If you are heading to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary with the thought of catching a glimpse of some exotic winged wonders, chances are you will stumble upon some more familiar, flightless creatures instead.
In January, when over 1,000 magnificent great white pelicans landed at the wildlife habitat in Rajasthan — their strongest presence here in living memory — they were welcomed by an equally large number of stray cattle, mainly cows, which have virtually taken over this UNESCO World Heritage Site. As of today, and by a conservative estimate, each pelican in Bharatpur is forced to share space with at least one cow. There are dogs too, dozens of them, roaming around the water bodies, often attacking birds, smaller animals, and chasing away tourists.
In this season of cow vigilantism, it’s not hard to figure why the forest department of the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur allowed the stray bovines to take over one of the finest birding areas in the world. They decided to look the other way, in a typical manifestation of fence-eating-the-crop syndrome.
Bharatpur’s 29 square kilometres of dry-deciduous area holds some of the finest wetlands, woodlands, swamps and dry grasslands. Bird lovers and photographers — amateurs as well as professionals — troop down from all over the globe. For ages, Bharatpur has been internationally recognised as not just a favourite spot for migratory birds, but also as a breeding ground for a large number of avifauna species.
In 1982, three years before UNESCO declared it a world heritage site, the Indian government banned grazing in the park. While the ban still exists, the bovine are, perhaps, unaware. Now, one can’t walk more than 300 yards in any direction here without encountering cattle. Officials fear the exasperating presence of such a large number of cows, as well as dogs, could spark off a deadly disease, similar to what happened in Gujarat’s Gir National Park that led to the death of several lions last year.
Field director of Bharatpur sanctuary, Ajit Uchoi, mutters about the “sensitive nature of the matter”, but declines to elaborate. What Uchoi is referring to has now become as conspicuous as an elephant in the room. Instead of making amends, the forest department has further abdicated its primary role of maintaining a safe zone for the birds. “For the entire operation of moving the cattle out of the sanctuary, assistance is also being sought from the district administration,” Uchoi said. It’s extreme reluctance that Uchoi and his team of forest officials are looking at the district administration to pull them out of this hole.
Uchoi, the top forest official in Bharatpur, places the blame for this unprecedented invasion on “broken boundary wall at some places”, from where the animals ostensibly walked into the sanctuary. This still doesn’t square up with the delay in repairs. Obviously the infiltration would not have taken place overnight. Incidentally, the cost of removing one cow from the sanctuary would be less than Rs 1,000, Uchoi said.
It’s not that the park has not faced the cattle menace before, but never to this extent and not once did earlier forest authorities allow the situation to escalate this far. On previous occasions, stray animals removed from within the sanctuary were placed far away in the ravines of Chambal, said Uchoi.
Besides being home to over 350 species of birds, of which about 100 migrate here in winter from European and other countries, Bharatpur also has a fairly healthy population of mammals such as spotted dear, blue bull, sambhar, fishing cat and jackal. A sudden virus attack sparked by stray cattle can put all animals at risk. It may not affect the birds directly, but would surely impact the ecosystem of the reserve.
As for cattle grazing in a protected zone, no other national park in India comes close to Bharatpur in cocking a snook at the laws. The issue did impact Ranthambore once, but that was in the 1990s and was taken care of, as was Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park. The imperial looking great white pelicans descend upon Bharatpur every winter, but their numbers rarely cross three digits. The last great sighting was in 2004, but even then they remained far less than this year’s 1,000-plus.
A few happy coincidences in 2019 have created the pelican magic. Unlike in the recent past when there would be a recurring drought-like situation in Bharatpur, often pushing the sanctuary to the edge of doom, the area now receives water from two different sources: the Chambal river and Gowardhan dam. The good monsoon of 2018 also put in its weight, as did the fairly healthy quantity of fish in Bharatpur’s water bodies this year. Now, if only the stray cattle and forest authorities had not played spoilsport.
The tiger is important for an ecosystem, no doubt, but so are the birds and their habitat. Will all the wildlife experts, academicians, filmmakers, guided tour operators, coffee-table book writers grab this problem by the horns?
Ajay Suri is a former journalist and an environment activist