Story by Sonali Prasad | Illustrations by Sumedha Sah & Mayur Mengle | Design by Yashas Mitta
Draped in the morning mist, serenaded by wings dripping in dawn’s gold, two men - glimpses of the past and present, walk as guardians of a fragile paradise.
Jatan Singh, a 36-year old tall, lean forester in his crispy khaki costume, shortens his stride for his panting mentor, retired forest ranger and 63-year old, Bholu Abrar Khan. Both sets of footsteps, the steady and the tottering, serve Keoladeo National Park, a sanctum for birds and birders alike.
Nestled on a 29 square kilometer track in the hinterlands of Bharatpur, Rajasthan, it is home and wintering ground for a mosaic of feathers - over 370 species of resident and migratory birds. They come from near and far, from the icy earth of Siberia to frigid lands in Central Asia, Europe, and northern and western parts of China.
But now, Keoladeo is an abode in crisis, thanks to dry rivers and unfulfilled dreams of cacophonic rains.
Age and diabetes may have dimmed Bholu Khan, but he vividly remembers the days when Keoladeo, also known as ‘Ghana’ translating to ‘dense forest’, was a hunting reserve for the royals.
For a tradition that dates back to the 1850s, it was modified and moulded by dams and dykes from a low-lying depression into a duck shooting ground. The rajas and maharajas of Bharatpur would entertain their princely guests in the reserve, organizing shooting events for the highest tally.
“The record for duck shooting- 4373 birds in a day, was set here on November 12, 1938, by Lord Linlithgow, then viceroy of India,” Khan says. “Imagine him posing proudly, in the midst of his immaculately dressed peers - tailored pants, umbrellas and ornate hats, with a lineup of just dead ducks in front of him.”
Young forester Singh, who has been passed on these tales from Khan, moves his finger over stone inscriptions immortalising these records inside the park. “It sounds horrific,” he says. “But if they hadn’t kept this reserve healthy with water to attract the birds and built dykes that we still use, then perhaps settlements would have encroached upon this land. It would not be protected for migratory birds."
Subsequently, in 1982, the sanctuary was upgraded to a national park. It was also designated as a Ramsar Site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Keoladeo was then recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Both Khan and Singh have seeds of their sensual affair with Ghana in the yellow-billed, pink-tailed water bird, the near threatened painted stork.
Singh, who stepped into his father’s forester role after his death in 2009, remembers volunteering for the stork census in his boyish days. “There were so many of them, wiggled up on acacia trees, nest after nest, branches turning white with their droppings,” he says. “They were the park’s biggest draw.”
Painted storks, native to the Indian subcontinent, ideally visit Keoladeo and surrounding areas during the summer, courting each other with bill-clattering bowing rituals. The male chooses a nesting site and marks his territory, the female picks a suitor, the larger the better.
Shortly after the onset of monsoons, the birds return to breed in the park. 30-40 pairs elbowed in on the same tree in shallow waters, forming one of the biggest nesting colonies in Asia. The storks cater to their chicks, teaching them how to snap up fish, fly and fight till they blossom from drab fledglings into fantastic, flamboyant plumage.
Khan, who is the son of a former cook of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, recalls how in the winter of 1967, he counted close to 5,000 painted stork nests with India’s most celebrated ornithologist, the late Dr. Salim Ali. “I would often dodge school to spend time with my feathered friends,” he says. “Dr. Ali recognized my passion and asked me to count the nests. So, with a friend of mine, Sohanlal, I would row a boat far into the wetlands, picking up every single detail of the birds.”
Dr. Ali, who was the pioneer behind Ghana being designated as a national park, was impressed by Khan’s curiosity. He gifted him a diary for note taking and invited him to be a part of lengthy research exercises and behavioral studies.
Dr. Ali is not the only big name that has inspired Khan. He remembers fondly a certain Mrs. Gandhi, one of the most unforgettable and India’s only former female prime minister. Her love for birds started young, sprouting from Salim Ali’s book on Indian birds that her father Jawaharlal Nehru posted to her from Dehradun jail.
“Only then, did I realize how much I was missing,” she recounts in her own words, contained in a foreword she wrote for a book in 1959. “We are fortunate to be able to live amongst birds even in our cities.”
