Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Snowbird’s last dance

Kenshin was lying on the bank, arms stretched out, his knees drawn up. The winter sun was glinting off the metal frame of his aviator glasses and he had a wan smile on his lips. His mud-stained khakis had wisps of golden brown grass sticking to them and he had tipped his khaki hat over his forehead to shield it from the sun. A few feet from his bare feet, the gentle slope of the bank met the water’s marshy edge where a couple of smooth boulders scurried away into the waters at my approach: turtles. On the opposite bank, a sleepy jackal stretched and yawned, unmindful of two tall figures lingering in the shadows, their heads thrown back as they crooned in unison – krooo –kroo- kroo-kroo: a pair of Sarus Cranes, the tallest flying birds in the world. Their song seemed to linger and grow louder as it travelled through the marsh. Kenshin’s smile grew wider.

I sat down next to him and Kenshin rose, still smiling. He was one of the few Japanese tourists I’ve met who spoke fluent English. “Guess I reached Bharatpur too late. I had heard about this wetland paradise while studying at Purdue; the great lakes and marshes, the hundreds of wading birds, storks, herons, ibises, ducks and the gorgeous cranes...all gone now.” So had the smile. He had taken off his sun glasses and hat. His long straight hair was almost uniform grey as were his arched eyebrows as they surveyed the parched landscape. Bharatpur, once one of the most breathtaking wildlife destinations in the world for both tourists and migratory birds, wore a deserted look.

“The ones I miss the most are the snowbirds...When I was in school, my grandfather told me the story of Sadako Sasaki. It’s a very famous story…heard it?” I shook my head. “Sadako Sasaki was perhaps my age. Her family lived in Hiroshima. When she was two years old, The Great War started. When the Americans bombed Hiroshima, Sadako was just about a kilometer away from the site of the bombing. She survived. However, by the time she was 12 years old she was diagnosed with leukaemia due to radiation exposure. Her distraught parents took her to hospital where the doctors gave her only a year to live. One day she received a gift of origami paper cranes.

Someone told her about the legend of the crane, its mythical powers of bestowing health, healing and longevity and that if anybody folded a thousand paper cranes, the person would find both health and happiness. Sadako was determined to fight her way back to health by folding a thousand paper cranes. Having folded her 644th, Sadako asked for some tea and rice. Surrounded by her family, she ate her last meal, lay down and died. In her memory, her friends folded the remaining paper cranes and buried them with her. Sadako’s statue stands at the Genbaku dome, and in her arms sits a golden crane. When I asked my grandfather to show me a picture of this crane which can heal people, he did not show me a picture of our Japanese Red Crowned Crane but of a snow white bird with a red beak…he called it the snow bird. It was the rare Siberian Crane. From that day, I’ve been in love with cranes, most of all with the Siberian. Hoped to see one here…”

I lay down on the grass. The Sarus Cranes, resident birds, were quiet now. I looked up at the sky. In earlier winters, these skies used to be full of flocks of circling birds. And every November, from the skies would descend a flock of white birds, radiant, beautiful, almost mystical... Kinshen’s snowbirds. “They haven’t been here since 2002”, I told him. “They used to fly into India from Siberia, had done so for centuries… but they were killed, brutally hunted every year till the last two died, perhaps killed on their way back…” Kinshen looked sad. “It is bad to kill a crane…brings ill luck, destruction and illness to people who kill cranes on their way home”, he said. “They were hunted and killed in Afghanistan…perhaps the last of them during the War on Terror”. Kinshen smiled a wry smile. He lay down on the grass as well and looked up at the skies. I was hoping that the skies would bring some rain clouds and end the drought in Bharatpur since the government had refused to release water from other sources. (Cranes don’t vote). Kinshen was looking up at the same sky, perhaps hoping that they’ll also bring back the snowbirds.

The sun had slipped into the horizon. The Saruses were calling again. The empty rookeries, the shrinking marsh, and the lonely kroo- kroo… It was time to go…

The slip stream

Feather Dust

The Keoladeo Ghana National Bird Sanctuary, once one of the richest birding destinations in the world and a World Heritage Site since 1985 owes its origins to the Maharaja of Bharatpur who created the wetland in 1890 to pursue his hobby of bird shooting. Today however, the Bharatpur Lake, once flooded with water and to which once gravitated varieties of birds like painted storks, white ibises, open bills, egrets, herons, barely offers any incentive or invitation. Once it attracted tourists and environmentalists with its rich flora and avi-fauna but now lies dry- in the very periphery of death.

Ravaged by drought, the wetland lies barren because water from the canals that could’ve fed the park was redirected to quench votebanks.

Consequently, birds are few and hard to spot. And some, like the Siberian Crane, once a celebrated winter visitor, have disappeared altogether.

Through the efforts of renowned ornithologist Dr Salim Ali, this park had become one of the most significant wetland habitats in the world. But now there are more cattle in the park than the birds that made it famous. The government needs to act fast to save this great natural heritage from becoming yet another glorious relic that lies dead and buried in the pages of history.


No comments:

Post a Comment