A pair of Siberian cranes in Keoladeo Ghana, February 1994. Photo: Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Keoladeo Ghana, popularly called Bharatpur, was declared a national park in 1982 and a UNESCO World Heritage ‘Natural’ Site in 1985. The site originated in 1850 as a man-made hunting reserve for Maharaja Suraj Mal of Bharatpur.
The hunting reserve was popular among the royalty, the British and the armed forces alike. There is a stone plaque here that describes a hunting excess from 1902 to 1964. In this time, the ‘highest score’ went to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, who killed 4,206 waterfowl using 50 guns, on November 20, 1916. The last engraved hunt is that of General J.N. Chaudhuri, chief of the army staff, who on February 23, 1964, killed 556 waterfowl using 51 guns in just half a day.
After this hunting phase, and until the 2000s, Keoladeo was synonymous with the Siberian cranes – colloquially, ‘Sibes’. A small, dwindling population of these birds used to make it to Keoladeo like clockwork every winter, over plains, river valleys and the high altitude passes of Central Asia and Afghanistan, from their breeding grounds east of the Ural Mountains some 200 km south of the Arctic Circle. The Sibes migrated in three distinct groups from two breeding populations – Eastern, to China via the eastern migration flyway, and Western, to India and Iran via the central and western flyways, respectively.
The oldest record of Sibes in Keoladeo is from an early 17th century painting by Ustad Mansur, an accomplished artist in the court of Jehangir. From an estimated population of about 400 and a widespread, though patchy, distribution over at least eight regions in this time, there were only a hundred Sibes by the time they received official protection in India in 1967, and Keoladeo was their only wintering site.
Their population dropped further with 75 in the early 1970s, 23 by 1988 and just 10 in 1990. The birds continued to be hunted, and sometimes collected as specimens for study. Along their migration paths over Central Asia, changing agricultural patterns and population pressures have led to destroyed habitats, and Afghanistan’s long-drawn conflict only seems set to stretch further. In the winter of 1998, only a pair of birds arrived at Keoladeo. They left after the 2001-2002 winter never to return. Keoladeo had lost its Kohinoor.
The story of the Western Iranian wintering population follows the same trajectory. Sibes were first discovered here in 1974, as a population of 14 birds at the Fereydoon Kenar wetland. But in 2006-2007, there was only one Sibe, lovingly named ‘Omid’ – Farsi for ‘hope’. Omid had flown 7,800 km alone to visit Iran. The last records of Omid date to 2020.
The eastern population of Sibes is estimated at slightly above 3,000 and continues to decline. Two subpopulations have already become extinct.
I’d had a wonderful weekend of birding and it was time to leave Bharatpur. I had heard good things about the little store at the park exit. I entered a largish well-stocked room, with t-shirts, books, caps, cups, jackets and other items. I came across a series of miniature paintings, reproduced on an A4-sized sheet and packed in taped plastic pouches. Right in the middle was a profile of a Siberian crane with Urdu lettering, inspired perhaps from some original artwork. It was priced at Rs 400.
I got chatting with the soft-spoken salesperson, a retired army man. I asked him about the painting, and he said, “The artist is Katara, lives close to Bharatpur and does pretty well. Only the firangs1 appreciate this art.” I bought a t-shirt, a mug and an aluminium water bottle. It was calm and quiet inside; I took one more look at the items on sale, and my eyes lingered on the painting.
I recalled a passage from Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed film Kanchenjunga (1962). Set in Darjeeling, with lilting music, the Kanchenjunga mountain plays backdrop to the failures, travails and intrigues of multiple generations of an upper-class Bengali family on their yearly vacation to Darjeeling.
One passage starts with Jagadish (played ably by Pahari Sanyal) glued to his binoculars, keenly following an elusive bird in the pine canopies. He tells Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee) how, after he lost his wife, his wandering led him to meet a man in Rishikesh that studied birds. This man described how our ragas were inspired by the songs of birds, after which the musicophile Jagadish was hooked to birds. To illustrate, Jagadish invokes the golden plover, which flies from the Arctic to the tropics. In his words:
“A flight of 2000 miles, each year without fail… It has such a tiny body and an even tinier brain. How is it possible for them to perform this feat? How did they do it? Nobody knows.”
The music subtly changes to become more ominous and Jagadish becomes pensive, confessing that he lives in fear, that he lies in bed at nights and thinks about “nuclear tests” are filling the air with poisonous radioactive gases, that one day he might find that the birds haven’t appeared, “that they have lost their minds and forgotten the way, that they have lost their sense of direction… Or perhaps they have all died on the way and, like raindrops, fallen one by one, tip tip tip…”.
Something shook me out of my reverie, and I paid the salesperson 400 rupees. He walked across to the shelf, opened the plastic pouch, removed the price tag, and handed me the painting with a gentle smile.
After placing the Sibe in my bag, I walked out, just as a deep sadness hollowed out my chest. I realised this is what extinction feels like. The space occupied by the Sibe is empty.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is an amateur naturalist.
Local slang for white people, a euphemism for foreigners↩