Khan remembers Mrs. Gandhi bringing her family to visit the park in 1976, away from the glares of the media.
Subsequently, she had Keoladeo declared as a national park in 1982, thereby ensuring the highest legal and administrative protection.
Stemming from his book, Indira Gandhi’s bond with Dr. Ali grew with the years of her leadership and she started personally monitoring the arrival of the ‘lily of birds’, then rare and extremely beautiful Siberian Crane, a migrant bird to Keoladeo. The crane’s central population, now considered extinct, has not been spotted in the park since 2001.
It is not just the Siberian crane that is obviously missing this winter. The painted storks are gone too. “Not a single one has nested,” forester Singh rues. “We have lost a whole breeding season.”
Close to 15 species of birds are known to nest in Ghana, including painted storks, spoonbills, egrets, glossy ibises and grey herons. This year, the heronry is silent and empty but for one species, the darter, also known as the snakebird.
Droughts, poor rains, and politics have affected three main sources of water for Ghana - the Panchna dam, the Chambal river and the Goverdhan drain.
Panchna dam, built originally on the Gambhir river, is only able to release water when it replenishes during the monsoons. Even so, the locals living in Karauli district, located nearly 90 kilometers upstream from the park, stake claim to the reservoir water, diverting it into their fields and farms, away from Ajan Bund and the marshes of Keoladeo.
“Water became even more limited. Then the farmers started agitating and it became a vote bank issue. 2004 was a particularly bad year, when they completely stopped the release of water to Bharatpur.”
On the other hand, the 17 kilometer-long Goverdhan drain originates in Haryana, enters Rajasthan at Bharatpur and finally drains out near Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The drain gets recharged by the Yamuna runoff but has gone dry this season.
The park’s only hope now is the Chambal river but even that supply is irregular and insufficient.
“We need the right quantity at the right time,” Singh comments. “The nesting period is crucial. Plus, the quality of water is also very important. The Goverdhan drain passes through towns and villages, where it gathers pollutants. It needs flushing. The Chambal, on the other hand, is too clean. The Gambhir river has the right amount of feed in the water, carrying seeds and vegetation with it.”
Ghana requires 550 million cubic feet (MCFt) water for the maintenance of the wetland ecosystem, which forms close to 40 percent of the total park.
“Earlier, rains used to take care of at least half of it,” laments Khan, who sprung out of his retirement to help manage the park’s water crisis. “Now, times are such that even UNESCO had threatened to pull Keoladeo out as a World Heritage Site due to dry spells. We had to get schoolchildren to write letters to them.”
Khan’s daily routine now entails patrolling Keoladeo in the morning and evening, checking on water levels in different blocks, and coordinating its release from different sources.
Despite its waters woes and numerous summers of discontent, the park abides in the call of the sarus, the wings of the oriole and in the spirit of its protectors.
Singh, who is young and eloquent, also leads training for forest officials from across the country.
“We need to find solutions,” he says. “So the least I can do is educate decision makers on water management issues, how we release our reserved quantity through dykes, how the vegetation changes, invasive species, etc.”
Khan, on the other hand, is a cornerstone to Singh and any young force that vitalizes Keoladeo - foresters, photographers, visitors, guides, researchers, students and rickshaw pullers.
Park director Ajit Uchoi finds Singh and Khan indispensable to Ghana. "Khan is a memoir of experience, and we owe him gratitude for many a bright joy," he says. "He knows about traditional systems like bunds and dykes, structures we use till date. Jatan, on the other hand, is a feeling body - quick and innovative. He comes up with faster and more contemporary solutions. There is a transfer of legacy happening between them.”
Uchoi effortlessly compares the rangers to Ghana’s iconic residents. “If one is the pride of Keoladeo, the painted stork, the other is its soul, the elegant wings of the sarus."
Dusk settles on the park, the silhouette of a slender, lone bird kissing the tangerine sky. As it perches, the yellow bill, the painted tail - keeps the hope of another year alive.
This story was first published on Mukha.co. Mukha is part global creative collective, part magazine that provides a digital space for unique storytelling projects from around the world. The Ranger Ranger Project is run by Sonali Prasad in collaboration with Mukha Media, with a reporting grant provided by the Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship at Columbia University, NY