My Passage to India
Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan
I thought long and hard about traveling to India — the difficulties of the journey, health and safety concerns, the thought of being immersed for ten days in a totally unfamiliar society and culture, whose people have suffered so much poverty and exploitation, where suppression of women and minorities still the way of life. The death toll from Covid plague in India today must be beyond counting, stretched to breaking by limited medical resources. Only the well-off can afford to buy oxygen on the black market. Surely other countries can do much more to help.
A friend and nature enthusiast said I would regret missing a very special nature trip. Our guide had outstanding knowledge of migratory birds and was an expert photographer. She talked me into it. I didn’t regret going, but it was difficult and more. I can still remember the utter destitution I saw in cities and villages, the graft and corruption of authority at every turn, the air pollution like muddy storm clouds. However, the local people were very kind and seemed bemused that our group was more interested in birds than the Taj Mahal (which we did visit).
Situated at the confluence of the Gambhir and Banganga rivers in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan, Keoladeo was originally open land that seasonally flooded. The Maharajas of Bharatpur created a system of freshwater marshes, bound by earthen dykes, that attracted a large and diverse population of migratory birds. The princely family and their British overlords loved the “sport” of shooting ducks by the thousands.
Finally in 1982, the government agreed to recognize Keoladeo’s value for tourism and created a national park; the duck shooting finally stopped. In 1985, it was recognized as a world heritage site because of its incredible biodiversity of plants and animals.
The time to visit Keoladeo is in early November when birds from distant places like Siberia and Central Asia arrive, like cranes, pelicans, geese, and ducks, mingling with the resident species of eagles, hawks, shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, larks, and much more for over 450 species have been recorded.
One of the rarest, endangered birds is the majestic Siberian Crane (shown in 2nd photo), also known as the snow crane. Siberian cranes are nearly all snowy white, except for their red face mask and black primary feathers visible in flight. The western population migrate to Iran, India and Nepal during winter. Amongst the cranes, they make the longest distance migration. Habitat loss and hunting are major problems for the cranes. Other amazing birds we saw included Painted Storks, Oriental Ibis, Spotted Owlet, and Oriental Darter (shown in photos). In one day, we encountered with our expert guide over 100 different species.
I went to India in the 1990’s and sadly a friend told me that the dwindling population of Siberian Cranes that wintered in India are now extinct. Other than reintroduction and conservation, there’s no way back for the rest.