Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary. A rare chance of seeing Siberian Cranes.

Leaving after a quick breakfast in the hopes of making a head start, I am soon on my way, to Bharatpur, approximately 55 kms west of Agra. Although my tour itinerary suggests Fatehpur Sikri, another deserted Mughal Fort built by Emperor Akbar in 1569, I opt to visit the Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

Also referred to as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, this 29 sq. km park is unknown to many yet recognized as one of the world’s most important bird breeding and feeding grounds.

At the Park’s entrance, I am quickly befriended by Singh, a mustachioed Sikh naturalist who becomes my guide for the day. He barks, berates and shoves aside other touts and settles me firmly in a horse-drawn rickshaw for INR 100 per hour.

As the rickshaw clip-clops its way down the road, Singh explains the history and importance of the Park, which records over 380 species of resident and migrant birds that fly here to get away from the cold winter months of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia.

The park derives its unusual name from the temple of Keoladeo (Shiva) and ‘Ghana’ meaning dense, referring to the thick forest, once known to cover this forest. The straight, main road is flanked on either side with dry deciduous trees and dry grasslands. Artificial marshland and large water holes are ideal for aquatic vegetation and breeding grounds for waterfowls and land birds.

This park was originally a private duck shooting reserve of the Maharaja of Bharatpur in the 1850s before being declared a National Park and a World Heritage Site in 1985. A large plaque displays the feats of bygone hunting seasons. In 1938, Lord Linlithgow, the then Governor-General of India mercilessly shot 4273 mallards and teals in one day. Although he may have considered this to be a great feat, ecologists consider it an unpardonable offense.

At Singh’s insistence, I visit the Dr. Salim Ali Museum and learn of some interesting facts about the Park. Dr. Ali first visited the park in 1935 and soon became the guardian of this wilderness haven, a passionate affair that lasted 52 years, until his death in 1989.

In May 2000, the Daniel Swarovski Corporation entered into a contract with the World Wildlife Fund to set up an interpretation center at this Park. To commemorate this partnership, Swarovski donated a pair of glittering life-sized replicas of the Siberian Cranes made entirely out of Swarovski diamonds and today, it is one of the main features at this Museum.

The Keoladeo National Park is the only wintering site in the country for the Siberian Crane, which has been declared highly endangered. In 1965, the Park hosted over 200 Siberian Cranes. Less than 30 years later, in 1993, only five were sighted here and by 1996, the number dwindled down to barely a pair. For many years later, there were no sightings until the last couple of years, when a couple started coming back.

The Siberian Cranes have always fascinated scientists because of their ability to fly distances of over 2,500 km to escape the cold winter of Siberia, flying over Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then to north-western India, taking around eight weeks to reach Bharatpur.

Singh is excited and tells me that a pair has been spotted ahead. We hurry down the road and there they are! Two beautiful specimens standing tall, posing for a group of lucky birders and photographers, all intent on spending as much time with this pair, not knowing if and when they will ever be seen again.

Along the way, Singh insists that I visit the ancient Keoladeo temple where a priest takes me down a flight of steps to the bank of the lake. Suddenly he begins to chant loudly and amazingly, dozens of huge catfish start to clamor for attention and literally climb the steps to get to globs of dough that he throws at them. Seconds later, a couple of massive 100-year old turtles also emerge out of the water and join in the fray for their share. The sight is disconcerting yet fascinating.

Back in the park, I see several grazing nilgai (antelope), deer and boar. They mingle effortlessly on the banks of the waterholes where several species of birds can be seen basking in the sunlight together. Other migratory birds here include species of Cranes, Pelicans, Geese, Ducks, Eagles, Hawks, Shanks, Stints, Wagtails, Warblers, Wheatears, Flycatchers, Buntings, Larks and Pipits, etc.

It is, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful bird sanctuaries I have ever visited. Three hours later, I am back at the entrance and ready to continue on with my journey to Ranthambore.

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