Bharatpur: A Jungle Treasure
The entrance to the Keoladeo National Park or the Bharatpur bird sanctuary as it is popularly known is so mundane that the first-time visitor wonders what the brouhaha about the park is all about and whether its world-wide fame is at all well-deserved! What’s so great about this park, I mused as I stared at its iron gates and shabby low walls. I was visiting the park for the second time and have been struck by the sheer ordinariness of the entrance each time—but its that very ordinariness which conceals the delights, the wonder and the mysteries of its myriad population of birds who have flown thousands of miles away to overwinter at this sanctuary, thereby enabling the park to be chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The mundane nature of the park is underscored by the fact that it is situated on the Agra-Jaipur highway. Many of the visitors to the park are tourists who were visiting either Agra or Jaipur and then strayed into the park for a quick dekko before rushing onwards to their destinations. But none of this quickie tourism detracts from the uniqueness and beauty of a sanctuary which is riveting in its appeal.
The park derives its name, ‘Keoladeo’ from an old Shiva temple situated deep in the forest.
As one enters the 29 sq. km park one realizes that the park has varied habitats. It is a deciduous forest with 11 km of marshy land, 18 km of dry land, saline patches, abundant lemon grass and several nature trails thick with vegetation. The park also has 13 species of reptiles. Among the animals that one sees here are jackals, wild boar, nilgai, sambar, the spotted deer or Chital. Recently, a leopard was spotted in the forest and by the time we visited the park, several nature trails had been hastily closed to tourists!
We visited the sanctuary when winter was drawing to a close but the weather was still bracing and the days were pleasantly cool. As one enters the park one engages a cycle rickshaw—the cycle rickshawallahs undergo six months training about the flora, fauna and the birds nesting in the sanctuary before they are given a license to operate in the park!
When we entered the park we saw a flight of Rose Ring Parakeets flying low above the treetops; the shy Purple Sunbird was flitting among bushes sucking nectar from flowers. There are three species of kingfishers in the sanctuary; the White Throat Kingfisher is a common sighting in the foliage. In the distance, the Grey Indian Hornbills swooped low over the trees and then settled down, partly hidden, on the branches of trees, luxuriantly thick.
Due to the poor monsoon last year, many of the waterways of the park were dry this year. But the waterways which were full were brimming with migratory birds; the Bar Headed Geese, which fly across the Himalayas from Mongolia in the moonlight and also return to their rearing habitats in the moonlight, were paddling away placidly in the water. There were flocks of the Common Teal which is a migratory bird from England and large numbers of the Grey Legged Geese from Siberia, looking diligently for food in the murky waters of the wetlands in the park.
Wild boars and Nilgai, including an injured Nilgai, splashed slowly through the waterways to reach small islands on which they rested along with spotted deer, Sambar and large turtles which clung to the edge of the islands. Painted storks were fewer in number this year; though many had built their nests and laid eggs, the eggs had not hatched due to a shortage of food resulting from a deficient monsoon. Sarus cranes, as always, flew around in pairs, hung around steadfastly with each other and even sang in unison in the sun!
As we left the park at 6.30pm a large number of Lesser Whistling Ducks flew down in a grey cloud on one of the islands in the wetlands to settle there for the night, cackling vociferously all the while. Partridges and Jungle Babblers chirped loudly as the sunset in a blaze of gold, while jackals started calling out to each other as dusk deepened into night. As if on cue, peacocks flew on to the higher branches of trees to settle there for the night, away from the clutches of hungry jackals!
The Keoladeo National Park is considered to be one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the world. It is heartening to see the care lavished on the park by both the central and state governments and with the surge of interest in conservation, one can only hope that the government will continue to preserve determinedly the stupendous biodiversity of the country.
Cover Pic: Sun setting in a blaze of gold. | Photo: Kamal Cheema
Read also: Driving through fascinating Mudumalai
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