You could easily miss the dusty little village of Khichan, situated close to the Pakistan border with India in the state of Rajasthan, its appearance much like the previous hundred or so we had passed through on our fourteen-hour drive from Delhi, were it not for the cacophony of noise.
If you have ever been in the presence of 30,000 Demoiselle Cranes then you would know what I am talking about – if you haven’t well let’s just say you hear them before you see them. The sky erupts with their ear-shattering calls of ‘krok-krok’ waking the sleepy village, and then, against the orange morning sky, the first V formation is spotted as they make their way to their pre-feeding grounds.
A young man stops us on the road, “you look for Cranes?” We nod, looking beyond him to the sky now blackened by thousands….it would be rude to point out that we think we may have found them? Nevertheless, Suresh appoints himself our guide.
We are shown to an arid rubble plain set behind the village, where the Cranes in their thousands are assembling. As they come into land they tip from side to side giving the illusion that they are out of control – a method of possible predator evasion. But once they land they regain their elegant composure. Named by Queen Marie Antoinette of France for their delicate appearance, and known locally as Kurja, the Demoiselle is the smallest of the world’s crane species and despite their loud trumpeting call they move in a balletic synchrony that is hypnotic to watch. Their sleek grey bodies, long fine black necks and brilliantly white plumes – there is no doubt that these are one of the prettiest crane species in existence.
Suddenly a feral dog fires past us to the right at lightning speed, two more follow closely on its heels before splitting into different routes. It is a technique I have seen African wild dogs use – they are undoubtedly hunting and their prey is the Cranes. The birds take off in a flurry of wings, the sounds of panicked flying only increases to the deafening calls. They circle until the danger has passed, no luck this time for the dogs, and then they return to the ground for it is not quite time for them to head over to their feeding ground – the ‘chugga ghar’, a plot of land designated to the Demoiselle Cranes since they first began visiting Khichan nearly fifty years ago.
It was in 1968 that Ratanial Maloo while feeding the pigeons, a job bestowed on him by his uncle, noticed a dozen of the exotic looking birds on the periphery. He fell in love with the elegant birds and from that day on dedicated his life to their care and conservation. Gradually his feeding efforts saw a rise in the number of Demoiselle Cranes that were arriving in September to overwinter in his homelands.
However, their migration, an incredible 4,000km journey from Mongolia and Eurasia – a route that crosses the Himalayan mountains which leaves many of them dying from fatigue, hunger and predation from golden eagles, they were now coming up against another danger. Maloo noticed that the feral dogs were beginning to target the birds, seeing them as easy prey, and so he appealed to the local government for some land to be allocated for a designated feeding ground for the Cranes. His wish was granted and the ‘chugga ghar’ was sanctioned with a store room built to store the grain that had begun to pour in from the traders who supported the conservation of the birds.
At around 8am, nearly two hours after they have flown in, the Demoiselle Cranes begin to fly off in waves for the feeding grounds but what determines these groups of who feeds first is anybody’s guess! We follow the Cranes and Suresh into the village where the ‘chugga ghar’ sits within a row of houses – wire meshed, with barbed wire intertwined for added protection on two sides and brick walled on the others.
The best viewing of the Demoiselles feeding is from the surrounding rooftops and the villagers vie for us to use theirs. This is where Suresh shows his worth, leading us to a house with the perfect viewpoint – the sun behind us, the Cranes in the full throes of feeding below us. It amazes me that amidst the racket of the birds the people of Khichan get on with their everyday lives, immune to the spectacle that is going on around them. A man sits reading his newspaper, a woman hangs up her laundry – the biggest disturbance is in fact ourselves as the kids become later and later to class, far more interested in who our favourite cricket player is (the Indians are mad about the sport!) – it is all quite surreal!
Despite the years and years of ritual return I am amazed at how skittish and wary the Cranes still are. A truck rumbles by on the far side and the birds turn in unison, some lifting off due to the disturbance, others heads held bolt upright the reds of their eyes glinting in the sun as they waddle away only to realise there is no threat and then returning to their feeding.
When it is time to change over, those on the ground rise up and the new group who have been waiting patiently on the fringes will come in, all circling above a few times, a vortex of cranes, before swopping their positions. The birds joining somehow slot themselves easily into the smallest of spaces left by those already there. A few lift off to join the whirlpool of birds above only to return a few moments later – jumping the queue to get a few more mouthfuls.
But there is no need for there is plenty to go around. Suresh tells us that people from the Jain religion send enough money for 2000 kilos of grain to be laid each day for the Cranes. Since he has been at school Suresh has helped lay the grain, originally with Maloo (who fondly known as ‘Birdman’ passed away in July 2011) and now with the elders of the village who co-ordinate the grain laying.
The owner of the house brings us chaii and we sit enraptured by the birds, the noise never ceasing, the feeding continuing in its structured manner, the odd scuffle breaking out here and there – birds after the same piece of grain perhaps. It is a magical sight to behold, the sheer volume of them quite overwhelming. And you can see why the crane holds such symbolic meaning for Northern India. In the mythology of Valmiki, the composer of the epic Hindu poem ‘Ramayana’, it is said that his first verse was inspired by the seeing a hunter kill the male of a pair of courting Demoiselle Cranes.
At the death of her partner the bereft female began to circle above, crying in her grief. It is said that Valmiki cursed the hunter in his verse, and since tradition maintained that all poetry prior to this moment had been revealed to man as opposed to created by man, this verse regarding the Demoiselle Cranes is thus considered as the first human-composed meter (Glimpses of an Indian Culture by Dinkar Joshi).
Whether this is wholly true or not, there is no doubt that the birds are traditionally revered – beautiful women are often compared to them because their long, thin shape is considered graceful; metaphorical references are made to them regarding people who have travelled far from home or have undertaken hazardous journeys; and they have featured in folk songs dating back almost a hundred years.
At 11am the feeding is done, leaving scraps for the feral pigeons to clean up, and the Cranes re-locate to the ponds (known as ‘nadis’) dug near to the village to collect rainwater and for local use. We learn from Suresh that their routes around Khichan have recently become even less fraught with danger thanks to the efforts of one man, Severam Mallhi Parihar. A local building contractor by trade, Parihar is another man who dedicates the majority of his daily life to the Cranes and it was he who first spotted that the Cranes were falling victim to the high-voltage electricity lines that surrounded the feeding grounds in the village.
He took it upon himself to get the wires removed, but his efforts were seen as interference by the Rajasthan Electricity Board (REB) and they levied a fine against him to the amount of Rs. 4,27,890 (approximately $6300). Thankfully with the support of the Rajasthan Forest Department, Parihar fought the fine and won, and the poles with the high-voltage electricity lines were taken down.
Since this he has even worked with REB to ensure that all electricity cables running through Khichan are insulated, and Parihar has many more plans to protect his beloved birds. I muse that my earlier perception that the Cranes are overlooked by the locals is completely wrong – in fact they are seen as part of village life, and in the same way that the locals look after each other, they approach their feathered neighbours in the same way.
As the Cranes drink and preen at the water’s edge I notice that we are joined by a number of other tourists – Germans, Australians, Americans and Indians were just the few I could place. There is no doubt that the Cranes have put the forgotten village of Khichan on the wildlife tourism map attracting bird-lovers, photographers and tourists from all over the world – Suresh tells us 10,000 come to see the birds. And from the brand new hotels popping up, Khichan are doing everything they can to cater for an industry that can offer them so much.
Suresh hurries us along for it is now 2pm and time to lay the grain for the following day. We arrive back to the ‘chugga ghar’ where the doors to the grain store, titled “birds feeding home,” are now open and a group of men congregate outside sorting out the bags of grain.
Suresh leaves us in the shade and hurries over to help, throwing one of 50kg bags over his shoulder and lugging it across to the far corner of the enclosure. A cow makes a dash in but he is unceremoniously herded out. Suresh and a few others heave the bags out until all twenty are laid equally distributed along the floor, and then the village elders begin to spread the grain. It is an amount far greater than those first days, where the humble actions of one man named Maloo was where this magnificent wildlife spectacle all began.