Keoladeo National Park: An Overview

in Overview
Published on: 11 July 2016

Satya Prakash Mehra

Satya Prakash Mehra is a conservation biologist and an Advisor at the Rajputana Society of Natural History.

The Eastern Gate of Rajasthan, Bharatpur is known for its World Heritage and Ramsar Site, the Keoladeo National Park (KNP), formely known as the Bharatpur Ghana Bird Sanctuary. Locally, it is still known as 'Ghana' which means a dense forest. It acquired its name, ‘Keoladeo’ due to the presence of the Lord Shiva temple at the centre of the Park. A unique feature of the wetland ecosystem of KNP is its origin from a natural depression, which was an evanescent rainfed wetland (Vijayan 1994) later extensively modified and managed. The construction of the Ajan Bund (a temporary reservoir, locally known as Kohni Bund) in the 18th century, which is about one kilometre from the Park, and the subsequent flooding of the area, marked the beginning of human involvement in the conversion of this natural depression into a permanent waterfowl reserve (Vijayan 1991). Subsequently, several earthen bunds, which divide the Park into compartments or blocks, were constructed containing sluice gates at certain points to regulate the water level. Water from the Ajan Bund floods these blocks through the Ghana Canal; the excess water passes out through the village Jatoli and gets mixed with Bharatpur city’s main flood drain. This water remains in the Park till it dries naturally in the summer.


The Park is the wintering ground of an enormous congregation of migratory waterfowl and home to resident avifauna. It is the only wintering ground for the central population of the rare and highly endangered Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) in India. A large number of breeding colonies of fish-eating birds occur in the monsoon and autumn months. The Park provides an opportunity to birders to watch birds from close proximity. Dr. Salim Ali in his autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow, describes it thus: 'What gives to the Ghana its unique distinction as a bird-watchers’ haunt is not only the fantastic concentration and diversity of species of both resident and migratory water birds at the appropriate seasons, but the uncommonly extended period of half a year or more at a stretch over which bird watching can be enjoyed here.' (Ali 1985)



Historical Background

The climax vegetation of a swamp or riverbed, i.e., Kadam (Mitragyna parvifolia) groves indicates the likelihood of Keoladeo wetland’s existence centuries ago (Sankhla 1990). The area of the Park is a natural depression which is believed to be part of a riverbed, probably that of Yamuna, which subsequently changed its course (Anon. 1996). This area was developed into a duck shooting reserve by the then Maharaja of Bharatpur at the end of the 19th century.


For the first time in the year 1901, this reserve was flooded with water released from the Ajan Bund, which was built in the mid-1700s by the then ruler of Bharatpur, Maharaja Suraj Mal (Drake-Brokman 1905, Gasquire 1927, Pandey 1979). Lord Curzon formally inaugurated the reserve with an organized duck shoot in 1902. On November 12, 1938, the world record of duck shooting—4373 birds in a day—was set here by Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India. The duck shoot record is mentioned in an inscription on a pillar near the Keoladeo Temple. Sport of waterfowl hunting was the prime reason for the creation of this reserve. Although there were other reasons too such as the need for a grazing facility for the village cattle and protecting Bharatpur from frequently occurring floods. In 1919, its boundaries were notified, and since then the reserve also served as a refuge for old, infirm cows which were left there by locals.   


The forest reserve continued to be a hunting preserve for the rulers but was simultaneously also the primary natural resource for the local economy (Anon. 1996). At a nominal fee per cattle head a person could graze their cattle inside and even use the other forest resources for different purposes.


It was in the year 1925, with the enforcement of the Bharatpur Forest Act that formal management of the reserve was initiated. The erstwhile Shikar Department was brought under the Forest Department in accordance with the rules for protection of wildlife and forests of Rajasthan, framed for the period ranging 1930-1935. Management of the shooting reserve, especially the plantation, was carried out according to the working plan of 1944-1964.  


After Independence, with the consistent efforts of Dr. Salim Ali, the ruler of Bharatpur handed the Ghana reserve to the Government of Rajasthan, which notified it as a Bird Sanctuary on the advice of the National Committee for Bird Preservation, India on March 13, 1956. The shooting though continued till 1965. The rulers retained hunting rights until these were withdrawn in 1972. A brick wall was constructed around the sanctuary perimeter from 1977 to 1981.


