With a wing and a prayer in Keoladeo

| Updated on February 28, 2020

The Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, set up as a hunting reserve 300 years ago, is home to a rich variety of birds. But, as avian numbers decline across the country, there is concern about the bird population dip in the Rajasthan sanctuary as well

Keoladeo National Park has a story to tell. Around three centuries ago, the then maharaja of Bharatpur, Suraj Mal, set the boundaries of the area for a man-made forest reserve. By the 1800s, the park was a royal hunting spot. Then, with the help of the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali, the Bharatpur park turned into a sanctuary in the 1900s, before India’s independence. It is now home to over 375 bird species. While some, like the Sarus crane, can be spotted year-round, others migrate from Siberia and China during winter.

With little effort you can spot a wide variety of birds, including cormorants, darters, peacocks, owls, waterhen, the common coot and the purple sunbird. But lurking under the surface of this avian idyll is a new danger: The declining bird population across the country. The State of Indian Birds 2020 report released at the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, in Gandhinagar earlier this month, showed falling numbers for most Indian bird species. The report was based on 10 million observations by 15,000 birdwatchers across India. Of the 867 species assessed, 101 were listed as High Conservation Concern. Sixteen of these were from Rajasthan.

The reasons for the decline are known in the case of some species. Many types of vultures, such as the Egyptian vulture, have been deemed endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the late 20th century they faced mass poisoning after feeding on livestock treated with an anti-inflammatory drug that is toxic for vultures. They are also victims of poaching. Steppe eagles have been endangered with the conversion of steppes — their natural habitat — to agricultural land. Vultures are tough to observe at close quarters, but at Keoladeo, you can see them circling above areas heavily populated by ducks. Though the park appears bountiful, bird populations in the national park are declining, as observed by the guards.

Sanshey Biswas is the co-founder of Qisa Lab — a media training company; manon verchot is the digital editor of Mongabay, an environment and conservation news site

Published on February 28, 2020

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