The Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur is the one bird sanctuary that most travellers in India would have heard of. It is a marvel of conservation efforts, and is reputed to be one of the most diverse wetland areas in the world. There are claims that more than 100,000 tourists visit every year. I can believe that after seeing how many houses in Bharatpur have become hotels over the years.
After years of disagreement, the local population now seems to be quite invested in the well-being of the park. It brings business, and water-sharing agreements between the park and the surrounding farmlands now ensure that there is no friction even in years, like this, when rainfall has been less than usual.
A very striking, and welcome, development was this series of beautiful paintings in a naive style which I saw on the walls of buildings and structures, inside the park, which belong to the forest department. They did not look weather-beaten; either someone has done these paintings recently, or people have been taking care of them. They weren’t there when we visited this park almost exactly twenty years ago. Painted storks were the first birds we had seen then, and they appear among the species painted here. The few Siberian Cranes (Grus leucogeranus) that we saw then remains one of the highlights of that visit. This population is now extinct, and they are not remembered in the paintings that you see.
Near the entrance, a marble plaque proclaims the status of the park as a world heritage site. The story behind the park and its status is more gnarly than this simple plaque would lead you to believe, but the gain for conservation is clear. There is more money for upkeep now, and almost 50% of the annual visitors are foreign tourists.
There aren’t too many facilities for visitors inside the park. Around the entrance are shops and a visitors’ center. An Interpretation Center is some way in. Further in, near the offices of the Forest Department, there is a car park, a small canteen, and a small guest house. I liked the lawn in front of it; I should remember to book a room in it if we come here again. I liked the decrepit gate near the guest house (it’s part of the slide show above).
Much further in is the Keoladeo temple. Near it is are eight marble plaques of infamy. This park was built as a duck shoot in 1920, and the plaques record a succession of panjandrums who shot down hundreds, sometimes thousands of birds in a day. This grand parade of hunters began in 1921 with the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and continued with various Maharajas and Viceroys. In the years after independence more dignitaries came to hunt: the Shah of Iran, the kings of Nepal and Malaya, a party of senators from the US, until 1964 when the last name, of the chief of army staff, General J. N. Chaudhuri, was inscribed. A little distance away is an account of changing attitudes to this area. In 1967 the area was declared a protected forest, and it became a National Park in 1981. Four years later it became a World Heritage site.
I was there with a group of bird watchers. Over dinner there was some discussion of the history of the park. Attitudes towards wildlife have changed so far that some people are very offended by the record of the shoots. I agreed with their opinion about the importance of conservation. I understood their emotions, but I could not agree with the idea of removing these plaques. I think it is important to record our history truly, so that we can continue to appreciate the hard work needed to change people’s minds, and through it, to change the world. These eight marble plaques are a lesson to us, and to the next generation, that changes may take a lifetime or two, but if enough people are convinced, then it will happen.