When India became a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention in 1980, Keoladeo became one of the first of two wetlands in the country (Chilika Lake, Orissa being the other) to be listed as a Ramsar site in October 1981. On August 26 1981 the site was declared a National Park (an area of 28.723 sq km,) vide notification of the Government of Rajasthan F 3(5)(9) Raj 8172, in an effort to raise its conservation status. All forms of biodiversity exploitation inside the park were stopped in accordance to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In 1985, KNP was given the status of a World Heritage site.




Geographical Features

Location (Fig 1): The Keoladeo National Park (KNP), situated at the confluence of the Gambhiri and Banganga rivers (between 27° 07¢ 06²- 27° 12¢ 12² N latitude and 77° 29¢ 05² - 77° 33¢ 09² E longitude at an average elevation of 174 msl), is two kilometres southwest of Bharatpur city. It is flat with a gentle slope towards the centre, forming a depression of about 8.5 sq km, which is the submersible area of the park. This 29 sq km reserve is 50 km away from Agra and 180 km from Delhi.


Climatic Features: It experiences extreme climatic conditions. The diurnal temperature varies from 0.5°C in January to 50°C in May. Mean relatively humidity ranges from 62% in March to 83.3% in December. Rainfall occurs in the southwest monsoon season, mainly during July-August. The mean annual precipitation is 662 mm, with rain falling on an average of 36 days per year (Vijayan 1990).


Physical & Edaphic Features: The area consists of an artificially created flat patchwork of marshes in the Gangetic plain which is maintained by a system of canals, sluices and dykes. Normally, water is fed into the marshes from inundations of the rivers, which are impounded on arable land by means of an artificial dam (Ajan Bund). It is flooded to the depth of 1-2 m throughout the monsoon (July-September). From February onwards it begins to dry out and by June water remains in a few pockets only. For much of the year the area of wetland is only 1,000 ha. Soils are predominantly alluvial; some clay has formed as a result of the periodic inundations (Vijayan 1990).




Floral Diversity and Habitats

The Park has a remarkable diversity of habitats which harbor a varied group of aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. The flora of the Park has been studied extensively by Prasad and his team (1988, 1990, 1991 and 1996). Its unique mosaic of habitat types ranges from temporary swamps and potholes, which hold water for a few weeks only, to floodplains where water flows over for several months. The wetlands of KNP have 90 species of flowering plants, of which Paspalum distichum, a perennial grass, is the most dominant species (Prasad 1988). Woodlands with thickets are distributed in scattered pockets. The physiognomic types recognized are forest, woodland, scrub woodland, savanna woodland, tree savanna, shrub savanna, low grassland with scattered trees and shrubs, plantations and wetlands (Perennou & Ramesh 1987). Each of the major types is further divided into subdivisions according to dominant or characteristic species and based on the density of trees or thickets.


Broadly, the habitats could be classified as wetlands (11 sq km) and terrestrial habitats (18 sq km) which include grasslands (5 sq km) and woodlands (13 sq km). Prasad et al. (1996) detailed the vegetation types of these broadly classified habitats which are summarized in the subsequent paragraphs.


Wetlands constitute one-third of the KNP and are the lifeline of the Park due to their unique biodiversity. It is the wetland habitats that attract thousands of migratory waterfowl. The migratory as well as resident birds use wetlands for a part of or all of their life-cycle. Apart from the avian variety, several species of microbes, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and mammals are part of this ecosystem. The grassland habitat is dominated by khus grass (Vetiveria zizanoides), a tall coarse grass whose roots contain oil famous for its aroma, interspersed with few other trees and shrubs. The grassland provides an excellent habitat for insects, insectivorous birds (rollers, drongos and flycatchers), partridges, quails and mammals such as spotted deer, blue bull, and wild boars. Other terrestrial habitats like woodlands are frequented with mammals such as the blue bull, spotted deer and jackal. Overall, the flora of the Park comprises of 375 species of angiosperms.



Faunal Diversity

Mehra & Mehra (2014) reviewed the faunal diversity of the Park summarizing the contributions of several workers on lower organisms and higher organisms. The richness of the varying habitats provides feeding and breeding sites for many invertebrates. Macro-invertebrates constitute a major link in the food-chain and functioning of the ecosystem.  Among the key groups, about 50 species of butterflies and approximately 16 species of odonates were recorded from KNP. Around 50 species of fishes were recorded in and around KNP. Herpetofaunal lists accounted 8 species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles. The number of reptile species found in KNP is high considering its size (Bhupathy 1999), which is probably due to its strategic location bordering the dry semi-arid and wet Gangetic flood plains. KNP has 7 species of turtles, 8 species of lizards and 14 species of snakes.  


KNP holds a considerable number of birds in its diverse habitat. One of the major conservation values of the Park is its role as a wintering habitat for a multitude of migratory waterfowl belonging to 21 species (Bhupathy et al. 1998). The Park also acts as a staging ground during immigration and emigration of waterfowl from the Palearctic Region. Avifauna is the most studied component of the Park. KNP is the only wintering ground for the central population of the Siberian Crane (Sauey 1985). There are over 350 recorded species of birds with the new additions (Islam & Rahmani 2004). In all, 28 species of mammals, including 6 species of larger herbivores such as sambhar, cheetal, nilgai, blackbuck, wild boar and feral cattles; and 6 species of carnivores such as jackal, hyena, jungle cat, fishing cat, civet and otter are found within the Park. A panther was reported before the 1960s (Deptt. of Forest, KNP) and was also sighted for a few months during 1987 (September)-1988 (May) (Vijayan 1991). In 1999, a tigress was sighted inside the Park for a few months (Deptt. of Forest, KNP). Blackbucks are now rarely sighted (only 1-2 in 2008) as compared to hundreds in the 1980s. Hanuman Langurs (3-7 individuals) are of rare sighting at the Aghapur check-post side.


Avifaunal Research

The Park is an important study centre for scientists and naturalists. Although it also has a rich variety of flora and fauna, the prime focus for the workers and visitors is avifauna. Therefore, a large percentage of the research studies concentrate on birds, which is evident from the objective of its origin. The presence of large congregations of resident and migratory waterfowls, along with the only central population of the Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) in the whole country, has made it an important site for bird studies. One of the most noticable studies in the field of wetland ecology (in effect an ecosystem study) was conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for a period of ten years (1980-1990), with financial assistance from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, through the Ministry of Environment & Forests (Vijayan 1991).



Threatened Avifaunal Species of KNP (Islam & Rahmani 2004)  

KNP was identified as one of the IBAs (Important Bird Areas) under the categories A1 (threatened species), A4i (1% threshold population), and A4iii (≥ 20,000 waterbirds). 15 globally threatened bird species and 12 near-threatened species are part of the avifaunal composition of KNP. Heronries made by several breeding species of storks, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibises, spoonbills, darters and a number of ducks, coots, rails, etc., occur much above their 1% threshold numbers. The large congregation of millions of waterfowls mark it as a birders’ paradise.



'Lily of birds': Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus

The most important species of KNP is the Siberian Crane, which is one of the endangered species of cranes in the world (Archibald et al. 1981). Every year a major part of its western population covers a distance of around 6,000 km from Siberia to reach KNP (Bharatpur) (Sauey 1985). The population of the Siberian Crane visiting the Park began declining between 1960 and 1990 and from 2002 there has not been a single sighting in KNP. Only very few records of their sightings outside the Park are available (Sauey et al. 1987). Vijayan (1991) mentioned a single individual through information from Dr. Vibhu Prakash at Dihala Jheel, Madhya Pradesh during 1987-88; three individuals through information from Mr. S. Sharma at Taalab-e-Shahi, Dholpur in Januray 1990; and two individuals through information from Dr. Bhave at Urmila Sagar, Dholpur in February 1990. Thereafter no confirmed reports are available to prove the occurrence of the Siberian Crane in India.



