India Interior

Countryside caretaker of the dainty demoiselle

N.Shiva Kumar | Updated on October 05, 2019 Published on October 05, 2019

A young demoiselle crane, probably a first time visitor to India, became feeble after the long flight and is in the safe hands of Sevaram N Shiva Kumar

Sevaram uses his personal motorcycle to fetch injured demoiselle cranes that have been hit by aerial power cables outside Kheechan.

Overhead cables, which pose a danger to the birds, have largely been removed

With a wingspan of nearly six feet, demoiselle cranes are masters at long-distance flying N Shiva Kumar   -  N Shiva Kumar

Meet Sevaram, who has made it his life’s mission to care for the migrant visitors to a Rajasthan hamlet every year

Come September, the residents of Kheechan, a tiny hamlet near Phalodi town in Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, get ready to welcome winged visitors from abroad.

Kheechan is located on the edge of the sprawling Thar Desert that covers an area of 2,00,000 km, and seemingly barren, but the landscape attracts migratory birds.

Breathless from their long journey of over 5,000 km, Demoiselle cranes choose the tropical desert to spend their sabbatical of seven months. They escape their breeding grounds in the frigid winters of Russia, Mongolia, Europe and China, to make a beeline to the Indian subcontinent by deftly negotiating the mighty Himalayas.

In the last five to six decades, Demoiselle cranes have galvanised the countryside of Kheechan, making it an ornithological delight for scientists, shutterbugs and foreigners.

Kheechan-Phalodi is equidistant from Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Nagaur in Rajasthan and tourists criss-crossing the highways invariably stop over for a sighting of the cranes.

A cafeteria for the cranes

In the remote but ancient settlement of Kheechan, a school dropout, Sevaram Mali Parihar, has become a messiah for the dainty Demoiselle cranes.

After he failed his Std 7 exams, Sevaram often made excuses to disappear into the hinterlands to watch endlessly the congregating bird life near the water ponds.

As a lone ranger, Sevaram fell in love with the curious cranes that visit his village every year like far-off relatives.

Spending all his time with them, as his zest grew, he watched keenly all the action around the cranes. He saw how the elders of the village frequently fed grains to the cranes. He noticed how his father, grandfather and other villagers lived in harmony with the feathered fowl despite the desolate terrain. He also learnt from ecologists that the lack of vegetation does not deter wildlife — indeed, scanty flora can sustain nearly 150 species of migratory and resident birds in the Thar.

He earnestly learned the English names of birds like lapwing, lark, finch, and Sandgrouse, among others, that thrive in the heat and dust of the desert. However, his favourite was always the demoiselle crane standing three feet tall with its elegant plumage, long black necktie feathers and red, moody eyes.

As a young lad of 17, Sevaram learned the nuances of nature conservation from village elders and even tended to injured birds, nurturing them back to health. Now, at the age of 37, he has ample experience in providing help and comfort to the winged visitors wounded either due to the vagaries of Nature or man-made impediments.

Today, Sevaram is known for his fighting spirit and guards the dainty cranes at Kheechan. They are treated like royalty as not a day goes without their being fed sumptuously with grain. Every year, during their stay between September and March, the residents’ cooperative gathers grain or lends money to stock grain at a designated warehouse. A large enclosure locally created, known as Pakshi Chugga Ghar, is the open-air cafeteria for the cranes.

“They are like our honoured guests. We customarily feed them every time they visit and in the peak season nearly 2,000 kg of cereal grain is spread,” says Sevaram.

Though he is a school dropout with very little knowledge of English, Sevaram has fought many battles over 20 years with the local Gram Panchayat and various government authorities.

He managed to get the overhead cables and power lines from the entire village to be insulated, removed or replaced with underground cables. He filed complaints with the Collector of Phalodi, the Rajasthan High Court and Rajasthan Electricity Board (REB) to remove these wires.

A fine of around ₹4.25 lakh was slapped on him, by the REB. But with the help of the Rajasthan Forest Department, he fought the fine and won the complicated case after numerous court verdicts.

One can understand why he fought so relentlessly to eliminate aerial power lines — they often became death traps for the large-winged demoiselle cranes.

Often, the demoiselle cranes, with a wingspan of nearly six feet, got entangled in the wires while approaching for feeding or quenching their thirst. Sevaram is also fighting to free the rooftops of jutting-into-the-air mobile network towers by redesigning or relocating them to safer zones.

Sevaram in his guttural drawl proudly proclaims, “I would have rescued about 500 demoiselle cranes in about 20 years and have been awarded by various organisations from time to time for my efforts to save the cranes.”

He encourages donations from tourists, wayfarers, anyone who is willing to contribute for the cause of the winged visitors.

He also engages with the local and national media for making interesting news items and episodes for TV channels on the activities of demoiselle cranes.

Sevaram’s service in the cause of the demoiselle cranes is paying rich dividends as he successfully coaxed the government to allot a plot of land in the village to set up a bird rescue centre. Nevertheless, for want of funds, the parcel of land remains vacant awaiting philanthropic organisations to take up the good cause.

Daily struggle

The countryside crusader says ruefully, “I have fought many battles but life is a daily struggle in my village where opportunities are few and far between.”

He works as a small-time contractor, offering brick and mortar services and also runs a mini plant for supply of clean drinking water to the villagers. His ambition is to have a bird rehabilitation centre of his own to ensure that demoiselle cranes get the best hospitality.

In the meanwhile, you can spot Sevaram perched on the rooftop of his house updating the logbook that he has been maintaining since 2010, which contains details about the inbound and outbound movement of cranes.

As his dwelling is on the fringes of the feeding pen he meticulously maintains the daily ritual of arrival and departure timings of cranes, keeping a sharp eye out for sick birds and tourists.

November and December witness a spurt in the number of cranes to over 20,000, which is double the human population of Kheechan, and the boisterous demoiselle cranes convert the hamlet into a ‘crane country’ with their honking, bugle-like calls.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida

Published on October 05, 2019
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