Flights of Fancy

Keoladeo National Park

4 NOVEMBER 2014,
Keoladeo National Park © James P. Blair
Keoladeo National Park © James P. Blair

Right from my initiation into the Tourism industry, first as a Travel Executive and then as a Travel Writer, I was passionate about Eco-friendly tourism. This obsession with Eco-Tourism was due to the fact that I would accompany my father who worked on several World Bank Projects in Agriculture to some of the remotest places of India, including the National Parks.

I became habituated with the rugged Indian wilderness and sighting Tigers, Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, Crocodiles and other wild beasts was no big deal for me. Years of exposure to the sheer diversity of India’s wilderness made me a “rough & tough” individual.

For instance, the high that one experiences with shooting pictures of wildlife from close range is a thrill which is million times more powerful than a shot of cocaine. Yes, I can vouch for that unanimously. For the hardcore wildlife enthusiast, there is nothing sublime once inside a National Park. Just plain force and power at work. You feel you are on a “reconnaissance mission”.

I consider myself fortunate for the fact that in my long journey as a Travel Writer, I had met visitors from many different parts of the world. It was on one such trip to Delhi from Calcutta, in the year 2006 that I came in contact with a motley crew of Japanese tourists who were on their way to Keoladeo National Park. We were traveling by Rajdhani Express and after having our snacks, one of the Japanese – Toshihiro Nakamoto, who was the team leader, started a lively conversation with me with regard to the stupendous diversity of attractions that a country like India possessed.

When I inquired where they were heading, curt came the reply – “Keoladeo National Park”. I couldn’t hide my embarrassment and said I didn’t know much about Keoladeo. To which the Japanese tourist shot back in a heavily accented English –“What man! You no see Keoladeo? Good for birds man! More than 400 types of birds available. UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love and my team love Keoladeo. I come every year. Excellent photos of birds!”

That brief interaction with Toshihiro Nakamoto, an avid Ornithologist from faraway Tokyo opened my eyes to the yet unexplored Keoladeo National Park. During our journey, Toshihiro provided me with a few tips on cameras and equipment that are ideally suited for bird watching and a brief overview of the Keoladeo National Park.

As an Indian, I was ashamed. I didn’t even hear about a National Park of such magnitude. This incident shook me up. After consulting a reliable Eco-friendly Tour Operator in Delhi, I decided to take the plunge and in the first week of October 2007, I arrived at Keoladeo National Park. On this trip I came alone since that would give me the freedom to move about at my own pace.

What I saw at Keoladeo was a veritable feast of nature. Birds, birds and more birds. It was fascinating. I never saw so many varities of birds at one place. From past experience of visiting other National Parks, I decided to hire the services of a guide. I was looking for a guide who would know the terrain well and have good knowledge about the birds of Keoladeo.

I discovered that the best way to explore Keoladeo was either on foot or by a rickety Rickshaw. I opted for a Rickshaw for the simple reason that the Rickshaw puller – Anil Prasad Singh, has been working as a Rickshaw puller right from his teenage and still going strong at the age of 45.

He was going to be my asset during this trip. And he didn’t let me down. In five days, I shot more than 2750 photos and I was so captivated that I even forgot that I was here on a 3 Nights/4 Days trip. On the 5th day, the hotel owner reminded me that I had already overstayed by 2 days and needed to check out since there was a confirmed booking of another visitor who would come all the way from Singapore.

So fascinating is Keoladeo in terms of Bird Watching that it has been included in the list of Ramsar Sites. Further, it also has the distinction of being declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the year 1985.

The vegetation here is diverse as it includes woodlands, shrubs, grasslands and wetland species. Its diverse fauna encompasses members from aquatic invertebrates to large mammals and representatives of fish, reptiles and avifauna.

As many as 369 species of birds have been spotted at Keoladeo and is the only winter retreat of the rare and endangered Siberian Crane.

My guide Anil Prasad informed me that the watershed is drained by two non-perennial rivers, Gabir and Banganga and their cannals – Jatwalee, Chisama and Bessmora. The wetland according to Anil Prasad has been divided into eight separate sections by the construction of Dykes, which have been provided with sluice gates so that the floodwater is distributed through a wide area and retained for a longer period.

The primary force of Keoladeo National park’s eco-system is rain. The monsoon here is preceded by a dust storm. The first showers settle the dust and considerably improve the visibility. This results in the barren plains change into lush green Prairies.

As a first time visitor to Keoladeo National Park, I was amazed by the abundance of swamps, flood plains and dry lands that makes for a habitat which is not only rich biologically but also very conspicuous by its vegetation type. And the best part about Keoladeo as an avid Bird Watcher is that you can walk through the mettaled roads with marshes and wetlands on either side and not be constrained to the prearranged passageway or be captive inside a 4 Wheel Drive, which is what happens in most other National Parks.

The topography of Keoladeo is unlike any other National Parks that I have visited. I was particularly amazed to spot birds like Storks and Cormorants perched on tall trees like Kadam. If you are on the lookout for arboreal birds, watch out in the wooded swamps and you will come face to face with Parakeets and Cotton Teals.

For nature photographer, the sight of birds like White Ibis or Spoonbill clustering in colonies of thousands is straight out of a fairyland. There is never a dull moment while bird watching in Keoladeo. The sheer cacophony of bird songs during sudden flights makes for a surreal sight.

A word of advice to the amateur nature photographer. Do not buy optical equipments without prior testing at birding spots. This is very important particularly if you happen to wear glasses. Try out a variety of scopes, tripods and binoculars. This is by far the only method to ascertain individual preferences such as balance, weight and the level of magnification.

