The end of Keoladeo's avian glory? Water crisis in Bharatpur puts its World Heritage Site status at risk

Article and Image courtesy: Infochange
Author: Kalpita Dutta

A serious water crisis at Keoladeo National Park, exacerbated by caste politics and strife, has put its World Heritage Site status at risk. Barely 10% of the migratory birds that used to flock to Bharatpur are to be seen today. How feasible are the solutions proposed?

Spot billed duckSpot billed duck

Keoladeo National Park (KNP) in Bharatpur (Rajasthan) has only just managed to escape the threat of de-recognition of its World Heritage Site status, on account of severe water shortages. But sadly, the park, which was once visited by huge numbers of rare migratory birds, no longer figures on the birds’ list of most favored winter destinations. The birds have shifted their nesting, breeding and feeding sites to the lesser-known Keetham lake in Agra, the wetlands of Dholpur, and other areas around 85-90 km from KNP.

Meanwhile, proposals to redeem the park continue to hang in the balance, embroiled in various official and legal disputes.An erstwhile shooting preserve of Bharatpur royalty, the first conservation efforts in Keoladeo National Park were initiated by the renowned ornithologist Dr Salim Ali, following which the area was deemed a national park in March 1982. In 1985, Bharatpur was elevated to the status of a World Heritage Site. However, in the words of the Director, KNP, Anup K R- “The park will never be the same again. Even as late as the 1990s, the number of birds arriving here easily exceeded 100,000; they belonged to nearly 375 species. The rarest of rare Siberian crane was spotted here in 1991. Today, the figure is barely 8-10% of what it was, thereby reducing the park to a shadow of its former avian glory".

Asian Open bill stork
Asian Open bill stork

The 28.73 sq km Keoladeo National Park is located almost in the middle of the Central Asian flyway for migratory birds from Siberia, Central Asia, China, Mongolia and the Himalayan states, offering a rich mosaic of habitats that are an ideal mix of woodland, scrubland, grasslands and wetlands. “Unfortunately, it’s the growing water crisis that is keeping the birds away,” says Anup.

In the past, the park used to receive water from the Gambhir river that originates in the Karauli hills south of Bharatpur, and the Banganga emerging from the foothills of the Aravallis in Jaipur. The area formed a natural depression that got flooded after the then ruler of Bharatpur constructed a bund, the Ajan Bund, in 1760, at the confluence of the two rivers. Since then, it has been a haven for migratory birds.

In 1985, however, the Banganga became extinct and the Gambhir was left as the sole source of water for the park.

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