“I am probably the longest-serving resident of Bharatpur wetlands,” declares Bholu Khan with a chuckle. The 65-year-old Khan is a veteran forest ranger and has been living inside the Keoladeo National Park, commonly called Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, continuously for over 60 years and admits that it is not only a privilege but also a profound way of life. “The pure air I get to breathe is a bonus.”

He feels sanctified to be able to wake up in the morning and go to sleep each day to the sounds of bird calls. He served the forest department for 38 years and continues to care for the national park even after retirement. He was reinstated for his exemplary work in a protected wetland that is known the world over as a Unesco natural history site of distinction.

Last month, Khan was conferred with the lifetime achievement award for conservation by Carl Zeiss India, a global technology leader in the field of optics that honours individuals for outstanding contribution to wildlife conservation.

Sharing wild stories

“My father happened to work as a chef with the Bharatpur maharaja and I was destined to live within Keoladeo sanctuary. I enjoy this work so much that it cannot strictly be called work. If not for the bounty of Bharatpur, my life would have no meaning.” He quickly confesses that since “knowledge acknowledges accomplishments”, his greatest pleasure is sharing information about the wild denizens of Keoladeo.

Over the years, at least 40 students who have acquired doctoral degrees in various topics like arboreal reptiles, vanishing vultures, rare fishing cats, wetland vegetation, butterflies, water lilies, and varieties of fish and turtles, among others, have sought the expertise of Khan. “Keoladeo is like an open school for wildlife enthusiasts, birdwatchers, naturalists and photographers,” he points out.

There have been times when Khan and others working in Bharatpur had to actively battle the blues. When the rains failed, water management was a major issue, as was the massive job of bird census. Tracking a moving target like the hyperactive birds was a painstaking effort. Monitoring the health of the wetlands on a daily basis and reporting the situation to his superiors form a vital part of Khan’s job profile.

Star of the wildlife tour

Apart from keeping an eagle eye on Keoladeo, Khan lavishes a lot of time educating children from the nearby villages and taking them on regular rambles in the jungles. He also tutors trainees from the Indian Forest Service and new recruits of State forest departments from across India. When he finds time on his routine patrol, he wields his binoculars and camera to capture pictures that have become part of wildlife tourism folklore.

About 200 km south of Delhi, in the hinterlands of Rajasthan, Keoladeo National Park is one of the world’s most-visited bird havens. Practically every celebrity who visits the swamps asks for and interacts with Khan. This includes a host of conservationists and scientists such as Sir David Attenborough, whom Khan accompanied during the filming of The Trials of Life, a path-breaking natural history documentary produced by BBC.

Khan says it was his love for the park that fetched him the opportunity to not only meet but also work with the celebrated photographer Eric Hosking and conservation specialist Sir Peter Scott.

Eye-to-eye with Salim Ali

As a youngster, Khan got an opportunity to work with the late Sálim Ali, the father of Indian ornithology. Ali soon noticed the young man’s keen interest and taught him how to observe and monitor birds in the field. His first assignment was to count adult Painted Storks, the number of nests they made and on how many trees. He was thrilled and took two months to complete the task of meticulously counting nearly 5,000 birds.

Apart from Khan, at least 123 rickshaw pullers and 40 tourist guides make a living from this 29 sq km sanctuary. Ansar and Chhotu, two of Khan’s five children, have benefited too. They started a voluntary organisation ‘Life Line for Nature’ under Khan’s guidance. While older son Ansar became a travel operator specialising in wildlife, Chhotu has become a proficient photographer. “There are others, too, like Naveen Sharma, Raj Vaid and Monu, who have carved a niche for themselves in the national and international arena for pursuing wildlife photography, all thanks to nature’s bounty in Keoladeo, says Khan.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida