The world famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan has lost its biggest draw — the painted stork. The hugely popular and colourful birds, whose colony inside the sanctuary is touted as one of the largest in Asia, flew away last month. Environmentalists and bird watchers have called it a huge tragedy, since the entire flock of 1,500-plus painted storks abandoned the colony in the middle of their breeding season — leaving behind hundreds of eggs which were later devoured by crows and other carrion birds.
The forest department of Bharatpur, though aware of the stinging loss to the world heritage site, is treading cautiously. “I came here only last month, so can’t really comment. But if you insist, I will get a report from my staff,’’ said Field Director Bijo Joy.
The Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, Sidhnath Singh, said he was informed about the mass departure, but the officials at Bharatpur could do precious little in the matter. Blaming the “insufficient monsoon’’, he emphasised that shortage of water seemed to be the only culprit. “Nobody can control the monsoon. 2014 was particularly bad, so the storks probably decided not to stay,’’ he said.
Singh may be technically correct, but there is another reason. By several accounts, the painted storks started leaving last month after the forest department allowed dozens of trucks and JCB machines inside the sanctuary. These were engaged to build mud platforms around the storks’ colony, so as to enable the visitors to click “better photographs’’ of the birds.
Also, mounds were created in the water bodies — ostensibly to give more perching space to the storks. But all this had an opposite effect: in Bharatpur, where the only modes of transport allowed are bicycles and cycle rickshaws, the onslaught of heavy machinery scared the storks, prompting them to take flight en masse.
Joy’s predecessor Khyati Mathur, who was the Field Director at the time the painted storks flew away, claimed that construction activities in and around the colony did not trigger their departure. “I am sure the birds have evolved to a degree that they accept a fairly high level of human activities. Aren’t the birds thriving at Okhla barrage, despite the commotion from nearby Delhi and Noida?’’ she replied to a query.
But bird conservation experts contested Mathur’s argument. “You do not construct mounds near trees where birds have already made their nest. They will definitely fly away,’’ said Dr K Sivakumar, senior scientist with Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) whose team members have been doing research in Bharatpur for the last 15 years.
Sivakumar said there was no possibility of the painted storks coming back to Bharatpur this season. “They may regroup next year, but you can’t be 100 per cent sure about these things,’’ he said.
Dr Surya Prakash of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), another well-known ornithologist, described the recent happenings in Bharatpur as “insane’’. It’s a rule of thumb that you are not supposed to disturb birds when they are breeding, he said. “In most cases, when the birds abandon their nests and eggs, they do not come back. I sincerely hope this does not happen to Bharatpur. In February this year, I was at the colony with 60 students of IIT and clicked photos of hundreds of painted stork chicks. This is indeed shocking,’’ he said.
Most experts and officials, however, also pointed out that shortage of water in Bharatpur this season could be a contributing factor.
The sanctuary traditionally receives water for its wetlands from three sources: Gambhir river, Cambal river and Goverdhan dam. Owing to insufficient monsoon, not a drop was received from Goverdhan dam this year. Gambhir river has remained more or less dry for several years now. Chambal river did come to the bird sanctuary’s rescue, but its water managed to reach only five of Bharatpur’s eight blocks. It filled the D block (the storks’ colony), but the effort was negated by subsequent construction of mud platforms and mounds.
Situated in Block D of the bird sanctuary, the painted storks’ colony has been in existence for at least 200 years. Around April, the birds leave the colony for three months, and then return to nest, breed and raise the chicks during the next nine months. But of late, some 200 to 300 storks would remain in the colony throughout the year. As the guides here often quip, “you may or may not see a tiger in Ranthambore, but you will always see painted storks in Bharatpur.’’
Former Range Officer of Bharatpur, Bholu Abrar Khan, recalled how in the winter of 1958 he and celebrated ornithologist Dr Salim Ali had counted over 10,000 painted storks in the same colony. “True, their numbers have been declining over the years, but December is the time when the painted storks’ colony is in its full glory. Most people come here only for the storks. I can’t believe this has happened,’’ Khan said.
Meanwhile, over 300 painted storks arrived at the Delhi Zoo recently.