July 2008: Hope had almost died, much like the sanctuary, starved of water—and life, for nearly five years. Yet, as the monsoon season approached, prayer in their heart, many a hopeful eye trained towards the sky. This time, the Gods did not disappoint, and the heavens opened up, drenching a parched earth…

The first to test these waters were the Openbills, arriving in tentative numbers, before they built their nests, and soon, the Kadamtrees were colonised by thousands of these storks. Their arrival served as a signal for others to follow suit, and Keoladeo Ghana National Park, better known as the Bharatpur, was back in business. Darters, egrets, herons, ibis’, cormorants set up house as well. The jacana could be seen, busily, fashioning its nest atop thick floating vegetation, and the Sarus Crane was back at what it did best–dancing and wooing its mate.

The migrants—ducks, teals, pochards, gadwalls, geese, pintails have started making cautious forays—and soon it is expected that they will land in huge numbers-in their winter sanctuary, denied to them over the years.

Perhaps the first sign of unhappy days ahead was the early winter of 2002, when Keoladeo’s star visitor: the Siberian Crane, having dwindled to a measly three in recent years, failed to show up altogether. Though you couldn’t really the lay the blame on Bharatpur’s door—since they traversed through hostile skies – many superstitious ornithologists took it as a sign of foreboding for grim times to come.

The prophecy proved true. Drought plagued the region from 2004 onwards and Bharatpur shrivelled up. Worse, the water of Ajan dam, fed by the Gambhir and Banganga rivers-the lifeline of the wetland, was denied to the sanctuary.

But for the past four yours, agitating farmers, and water politics put a halt to that. Rainfall had been consistently low, and the farmers demanded water for their fields. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan stated in Feb 2005 that “people, not park were her priority.” Rather than work out a compromise; or understand that denying the wetlands would also mean that groundwater for farmers around the park would not be replenished, the powers-that-be succumbed to political pressure from the voters and diverted the water meant for the swamps to the farmlands. The result? Devastation.

The wetland, accorded the status of a Ramsar Site, became arid. The birds gave the dry, desolate park a miss. The Siberian Cranes were already history; the flourishing stork colonies and heronries had ceased to exist. From the nearly 400 species that the park boasted of, the numbers crashed to 48 last year, and the park that that saw over several hundred of thousands birds in a normal season, now barely held 4,000. The other species suffered, too. The endangered Fishing Cat has dwindled to negligible numbers, the otters once seen frolicking on the wetlands have vanished, and turtles could be seen desperately thrashing around in tiny, putrid pools of water. The once fecund wetland of Bharatpur was now a graveyard.

“There was no breeding at all, how could there be in such conditions? No water, no grasses, no fish. With lack of prey, the raptors took wing too. Birds like munias too failed to breed” says Bholu Abrar Khan, a veteran of the park.

The economy that centered on the park was also devastated. Says Rattan Singh, a rickshaw puller who takes tourists around the park, that the past four years were bleakest, and their livelihood suffered, “there were very few tourists, those who came, went back unhappy.” The hotels ran empty, too.

The initial reaction to save the Ghana was knee-jerk. Spluttering Tube-wells were installed. The feral cattle that had taken over the park, lapped up the bit of water they pumped up. The state government then came up with more lavish-but equally foolish plan-to draw water through a pipeline from the Chambal River, at the cost of over Rs 100 crores was rubbished by experts. “It won’t serve the purpose. Bharatpur needs live water that gives birth to the grasses, fish etc that the birds feed on. The water that comes all the way from Chambal will be inert, and of little use,” explains Dr Parikshit Gautam, head, wetlands division, World Wildlife Fund for Nature.

However, catastrophic the water situation was, equally grave was the problem of Prosopis juliflora, an exotic species, that rapidly takes over, and hampers the growth of other species. In just three years, i.e. 2002-2005, the spread of prosopis had almost doubled, devastating the health of the wetland by obstructing the regeneration of native vegetation, and trees like Salvadora perica and Balanits—on which fruit eating birds like Rosy Pastors depended. Predictably, their numbers crashed. As did those of raptors and owls, which found their traditional hunting grounds run-over by this pernicious weed.

Bharatpur was a paradise lost, almost given up for dead. “So bad was the situation that there were fears that the wetland would lose its World Heritage Status. And which it almost did” says Bikram Grewal, author of the Bharatpur Inheritance. “Which,” says R N Mehrotra, Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, “we couldn’t allow to happen. And so began the battle to regain the park—the first step was to rid the park of the prosopis. It was a monumental task, and they had no precedent to follow. The forest department strategised an innovative plan that benefited the local villagers, and the WWF pitched in financially. Through eco-development committees formed in villages adjacent to the park, families were allotted plots of land from which they would clear of the weed. In exchange, they were given the said wood, to use as fuel-wood or to sell.

About eight km of the park was cleared, and nearly one lakh quintals of wood was extracted from the park. This bounty served the locals well, many of whom paid off old debts by the money they earned by selling off surplus fuel wood. Like Tukiram from Jatoli village, who not only cleared off his old debts, but also made a pucca house from the money he earned by selling the prosopis.
The water problem was an even more complex issue. Fortunately, this year, the rain gods obliged. This, in itself, is not enough, to survive Bharatpur needs about 550 mcf of water, most of which is supplied by Ajan bund. Though a prickly issue, some discreet politics, plus co-ordination with district administration saw about 450 mcf being released in three phases from Ajan.

Ajan, however, can no longer be depended on as a source, given the volatile politics attached to it. “One solution was to divert the Chiksana canal which drained the flood water of Ajan, and passed through the southern tip of the park. This was diverted to the ‘E block’-best known as the point once visited by the Sibes,” explains Dr Prakshit Gautam. It filled the gap, supplied about 80 mcf, restoring life back to the parched park. The other, he adds, is to get water from the Govardhan canal, a flood drain, and hence with no claimants on the water. This will mean drawing a pipe of 17.kmto the park, and together both these canals can meet the needs of Bharatpur.

“The state has already sanctioned Rs 12.46 crores for the same. The cost is about 65 crores and the Planning Commission has agreed to grant the rest of the amount. We have already started work on it and hope that the canal will be ready by next monsoon. Bharatpur need never go thirsty again,” says R N Mehrotra.

Bharatpur is still a far cry from its former glory, but is well on its way to recovery. With the scourge of prosipisremoved, and the gift of water, Bharatpur is a park rejuvenated, alive with the cries of a thousand birds. Bholu points out the nest of a Painted Stork, the mother has just brought back fish-and the four chicks-all grey and wholly-are raising hell, stabbing at her beak for the food. “Four chicks, and they have all survived—it indicates there’s enough food in the park…” And enough hope for the future!