Archive for October, 2013


When I drew the attention of my good friend and fellow birder Nalni Jayal to my birding post about a visit to the Keoladeo National Park made last year, all I intended was to give him what I hoped would be an interesting read that would warm his heart ((https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/of-birds-and-humans-the-keoladeo-bharatpur-national-bird-sanctuary/).

He responded promptly and enthusiastically, delighting in my visit like any true birder would, and colourfully reminiscing about his own visits to the Park as a young man in the company of his mentor Dr. Salim Ali, India’s much loved “bird man” and Father of Ornithology in the country.

He also told me important things that I did not know about the history of the Park, and about his own role in its shaping.

It was the late 1970s, and Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister had just set up the brand new Ministry of Environment (in a case of shining political initiative, a commodity, alas, that is severely lacking in India’s current political scene).  Mr. Nalni Jayal was appointed to a key position in the Ministry in charge of forests and wildlife.

As I listened with fascination, Nalni recounted his efforts to recast the former Royal hunting grounds into a protected national bird sanctuary against the backdrop of the early  days of environmental thinking in India, and his pivotal role in establishing scientific markers for this thinking.   I immediately knew that I had to get him to write all of this down.  Readers of my blog deserved to know about the Park’s history, since my blog story was frozen at one point in time.  And it was important to document the role of crucial  actors like him in this history.

If Mrs. Gandhi provided the necessary overall political voice for protecting the environment, Mr. Jayal was the essential condition for its  execution, an inspired bureaucrat and passionate nature lover who kneaded the dough that was India’s new environmental thinking.   Surely a serendipitous case of the right person being at the right spot at the right time.  He did this by drawing in a wide circle of collaborators through his personal and professional leverage – friends and mentors, Indian scientific organisations,  international sister organisations, and pressure groups under the U.N. umbrella.  And thus contributed to laying  the foundations for most of the wildlife sanctuaries that we have in India today.  Places that nature lovers like myself can visit and enjoy.

The note below that Nalni sent me offers a brief – albeit well-documented – glimpse into one such episode in this history.  Woven into it is his own personal story of how he came to be a birder, and his  friendship with Dr. Salim Ali.


Radhika’s blog on birds and humans in the Keoladeo National Park

I was extremely glad, Radhika, that you drew my attention, as a fellow birding enthusiast, to your blog so beautifully describing your visit nineteen months ago to what our most eminent late Ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali, refers to “as one of the world’s most fabulous waterfowl resorts”. You have indeed brought back rich nostalgic memories of my own close association during the critical years of evolution in the second half of the ’seventies of this unique bird preserve, then known as the ‘Ghana’ Bird Sanctuary.

But let me not fail to recount my first not so edifying contact with Ghana as a nine-year old schoolboy in the winter of 1936, taken by the hunting members of our family for a shoot during the years when it was a private duck-shooting preserve of the Bharatpur rulers. Presumably I was being introduced to a sport popular in those days, but I can recall wondering why it was necessary to massacre such beautiful birds — perhaps the first experience that guided my basic instincts towards conservation! Fortunately, soon afterwards Dr. Salim Ali, a close friend of our English Headmaster, introduced us in the Doon School to the rich world of birds around us. This early contact blossomed progressively with the years into a deeper association with him as my ‘guru’, friend and indeed a ‘God’ to help me savour Nature in all its myriad glory!

I was ordained in my Civil Service career in the latter half of the ’seventies to be appointed in a Union Ministry with charge of forests and wildlife of our country. In this capacity I had the opportunity of frequent contact with Dr. Salim Ali and with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that he supervised whose advice and guidance on wildlife conservation in general and on the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in particular was invaluable. Our first combined task was to somehow persuade and morally pressurize the Maharaja into surrendering the shooting rights that he continued to enjoy since Independence. This was successfully and mercifully accomplished with the help of the government. Keoladeo Ghana was thus saved for serious scientific and ecological conservation efforts towards not only making it a unique birding haunt but also ensuring the safety of its fantastic concentration and diversity of both resident and migratory waterbirds. Another unique feature, according to Dr. Salim Ali, which made the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary world famous was its being the only wetland in the Indian subcontinent where small numbers of the rare Siberian Cranes migrated in winter from Siberia.

The BNHS, under Dr. Salim Ali’s guidance, had been already for several earlier years, with the Maharaja’s co-operation, carrying out bird migration through large scale bird ringing. Dr. Salim Ali thus coincided his annual visits to Bharatpur during the nesting season of the resident waterbirds.

Following Ghana’s formal declaration as a Bird Sanctuary, under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, its administrative control passed on to the Wildlife Wing of the Forest Department, with whom I had to interact during the crucial latter half of the ’seventies in order to convert the Sanctuary not only as an ecologically sustainable reserve, but also to find solutions for the many problems its small area suffered from biotic intrusion. Do’s and Don’ts also needed to be worked out with care and enforced for the increasing numbers of visitors, and indeed also for the newly appointed officials of the Sanctuary unfamiliar and ecologically ill-equipped with managing a waterfowl reserve. I was left with the only option of requesting Dr. Salim Ali to increase, instead of seasonal, at least monthly visits to Delhi from his home in Bombay. He readily agreed and I would then drive him to Bharatpur over long weekends to share his vast knowledge and experience to ensure management decisions needed were scientifically well-founded.

