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Rare guests skip parched bird paradise

Jaipur, Feb. 24: The country’s most famous bird paradise may have forever lost a rare guest.

Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park, famous as the wintering ground for the highly endangered Siberian cranes, may never get to see them again even if the sanctuary overcomes its acute water shortage.

Ornithologist and the world’s third-ranked bird watcher Peter G. Kaestner, who was here for an annual bird fair recently, said chances of the Siberian crane returning to Keoladeo were very slim.

Once the birds stopped flying over a wintering route for some years, he said it was unlikely they would return to the old track as they would have found newer sites by then.

The park had been the only regular wintering ground in India for the central population of the rare cranes, which travelled over 6,000km every year to reach Bharatpur until a few years ago. But they have not returned to the Rajasthan sanctuary since 2003.

The cranes, which breed in Yakutia and western Siberia in Arctic Russia and feed on shoots, roots and tubers of aquatic plants, are long-distance migrants.

The eastern population winters on the Yangtze river and Lake Poyang in China, while the western population flies to Iran.

Kaestner said conservation of migratory birds was tough as it was difficult to determine their exact routes and their breeding seasons because they stayed at a wintering site for four to five months at the most.

Keoladeo, known for supporting 40,000 birds of 370 species, has hosted only 30 species this year, thanks to the continued water scarcity.

Shallow water bodies spread over 11sqkm in the 29sqkm sanctuary have dried up and the authorities have turned to pumping water, just about enough for the over 5,000 denizens of the park.

“As for the birds, there are hardly any left. Even the domestic, resident birds, which usually nest during September-October, flew away this year as no flowing water was available. No migratory bird has touched base so far this year,” says bird watcher and expert Baachu Singh.

Although the Unesco World Heritage Park has not yet been added to the UN’s danger list, the heritage committee had warned in 2005 that the park could lose its status if it continued to dry up.

To overcome the crisis, the state government has sanctioned Rs 60 crore for a 17km underground pipeline to draw at least 500 million cubic feet of flowing water from the nearby Goverdhan drain, which carries water from the Gambhiri river.

The pipeline is expected to be ready by June.

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