Conservation and Management Issues

The history of the Park reveals that Keoladeo Ghana had fulfilled two objectives in the past; firstly, game hunting for royal families and secondly, providing protection to the ‘wild (feral) cows’ till it came under WPA, 1972 and both of the activities were ceased. It has remained a spectacular avifauna refuge especially for water birds. Conservation and management issues are mainly related to the past and present utilization of the park’s resources. Given the importance of the wetland as a waterfowl habitat, various management measures have been taken to protect the Park from human beings and domesticated animals. The removal of fuelwood and fodder by villagers as well as cattle grazing have been considered as severe problems. The wading of buffaloes in the water disturbs the birds, damages their eggs, and stirs up the mud. To thwart their entry, a brick wall was built around the Park and in 1982 cattle were banned from grazing in Keoladeo Ghana (Gopal, 1991).  In the present scenario, the main concern is the irregular water supply to the Park. Another critical issue has been plant species such as Paspalum distichum and Prosopis juliflora. Last but not least are the socio-ecological issues which need immediate attention for the success of conservation programs around KNP.


Water Crises

The region has a history of floods and droughts, the frequency of these has changed over the decades, with a decrease in floods and increase in droughts during the 1980s (Bhatnagar et al. 1980, Breeden & Breeden 1982, Singh 1981, Verghese et al. 1982) and then in 2000s. The Banganga and Gambhiri rivers were the sources of water for the Ajan Bund but since the 1980s, Gambhiri is the only surviving source. In the subsequent years, the water flow of Gambhiri also reduced due to the construction of the Panchana Dam upstream, which resulted in the drying up of the river downstream. The ponds and reservoirs along the course of the river which were the main source of fish for the Park were adversely affected. Although the Dholpur-Bharatpur Chambal Water Project fulfills its measurable water requirement, the Park is facing an acute shortage of water from its traditional sources. 


Prosopis juliflora Invasion

Prosopis juliflora was introduced in the Park in the 1980s (Dept. of Forest, KNP). The shortage of water supply along with scanty rainfall together with the plant’s characteristic of fast dispersal by several means made it spread all over the Park. In 2007, the Park Management began the work of uprooting it with the help of local people. Eco-Development Commiittees (EDCs) were formed in the villages surrounding the Park. Through EDCs, the villagers were allowed to uproot Prosopis from the Park. The mother trees have been  almost completely cleared and new saplings are being uprooted and burnt in a controlled manner. The success depends on the inundation of the Park with water.



Paspalum distichum

The results of preventing cattle from entering the Park to check the damage from grazing are worthy of attention (Donahue 1962). The most significant consequence is the proliferation of Paspalum distichum which has displaced many tuberous macrophytes that are important waterfowl food sources. This grass, which is the preferred food of buffaloes, had been effectively limited by their grazing and trampling. Colonization of open-water areas by the grass has also caused a significant decline in the fish population. As the food sources have dwindled and the habitat has become unfavorable, most waterfowl, especially diving ducks, have abandoned areas dominated by Paspalum distichum. Heronries have also been abandoned in areas where the weed has taken over.


The wetland ecosystem of Keoladeo Ghana had been stabilized by the constant interaction of the primary producers and the consumers. The cattle (primary consumers) have been an integral part of the whole ecosystem and had, for two centuries, stabilized the system and arrested the process of succession. Their exclusion from the Park has created a near eco-catastrophe in Bharatpur. Bulldozing, burning, and water-level manipulation have been attempted to limit the growth of the weed, but to no avail. A team of scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society, after a 10-year ecological study of the wetland, have suggested that regulated grazing by cattle be reintroduced during the peak growing season of Paspalum.


Prior to 1980, besides grazing their cattle, villagers from the surrounding rural areas removed firewood from the Park as well as the roots of Vetiveria (khus plant), which are used for making screens. Cessation of these activities has led to the accumulation of these combustible materials and resulted in frequent fires inside the Park. In addition, the unchecked growth of khus is destroying the habitat of ungulates, particularly the blackbuck (now extinct from the Park), which requires short and open grasslands.


Keoladeo Ghana is illustrative of a wetland where human intervention in the form of biomass removal is important for the well-being of the ecosystem.



Socio-Ecological Interventions

The Prosopis eradication program of the Forest Department was one of the most important interventions in the late 2000s for the rural community residing around KNP (Mehra et al. 2009a). The Water School Program of WWF-India in 2007 was a milestone in creating water awareness among children (Mehra et al. 2009b). Besides this, improvement of water conditions and social-upliftment programs of the Rajputana Society of Natural History were also inducted into the conservation program along with the community around KNP (Mehra 2012). The work made the villagers in and around the KNP, realise that it is time to revive their eco-centric Indian culture and conserve natural heritage to secure future generations.




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