Ae Chintu Sarus ko dekha? (Hey Chintu, spotted any cranes?)," Murari Lal Saini threw out the question as he powered his blue-hooded cycle rickshaw carrying me and my Lowepro camera bag. Chintu’s response from across the road blew away in the wind, but Saini had obviously apprehended the answer.

Sarus cranes migrate to the park during the mating season. D.K.Bhaskar

Some 25 years ago, Saini came from Orissa to Rajasthan in search of work. A chance encounter with ornithologist Salim Ali changed his life. At the Birdman’s behest, the management of the Keoladeo Ghana National Park had recently introduced a crash course in the region’s legendary biodiversity to train the unlettered rickshaw-pullers of Bharatpur as guide-cum-transport providers. Saini was a good student and when I visited Bharatpur last November I found him as able a naturalist and chaperon as one could ask for.

Inside the park, Saini proved that he had the eyes of a hawk and the preternatural instinct of a small bird. When I could see nothing but a huge rhesus macaque, he pointed quietly to the Collared Scops Owl reposing in the perfect camouflage of a dead tree and a Large-tailed Nightjar rummaging through a pile of dry leaves. From their Latin names—and, occasionally, their Spanish and French equivalents too—to information on their habitat and behaviour, Saini blew me away with knowledge that had never seen the inside of a book.

Also See Trip planner / Keoladeo Ghana (Graphic)

At every bush, around every corner, Saini would bring his rickshaw to a halt and point out another new bird species, helping me tot up a respectable 50 bird sightings and also six mammals and several kinds of butterflies over an afternoon. As the evening closed in and sightings became more difficult, the silence underlined by the steady drone of grasshoppers and other nocturnal insects, he would stop just to draw my attention to an intricate mesh of cobwebs, some of them 20ft across.

Cycle rickshaws are the best mode of transport in the park. D.K.Bhaskar

Of late, however, the park has fallen victim to age-old political pressures. The lifeblood of the Ghana flows through a system of canals, sluices and dykes, which carry water to the marshes from the overflow of the Gambhira and Banganga rivers. After the devastating drought of 2002, however, the state government had to handle protests from farmers, who demanded that the water be diverted to farmlands, rather than the sanctuary. Guess who won?

Since then, the 29 sq. km Ghana has been losing visitors steadily, both the feathered kind—at its peak, it drew birds from as far as Afghanistan, China and Siberia—and the kind that sustained Bharatpur with tourism dollars. Back in 2005, the World Heritage Committee warned that the park would be taken off the Unesco list of wildlife sanctuaries if the situation did not improve, but it continues to cling on there as it does to the Ramsar List of Wetlands (230th in importance in a list of 1,800-odd).

Yet, to some locals, the park is still a temple. Arriving early the next morning, enticed by Saini’s promise of a possible Sarus sighting, I saw a group of people offering prayers at the main gate. There is a Shiva temple (Keoladeo is derived from its name) in the core area, but it wasn’t only celestial beings that villager Thakur Singh was thankful to. “Yeh toh Shivji ka ashirvaad hai, saare desh mein kahin bhi aisi jagah nahin hai (This is the blessing of Lord Shiva, there’s no place like this anywhere in the country)," he said.

But Keoladeo needs more than prayers. Going in, I saw a board that read: “In one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds such as mallards and teals were killed by Lord Linlithgow, the then governor-general of India." The sign was undoubtedly put up to celebrate his prowess, yet today it produces only a dull kind of ache.

Even as Saini was trying to shake me out of the gloom by pointing out this bird and that, he was drawing steadily closer to a vast marshland. Finally, at its edge, he got through my stupor. “Udhar (There)," he whispered ecstatically, “dance kar rahe hain… yeh to uska mating dance hai (they’re dancing, this is their mating dance)!"

I looked up to see two large birds, their barred red heads and white crowns unmistakable even at a distance, their long, dark, pointed bills and grey feathers distinct in the grey light of the retreating monsoon.?As we moved closer, out of their sight, the peculiar sounds of their courtship ritual echoed across the marshy landscape—wings flapping, bills clacking as the pair bowed and pranced and chucked grass and sticks at each other in choreographed unison.

Two jackals crept by, wary of the human presence, but we were oblivious to them. There’s something about witnessing such a sight—as private, as erotic as lovemaking—that is simultaneously exciting and humbling. “Do you know, they’ll be together for the rest of their lives," Saini murmured without taking his eyes off the birds.

We watched them for close to 30 minutes, aware with every passing moment what a precious gift this was. The Sarus crane is not endangered but listed as “vulnerable". Too close, too close.

Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

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