the place and was really looking forward to spending allot more time in the park.

In the morning when I went into the WWF office, Dr Harendra had arrived and I met hm for the first time. He started to explain to me the main problems that the park faced. The first of these and probably the most detrimental to the future of the park, was the shortage of water in the park. The park is situated at the connecting point of two rivers, The Gambhir and the Banganga. The Gambhir river flows into the Ajan Bundh (the big Dam), and from there the water comes into the parks via Canals, and from these canals it is distributed throughout the park. This is the sole source of water for the Park. No water from the Banganga river no longer reaches the park as it has all been taken and re-diverted for use in the surrounding farmlands.

There is also problems with the water from the Ajan Bundh becoming polluted from the runoff of water from farms that use pesticides and fertilizers on their crops. The fertilizers that come into the park case eutrophication in the park and can lead to many of the plants which the birds feed on, to die. The pesticides coming into the park can be very dangerous to all the inhabitants of the park that drink the water, and such pesticides like DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) builds up in concentration as it moves up the food chain so that by the time it reaches the top predators like Eagles, the concentrations have become deadly. Although there is no evidence of DDT in the park, some autopsys on birds that died in the park showed wheat sheaths that had been treated with pesticides.

The average water levels in the park are slowly dropping and the need to keep the park full of water in the winter months is becoming more and more important. WWF is looking into the possibility of re-diverting water from the Chambal River, situated about 100m north-east of the park. However, re-directing it would cost too much and pumping out water from it would prove difficult because by the time the water is pumped over the 100m, all the microbes in the water die and it contains nothing to be able to establish a palnt life when it gets to the park.

The other problem that the park faces is weeds invading the park. These weeds invade the park and out grow and choke the native species in the park and because these weeds thrieve in drought conditions, then in years when there is drought, the native species die and the weeds thrive. One of these weeds is the water hyasinth that is speading throughout the park. The park staff have been removing this weed by hand by the problem is that once they have cleared the weeds in one area of the park and then go to clear another area of the park. By the time they have cleared the second area, the first area has become re-infested, and so the weeding has to continue.

Keoladeo National Park has done an excelent job of getting the community involved in the runnning of the park and has a very much community centred approach to its management. All the guides in the park are rickshaw drivers form the surrounding areas that have been trained up by WWF who run training seminars that are open to anyone who would like to work as a guide in the park to earn a bit of extra money. The guides are not paided by the park but rather receive tips from the tourists that they take around.

Involving the surrounding community and educating them about why it is important to conserve the park and the water going into it is an incredibly important job for WWF. The reason for this is that there is now nothing seperating the park from the surrounding farmland except a 6foot brick wall that has been erected around the entire perimiter of the park. On a walk I went on with Dr Harendra to the border of the park it was easy to see how important this wall was. The farmland with fields of mustard seed oil came right up to 1 foot from the wall and without the wall the crops, the people and their cattle could quite easily flood into the park.

This is why Dr harendra and Sandeep spend allot of time going round the 16 villages surrounding the park, representing WWF to educate and raise awareness about the park. On my thrid and fourth day in the park, sandeep and I went around two of the local villages to visit two schools and to hand out 18 page leaflets to the children and to speak to them. The first school we went to was right on the edge of the park and I handed out the leaflets while snadeep talked to the children and went through the different charts that the leaflets were made up of (like charts of trees, and leaves and animals and important indian leaders and landmarks and things of that sort). At the second school we visited I stood up and spoke to the children and the teachers and asked them questions and answered their questions. It was a great experience.

Every few months WWF also gives talks with the school teachers from all 16 villages around the park and encourages them to teach the children about the park and together the teachers, Sandeep and Dr Harendra organize essay competitions and drawing competitions with excelent prizes, as well as organizing days when all the children can come and visit the park.

All these things help a huge amount to allow all the people to work together to reduce the impact on the park and its inhabitants and once the Salim Ali Interpreation cantre is finished, it will greatly add to this education process.

WWF also provides signs for all the nature trails to educate people on their way around the park. These signs, which are now made out of polycarbonate to provide better protection against the elements as well as to stop villages stealing them and selling of the metal, have a picture of a certain animal and then infromation about it and will be placed in a spot where you are most likely to see that animal.

Throughout my time in Bharatpur I spent a huge amount of time in the park and went on many walks with Dr Harndra and Sandeep that were incredible. I ended up seeing other species like the small indian mongoose, tree pies, water snakes, purple herons, a crested serpent eagle, black rumped flameback woodpeckers, marsh harriers, indian grey hornbills, sarus cranes, common cranes and demoiselle cranes, black headeed Ibis as well as two dalmatian pelicans and many other varied and amazing species of birds.

Everyday I would go in and try to see a certain species that day. The one species that managed to elude me for the entirety of my stay at the park was the Hoopoe, a beautiful looking bird with an amazing musky brown colour with black and white stripes and a mohawk of feathers on it head. Everyday I went to look for it but had no luck. It was only when Sandeep and I were waiting at the bharatpur train station on my final day and the train was due to arrive in 5 minutes, when I looked around and saw a hoopoe, just casually sitting on one of the train cables. Finally I had seen all the birds that I so despirately wanted to see before I arrived and it signified the perfect end to the perfect experience.