Thus a protective wall all around the vulnerable areas of the Sanctuary was constructed to minimize biotic interference; traffic through the Sanctuary was strictly restricted; and a buffer zone at appropriate distance outside the Sanctuary was legally prescribed in which hunting of wildlife was strictly prohibited. Water to keep the wetland alive, during years of monsoon failure was a critical problem mitigated by diverting part of two dammed rivers some distance away, and also through tubewells dug in the Sanctuary when the river flows diminished.

Apart from generally monitoring the avifaunal health of the Sanctuary, Dr. Salim Ali’s main concerns were the declining numbers of Siberian Cranes arriving each winter to the Sanctuary, and the hydrobiological status of its wetland area on which the breeding of the large waterfowl population so critically depended:

.       In regard to the former, every effort was made to protect this highly endangered species at the governmental level by interacting with the concerned authorities in the countries between Siberia and India, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it was feared the Cranes were being hunted on their long journey stopovers. I also visited the International Crane Foundation in the USA where Siberian Cranes were being captively bred in the hope of their being released in the wild for migration or for building a resident population. There is now hope for the latter succeeding at the Keoladeo Sanctuary.

·         In respect of the hydrobiological status of the wetland with its seasonal fluctuations of water levels on which its floral and fish composition depended, as also on its feral grazing, Dr. Salim Ali sought a comprehensive study being carried out by the BNHS. Through my contacts with the US Fish and Wildlife Service I was able to secure resources for the BNHS for a five-year project. Another project for a comprehensive ecological study of the Sanctuary was also  simultaneously sanctioned to the BNHS. The results of these studies have subsequently proved invaluable assets for the scientific management of the National Park when it was so constituted in March 1982, giving rise as it did to some difficult management problems including the unfortunate extinguishing of some traditional rights of the surroundings village communities, some of which were favorable to maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

Finally, I might add that it was a proud privilege for me to be invited to Chair the meeting of the Ramsar Convention at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1981 at which, with our strong support, the Keoladeo Waterbird Sanctuary was voted for inclusion as a Ramsar site. I was very gratified to learn four years later in 1985 — the year I superannuated from the Civil Service — that the Keoladeo (Bharatpur) National Park had been inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage List,  a proud distinction indeed for the smallest 28.73 sq.km. National Park in the country!



Read Full Post »

Listening to a rainbow

I first wrote the piece below on September 26th.  After an absolutely magical afternoon of wind, rain and rainbow colours in the sky.  Like the greedy person that I am, I had hoped that there would be more such afternoons, and perhaps more rainbows.  But nothing quite Iike that has come my way again.

However, I cannot complain. The days are becoming less fiercely hot and are often overcast with gentle grey clouds that induce a calm and even greater silence to the skies.  And the early mornings have just that light touch of chill to signal that autumn is at the door. Although I am an obstinate learner, nature is determinedly teaching me to be content with whatever comes my way.  It has also been a mellowing experience re-visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, this time to particularly follow it up with a reading of some of those who inspired his early thinking about living in alignment with nature …   Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. …

So, joy following an afternoon of rain and rainbow was how I felt on September 26.

Unbeknownst to me, around that time, a very special person in my life Acharya Shri Goenkaji, teacher of Vipassana meditation, was allowing his body to yield to the inevitable cycle of life and death. Listening to his wise teaching last year at a course that I served, had helped me cope with the final stage of my mother’s life and her beautiful and gentle  death, with equanimity.  It is not even a year since my mother died and I have already lost this wonderful teacher.  I cannot but believe that that rainbow was telling me something.
“A Rainbow to Fill Our Hearts and More”

Yesterday  afternoon, the weather changed suddenly.  From being hot and humid with bright cloudless skies,  there was a distinct drop in temperature of a few degrees.  The sun disappeared behind some very grey clouds.   And a brisk cool wind got busy.  We had assumed for the last couple of weeks that the rains had well and truly departed from our lives for this season.  But what was happening now spoke to us of other delights in store.

Within minutes the brisk wind had become a squall.  As some doors and windows – carelessly left unfastened assuming warm, still weather –  started banging, dying and dry leaves from trees around the house began whirling their way into the courtyard and into the sparkling water of freshly cleaned and filled pool.  Soon enough, what started out as a few giant drops developed into a heavy shower.

The newly-wet earth let out a mighty fragrance.  A luminous and unearthly light bathed the landscape.  And we could do little else but lift our faces to the sky and gratefully feel the water cascading down our bodies, and gawk in wonder at what was happening.  Standing on the roof, it was easy to feel one with the obvious delight of the swaying trees,  the gratitude of the shrubs for getting a natural cleansing,  the spirited drumming of vertical lines of water on the courtyard and pool, and the sudden wetness all around after weeks of dry earth and fading grass.

Within an hour the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started.  But there was a still greater treasure in store.   Strong and glowing, girdling the expansive sky above us, stood our first rainbow of the season.  Like a benediction.  A canopy that we wanted to snuggle under, never to leave.  Some grey but spent clouds still covered half the sky swallowing up about a quarter of the rainbow.  But it didn’t matter.  Our day was made.  Our hearts were full.  And it prompted us to think of all the good and bad  in our lives –  all the human and non-human beings of the world, all the known and unknown beings, all the friends and loved ones and the not-so friends and not-so-loved ones, all those near and distant – and to wish for them the same happiness  and peace and joy in nature’s wonders that filled our hearts that evening.

Read Full Post »