For those with spectacles, eye relief is of great importance because of the simple reason that your glasses tend to increase the space between the lens and the cornea. In this regard, Barlow lens are perfect as they enhance power while letting you use the same glasses with which you tend to be most comfortable.

At Keoladeo you will be intrigued by questions like how the birds cope with cold, how Secretary birds catch snakes, why a Gull has a red spot on its beak or how the Osprey catches fish. For bird watching, the accent is on patience. The phenomenon of male Ruffs with their beautiful head and neck plumage strutting around in a special area- (Lek), in order to attract the females for mating can be enjoyed only if you are patient enough to peer through the lens from a distance for a considerable length of time.

The history of the Kailadeo National Park is as captivating as its eco-system. This area has continued to exist as a wetland from times immemorial. In the days of yore it used to be the birding site of the Maharajas. Legend has it that King Suraj Mal constructed the Ajan Bund dam with the primary objective of supplying water to the adjoining areas as well as to preserve the level of ground water.

It used to be the royal preserve and the quintessential activity was Duck hunting by the royals. A careful look at the intricate stone carvings inside the Keoladeo National Park reveals the names of the royal dignitaries who hunted the Ducks here. During the British rule, Keoladeo used to be a much-preferred wetland tourist destination for the Viceroys.

Visitors to Kaeladeo are often found exploring the neighborhoods surrounding the National Park. A good diversion is the well-maintained Museum at Bharatpur that offers vignettes of Keoladeo’s rich virile past. You would do well to also visit the impressive Bharatpur Palace, which is a harmonious blend of Mughal and traditional Rajasthani architecture. The sheer grandeur of the palace is awesome. Last but not the least, there is the impregnable Lohagarh fort, which even the mighty British couldn’t conquer. In the days of yore, this fort used to serve as the summer retreat of the royal family of Bharatpur.

One recent development at Keoladeo National Park has been the setting up of the Salim Ali Visitor Centre. It is a must visit site for any visitor to the sanctuary. This state-of-the-art Centre is the result of a coordinated vision of the Government of Rajasthan along with WWF India. The funding was made possible by the Austria based D. Swarovski & Co. This Centre was established with the primary goal of water conservation inside the park. “The Water for Life” theme of the Centre intends to educate the local people about the importance of water preservation. Apart from Interpretation and Outreach programmes, the Centre also trains Rickshaw pullers and Forest staff in the intricacies of guiding tourists inside the park through state-of-the-art audio-visual methods. For the benefit of the visitors of the park, the centre has come up with highly informative set of CD-ROMs, brochures and booklets that offer a fascinating insight on Keoladeo National Park. There is a well stocked library where one can flip through books and periodicals on nature and wetlands. Often, one great way of unearthing information about a tourist destination is by striking up a conversation with the locals. I find this method to be extremely rewarding and from my conversations with the locals at Keoladeo, I am of the opinion that not only are they conscious about preserving their eco-system, they are also knowledgeable about the varities of birds and other animals that reside here.

I found a vast majority of the locals to be at peace with the National Park authorities and there seemed to be no inconsistency between the locals and the park authorities.

According to the A.S. Brar, the former Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden of Keoladeo National Park – “Over the century the bird population has shown a decline. This seems to be a worldwide phenomenon as the ecological importance of wetlands were not realized earlier and they were considered to be wastelands. Thus, with the disturbance in the breeding grounds and conversion of the wetlands to agricultural fields, there has been a downward trend in population but is seems to have stabilized in places where conservation measures have been undertaken”. Wetlands are one of the most important ecosystems which have multiple utility in terms of maintanence of ecology, biodiversity and economy.Among the major casualities of urbanization and pollution worldwide have been the wetlands. Wetlands like Kaeladeo can’t be taken for granted anymore. For an Ornithologist, there is fun galore and excitement in plenty at Keoladeo National Park. But we have also to take a few responsibilities, if not turn into a full fledged “Crusader” for the preservation of avia-fauna. As responsible bird watchers, we need to spread the good word through seminars on avia-fauna preservation, habitat management and eco-friendly norms.

Travelers Fact File:

Getting There: Keoladeo is conveninetly connected with places like Delhi (176 Kms), Agra (56 Kms) and Jaipur (176 Kms) by road. Delhi and Jaipur have airports which are well connected by flights both domestic and international. The nearest Railway Station is Bharatpur which is a mere 6 Kms away from the National Park. There are convenient train connection from both Delhi and Mumbai that halt at Bharatpur. Although, most visitors to Keoladeo travel on road.
Miscellaneous: The park is open from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. The Entry fee is nominal and the Rickshaw puller/guide can be hired at the rate of Rs.50 per hour. Bicycles too are readily available at a nominal charge. Keoladeo National park has numerous passageways where one can travel on foot, by rickshaw or by cycling.
Best Time to Visit: November to March.
Accommodation: As far as accommodation is concerned, there are numerous hotels dotting the Keoladeo National Park. Most offer only the basic amenities. However you can be assured of clean linens, bed, wonderful window views and clean toilets. Of course, the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) run Forest Lodge is an aberration.
Others like Wilderness Camp, Kadam Kunj, Pelican and Sunbird are quite decent and offer airy rooms and serve both Indian and Continental cuisines. The Chandra Mahal Haveli is a heritage hotel dating back to 1850’s and offers luxurious accommodation with add-ons being an exclusive Billiards room and a well-stocked library.

For further information, please feel free to contact:

Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden,
Keoladeo National Park,
Bharatpur, Rajasthan,
India.
Telephone: 91-05644-222777