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The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan (January 2007)

"What do you mean, there is no meat available?" I have to admit, there was a tinge of panic in my voice at this stage. I had just finished with a trip to Bandhavgarh, and had arrived in the village of Khichan after 3 days on the road. Non-heated trains and cars in the middle of a North Indian cold wave. So no showers. And very little in the way of food barring simple rice, chapatis and vegetables. The entire time, I consoled myself with the thought of stuffing myself with "laal maas", a traditional Rajasthani preparation involving mutton and red chillies, as soon as I got to my destination. This was a true calamity!

Rewind a bit. The village of Khichan is a small, nondescript settlement with one claim to fame - every winter, flocks of several thousand demoiselle cranes descend around the village, where the local Bishnoi villagers (a peaceloving tribe in the otherwise very martial state of Rajasthan) feed them daily. A friend, Nikhil Devasar of Delhibird, had recommended I go stay at the house of Sevak Ram, a local villager who was used to dealing with bird-crazy visitors.

Thus it was that the car had no sooner stopped than I jumped out and spoke to my host-to-be about getting some meat-laden food, only to have my hopes cruelly dashed.

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Looking hungrily at a lone crane flapping in the distance (roast crane... mmmm), I sighed and added another item to the list of sacrifices made for the sake of photography. The accommodation was as advertised - simple, rustic but clean and comfortable enough. After settling for a surprisingly tasty (albeit vegetarian) homecooked lunch, it was time to get to work.

I spent the rest of theday with the cranes. Under normal conditions, it was very hard to get a good shot of the birds - they were too far for portraits and too chaotic for interesting group shots. I took opportunity to go for a particular shot I had visualized - a skyful of cranes with the setting sun in the background. Unfortunately, the cranes did not cooperate a 100% and chose to fly off at a slightly different trajectory than I was expected: thus, while I got a reasonable facsimile of the shot I wanted, it fell a little short.

So I was a little underwhelmed with my shots when I went to sleep under a pile of blankets (Rajasthan was in a cold wave at this time and there was, of course, no heating). However, the next day promised hope. Every day in the morning, the local villagers scatter large amounts of seed in a small fenced field and here, the cranes congregate for their breakfast. This concentration allows for wonderful opportunities for closeups and bird-in-flight shots, and this is where I got my best shots from the trip.

According to the villagers, the number of cranes visiting Khichan has declined - this year, there were a scant couple thousand, as compared to ten thousand and more in days past. Unfortunately, these beautiful birds, as with the rest of the animal planet, are victims to habitat loss, hunting and other human pressures. And ironically, the biggest tangible effort to help these birds is being made by a group of villagers who, by any Western standard of living, would qualify as living in abject poverty, There is a lesson to be learned here.

 
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This was primarily a scouting trip, but I left very touched by the kindness shown towards the cranes by these villagers. Most of them are living at a standard that would be considered well below the poverty line in most developed countries, and yet find it within their hearts to share their meagre food with these birds. We should all learn from it!

And it was especially heart-warming to see that pockets of wildlife can co-exist with humans without requiring excessive government protection in the form of reserves and sanctuaries. This, to me, is the way the planet was meant to be - man and wildlife coexisting together. It is always special whenever I find places like this, because it feels far more "natural" than an isolated pocket of wildlife and forest set aside as a national park.

As it turned out, Khichan was good not just for demoiselle cranes - in my time there, while I was focused primarily on the cranes, I did notice quite a few other species, especially around the village pond which forms one of the few sources of water around in this arid land. My species count includes: grey heron, great egret, northern pintail, northern shoveller, quite a few black winged stilts, Temmick's stint, tufted duck, spotted redshank, common redshank, common sandpiper, large flocks of rock pigeons, one flock of what were most likely chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, white throated kingfisher, an Indian pond heron, a female Indian robins and some LBJs who did not get the attention from me that they deserved. A closer look would probably also reveal some larks and various other birds of scrubland and deserts. Lastly, according to my guide, there was a large raptor to be found not too far from the pond where we were. Stuff for the next trip...

 
 
 
 
 

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