February 08, 2010

ATITHI DEVO BHAVAH

Credit: International Crane Foundation
The real India, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, lies in her myriad villages and no worthwhile development is possible on the national front without the active participation of our rural brothers. Although most of our villages are still plagued by social evils and insufficient infrastructure development, there is no doubt in the fact that village communities have the potential to improve their living, without much assistance from the government, when the people are inspired and their infinite energies are directed in the right manner. The village of Khichan in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan is a perfect example of how community development and social activism at the rural level can help villagers improve their living standards. The village, which has become popular among bird watchers, achieved international recognition when it was featured in Birding World magazine in an article titled, “Khichan - the Demoiselle crane village."

Located in the pristine sands of the Thar desert, Khichan is just like any other village located in the region. From the outside, there is not much in the village that makes it stand apart from the other villages that surround it. The economy is agrarian and the nearest town, Phalodi, located 4.5 km away, is renowned for its salt industry. However, with the onset of winter, winged visitors from plains and steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia come to this village, primarily due to the tradition of feeding wild birds established here, a few decades ago. The feeding programme, coupled with the presence of sand dunes and water ponds, has made this place a favourite destination for the migratory Demoiselle cranes, while on their stay in India.

The Demoiselle cranes (Anthropides virgo) are the smallest and second most abundant species of cranes in the world, with sightings being reported from as many as 47 countries. They weigh about 2-3 kg with a height of 89 cm and wing span of 155 -180 cm. Essentially grassland birds, the cranes have plain bluish gray plumage and are omnivores. They mainly feed on plant materials, insects, peanuts, beans and other cereal grains, and small animals. Demoiselle cranes have to take one of the toughest migrations in the world. In late August through September, they gather in flocks of up to 400 individuals and prepare for their flight to their winter range. Along their arduous journey they have to cross the Himalayan mountains to get to their over wintering grounds in India, many die from fatigue, hunger and predation from birds such as eagles. At their wintering grounds, Demoiselles have been observed flocking with Common cranes, their combined totals reaching up to 20,000 individuals.

The annual feeding spectacle began when a local, belonging to the Jain community, started offering grains to the feathered visitors or Kurjars, as they are locally known here. Soon as the number of people looking after the cranes grew, the feathered visitors seem to have been deeply impressed by the 'Khichan brand of hospitality'. This can be inferred from the fact that the number of Demoiselles arriving in this place annually, grew from a few dozen in the 1980s to well over 15,000 today. Although omnivores, villagers in the Khichan, like in other parts of the Thar, venerate them for their perceived vegetarian eating habits and for the norm of keeping a single life partner all through their lifetime. In fact both of the above perceived behavioral patterns of these cranes are consistent with the teachings of Mahavir, the founder of Jainism.
Credit: International Crane Foundation
With the donations coming primarily from the Jain community, the villagers have constructed a rectangular enclosure 50x60 m at the edge of the village, known locally as Chugga Ghar (Feeding Centre). The children of the village chip in their bit and it is their duty to spread the grains before the flocks of cranes arrive for their breakfast session of about 90 min. After feeding, the cranes, in large congregations, are seen at some of the water bodies and sand dunes to the north of Khichan. They face the sun, their tie-like black chest feathers contrasting with the blue winter sky. A short while later they depart in different directions in small family flocks in a disciplined order led by the female, followed closely by two young ones with the male forming the rear guard. Again, during mid-day, they assemble for a drink, followed by an occasional bath, and a second feed. Acrobatic exhibition of mutual affection between couples is also seen. They roost in faraway agriculture fields and return to the same water bodies next day, early in the morning. As per the report of the International crane Foundation:

"All cranes engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors 
such as bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing, and wing flapping.
Dancing can occur at any age and is commonly associated with courtship, however, 
it is generally believed to be a normal part of motor development for cranes 
and can serve to thwart aggression, relieve tension, and strengthen the pair bond."

The people of this village are very protective of their annual visitors. This fact comes into prominence from the story of Sevaram Mallu Parhivar, a local contractor. Seeing that a large number of birds were getting electrocuted, he filed a complaint with the District Administration, asking for placing the electric transmission lines underground. As the DC ignored his repeated complaints, he approached the High Court against the State Electricity Board. However, inspite of his noble intentions, the Court imposed a fine of Rs. 4 lakhs on him. But with the help of the State Forest Department, Sevaram filed an appeal in the High Court and eventually won the case.
Credit: International Crane Foundation
In fact such is the love and admiration of the Demoiselles that they have become a part of the local tradition and culture. They are an integral part of the desert love lore about Marwari migrants of yore who were forced to live separately from their loved ones due to compulsions of trade. Fussy eaters amongst the kids are known as 'Kurjars' and engaged girls are fondly referred to as 'Kurjaris'. The birds are revered as messengers of God and are believed to yield magical powers.

The place is soon developing into a magnet for tourists. A large number of travelers, both local and international, come to Khichan to see and study these migratory birds from such close range and in such large numbers. Their flights, in the setting of the conventional mansions (some of them are heritage buildings being converted to tourist lodges) of the village, present brilliant photo-ops. The Marwar Crane Foundation has pledged financial support to the feeding program. A director of the International Crane Foundation has visited Khichan. This foundation is also supporting the efforts of Marwar Crane Foundation in feeding the cranes. The government, for a change, has been quick enough to realize the potential of this place as a popular tourist attraction, thanks to the cranes and peculiar indigenous architecture. As such, the State government has given heritage status to the village and it has also got a package of Rs. 75 lakhs from the Union government in the last budget.

In recent times, the cranes have been disturbed by dogs and passing villagers. To add to the problems, illegal encroachments have developed over the years, much to the consternation of bird watching vacation tourists. There has been also an effort to move the prevailing feeding area as it has become too crowded but it has not yet been implemented. Also, the feeding program has led to a drastic increase in the number of crows, pigeons and rats in the village, which has increased the vulnerability to diseases. Besides, a significant number of the people here feel that it would be better if the money was spent on the poor and the needy, rather than the migratory birds.

Although there will be skeptics, the village of Khichan is a testimonial to the fact that man and nature can co-exist peacefully. The villagers here have realized the fact that their own survival is inter-linked with that of their feathered friends. It is instances like this that bring to light, the amount of knowledge that is present in the interiors of India, and make us proud to be Indians.
Credit: International Crane Foundation

Special Thanks to : Vishwanath Bhat




SOURCES


(1) NDTV Profit: Apollo Presents - The Unstoppable Indians (Link)

(2) The Hindu - Desert turns birds’ paradise (Link)

(3) Lal Nivas - Demoiselle Cranes: The Royalty of Khichan (Link)

(4) Wikipedia – Khichan (Link)


IMAGES


(1) Credit: International Crane Foundation (Link)
Original: Demoiselle Cranes

(2)  Credit: International Crane Foundation (Link)
Original: Demoiselle Cranes

(3) Credit: International Crane Foundation (Link
Original: Demoiselle Cranes

 (4) Credit: Wikipedia (Link)
Original: Anthropoides virgo at Twycros Zoo