India’s rich geographical and cultural diversity is the primary reason for various human-nature conflicts. For example, people residing near forests and wetlands have constantly used the reserve’s natural resources for livelihood purposes. These intricate links between culture, local groups, and their dogmatic beliefs, coupled with politics and scientific knowledge, lead to complex socio-ecological issues. This case discusses an exciting story of the conservation of an artificially built wetland in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. The Keoladeo Ghana National Park (KGNP), also known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, is located in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. The national park, which is almost 250 years old, hosts innumerable residents and migratory birds during the winter. According to a report by the Wildlife Institute of India, “KGNP’s flora consists of over 375 species of angiosperms, of which 90 species are wetland species. The fauna includes more than 350 species of birds which include 42 species of raptors and nine species of owls, 27 species of mammals, 13 species of reptiles, seven species of amphibians, 58 species of fishes and 71 species of butterflies, and more than 30 species of dragonflies and more than 30 species of spiders inhabit the park. Owing to the abundance of birds, KGNP is often referred to as Birders Paradise”.
Managing wetland ecosystems is seldom done due to their rugged terrain making them one of the least protected natural ecosystems worldwide. However, they can be highly productive agricultural fields; most of the Ganges wetlands have been converted into agricultural land in the post-independence era. Thus, there are only a few wetlands left in the country. Nevertheless, the wetlands in Bharatpur are a result of dam construction in the 1890s by the Maharaja of Bharatpur. Due to the scarcity of wetlands in the region, an exceptionally high number of birds flock their way into Bharatpur. The human-made characteristic makes KGNP unique from the other wetlands, it was created by the Maharaja of Bharatpur in the 1890s to be used as a waterfowl hunting ground for the royals and their acquaintances. A pre-existing marsh was carefully chosen and expanded to attract birds. Canals were also built to regulate the water level. The wetland turned out to be hugely successful in attracting wintering birds. Unexpectedly, Bharatpur wetlands were helpful to many poor villagers by providing them with firewood, thatch grass, fodder, berries, etc., for their survival and livelihood needs. Furthermore, the villagers also used a portion of the wetland for grazing their cattle. Initially, the Maharaja allowed the villagers to use the wetland as grazing grounds. When India attained independence, a large portion of the princely assets was transferred to the Union Government; however, Bharatpur Maharaja managed to retain exclusive ownership and shooting rights for his pleasure. The Maharaja’s pact with the government led to massive opposition from localities residing in the nearby areas.
As mentioned earlier, owing to its resource and use value, Bharatpur was saved from being converted into agricultural lands, despite the local political pressure. Nevertheless, the farmers’ happiness did not last long enough. Despite putting hundreds of livelihoods at stake, the head of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Ali, was determined to protect one of the only existing wetlands in north India. Therefore, he approached Prime Minister Nehru to make him aware of the current situation of KGNP. Following his move in 1956, Rajasthan Forest Department took over the authority over the wetlands for management and maintenance purposes. As Bharatpur was receiving huge attention, Maharaja’s deal also suffered; though he managed to retain shooting rights, it was restricted only to non-breeding seasons.
Until being declared a sanctuary, the wetland supported most of the livelihoods in the area. However, in 1981, the site was designated as a National Park, and according to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, all national parks are necessitated to be a no-human zone. While villagers continued grazing in the wetlands, the Indian Board for Wildlife issued an order for a complete ban on grazing in the park. The Indira Gandhi government enforced the ban and built a stone wall to keep the cattle away from the park. The action resulted in riots killing nine people. Though the ban on cattle hit the villagers’ incomes terribly, many ecologists and environmentalists from across India and the world supported the move. According to them, cattle grazing was the main reason for the degradation of natural resources at Bharatpur or in any other national park or wildlife sanctuary. Several international experts from academia and the world of practice claimed that eliminating domesticated animals would be the best solution to manage natural resources. Hence, the park managers were instructed to remove livestock if found within the park premises. They viewed domesticated livestock as a disease that spread and believed in protecting pristine areas by making them free of human and livestock activities. Many also treated the local population from these areas like cattle, and it is obvious that these people were not politically or monetarily influential. Therefore, their stories and struggles were muted.
Simultaneously, in 1980, a ten-year ecological study of the KGNP was initiated to understand Bharatpur’s resource value, hydrology, vegetation, fish, mammals, and bird population dynamics. Scientists assumed that cattle grazing was the problem fueling the declining bird count as they destroyed the bunds which were essential in bringing water to the wetlands. The ban was enforced, resulting in a bloody clash between local people and the government. Post the ban; the study wanted to analyze the before and after cattle ban situation in the park. But to their shock, a mid-study report indicated that the bird count was reduced rapidly since the cattle ban. The investigation revealed that Bharatpur was being attacked by the growth and spread of a few invasive weed species, which affected the vegetation, bird, and fish populations. The weeds had invaded the marshes to a dangerously great extent that canals were clogged, which decreased water levels. Soon after, the BNHS realized cattle was necessary to improve Bharatpur’s bird population and encouraged the reintroduction of cattle, especially buffaloes, to rectify the situation. Thus, proving that an artificially made wetland necessarily needed human intervention and the support of livestock to mitigate and re-establish the loss of resources at Bharatpur.
Bharatpur’s fortress conservation model is a definitive example of how Indian policymakers are convinced of the American conservation model. The Yellowstone National Park in the US was convinced that fortress conservation was the best management practice to preserve national parks — hoping the removal of human interference would undo the negative actions and strike a balance. The model was followed like the gospel for the natural restoration of ecosystems. Yellowstone’s model of conservation was hailed and practiced across the globe, including Indian policymakers with a colonial mindset. Yellowstone, too, was confronted with a similar problem when it witnessed uncontrollable growth of the elk population in the absence of traditional predators like wolves. But, the reintroduction of these animals did not change the impact its absence had caused. The idea that domesticated animals are mundane creatures that would not go extinct and can survive in non-wild, common, unprotected areas makes them less exciting for ecologists to invest their time. Subsequently, scientists decided that no discussion was required on understanding their significance in the ecosystem. The common notion of conservation is often based on the assumptions of the fortress or universal model of conservation. Experts in favour of community conserved areas claim that the findings from KGNP may be true to all national parks in terms of grazing and fodder collection. Natural ecosystems have adapted and evolved with the existence of humans as a core element of their system – just like Bharatpur’s habitat was heavily dependent on livestock grazing and fodder collection for supporting its avian population. This piece elaborates on how imposing an international model of conservation based on one ecological context and its experiences when applied to other ecosystems could go wrong. Bharatpur case exhibits the lack of deep understanding of local practices and how the application of such assumed models is accompanied by elitist decision-making, ignoring local truths
Lewis, M. (2003b). Cattle and Conservation at Bharatpur: A Case Study in Science and Advocacy. Conservation and Society, 1–21. https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in/temp/ConservatSoc111-2036161_053921.pdf
Wildlife Institute of India. (2009, July). A Bibliographical Review for Identifying Research Gap Areas – Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur: A World Heritage Site. http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/bioliographical_keoladeo_ghana_np.pdf