Dawn: the jackals called to one another in the dry scrub forests of Keoladeo National Park as I biked along the central road. The park, known for its diversity of migratory birds and wetlands was now hardly wet, as the rising sun revealed a parched landscape.
Wetlands were now cracked earth baked in the sun. Egyptian Vultures flew overhead. Waterbirds, however, were few, compared to the hundreds of thousands that normally flock here for the winter.Where did the birds go? Were there alternative wetlands that were actually wet?
As I began my exploration of India's National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, skepticism filled my mind. Surrounding the park was a sea of civilization, complete with irrigated crops. Humans have priority over all natural resources and leave the wildlife without much to survive in the driest years.
Nevertheless, the Spot-billed Ducks, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbills, Red-wattled Lapwings, kingfishers, White-breasted Water Hens, herons, and sandpipers were still ekeing out a living in the few wet areas remaining. Deer drank the water along with cattle encroaching into the wildlife areas.
I biked and hiked around the park, stopping often and taking my time over two days. Passing by were rickshaw drivers and nature lovers alike. The rickshaw drivers had become expert birders over the years--I was impressed. They even knew where the owls roosted and found them for everyone.
At night, I stayed at the Spoonbill Hotel and ate Rajasthani dinner with two Indian couples, one from Mumbai, the other from Delhi. Both couples enjoyed nature and were part of the rising Indian middle class. "Nature is my passion, like you," said Jay from Mumbai. We talked about the water crisis in India as well as the many problems facing wildlife in such a populous country with a fast-growing economy. This was something I hope to understand as I travel India's parks and sanctuaries.
I left Keoladeo, still wondering: Where did the birds go?