Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Serendipity Factor Divided by the Butterfly Effect

Those skilled in 'Where's Waldo?' workbooks would perform admirably in any sort of safari but particularly in one in which we are searching for the Siberian Crane. You presume we would have to journey into the Russian heartland in order to spot this large and gorgeous bird, yawning its dazzling wingspan, wading in some ice-cold creek, scouring for small fish with an elongated, orange beak. Well, the Siberian Crane is a migratory bird, sensibly fleeing the miserable Russian winter for the savannah plains of Keoladeo National Park in India's eastern Rajasthan. Only, this year, as it has been annually for nearly a decade, the rains failed, the monsoon didn't hit and the water levels at the park looked depressingly shallow. So the birds did not come, flying the proverbial coop, resulting in a tranquil landscape, but eerily so.

Fortitude, patience, and an encyclopedic knowledge make bird watching quite worthwhile; skills most of us lack in considerable sums. Nevertheless, I journeyed into the park optimistically. Hardly an expert on the birds of South Asia, I was mostly excited to ride a bicycle through a national park. Before that, I hired the service of a cycle rickshaw driver hoping he might acquaint me with the prime vista spots.

Unfortunately, he was able to reveal very little. The birds must have flown across the continent, thousands of miles, bursting with anticipatory glee for the Indian winter only to be disappointed by the water levels and compelled to continue their peregrinations. Or had their expectations already been lowered considerably? Maybe this year they flew right by, or simply paused long enough to rinse out the dust.

As we rode past kiosk signposts with illustrations of the migratory birds, the rickshaw driver mumbled in a low voice, "No come." The greylag goose: "No come." The Asian Open Bill Stork: "No come." The truly radical Painted Stork: "No come." But he pointed out the kiosks, regardless-- something to look at since there was nothing much moving in the trees. "Many parrot sightings," someone at the hotel had quipped facetiously. He might have added crows, swallows and various sundry fowl familiar from home.

There are no Big Five birds to market the pastime (as there is such a trademark in African safaris where you can count on five fingers your sightings of rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, leopards, and lions). Like all cultural subgroups, birders have a particular vernacular that isolates them from the greater population who "doesn't get it." One theory that explains their phenomenon is its relation to the male hunting instinct. Another is that it appeals to the male habit of "systemizing" (men are disproportionately represented in this particular pursuit). Birders can be handy if you are in the market for new binoculars or a telephoto lens. Of course they have a thriving online presence. On, you can peruse new technologies ("gifts for birdwatchers"), advice on birding with your kids, tips for "watching birds with your ears", and even a special section entitled "Birding for Hard Times," which contains a number of bromidic themes referring to the activity's high returns on a low-cost investment: stress relief, good exercise, family fun, friendship, and happiness: "the ultimate wealth." However, in Keoladeo, morale was low among the amateur ornithologists, birders, and bird nerds, who grumbling into their zoom scope, spoke wistfully of better days.

Riding through a small, narrow path on my bicycle I spotted an altogether different sign posted explaining all so much: "In your next incarnation you might be an endangered species. Please help save the Siberian Crane." Appealing to one's better karmic instincts is a nice maneuver, especially in a Hindu nation. However, as far as animal conservation goes, India's karma is somewhat dubious. Bureaucracy has done little to heed the warnings of animal rights activists. The Bengal Tiger-- one of the symbols of India's majestic history and its many kingdoms-- is near extinction. As for the birds, the droughts have not helped. Yet even when the monsoons don't fail, there is not enough water for India's ever-expanding population. And as tourism and industry improves the lot of many, an emerging middle class is going to use more water simply because it can. With the arrival of new money lifestyles evolve in kind. Consequently, when golf courses go up so does the dust from an empty lake. And the birds: they just fly on, abandoning the park for something greener, wetter, and perhaps more pristine, wherever that may be...

I spent two days exploring Keoladeo. Unfortunately, officials insist that visitors use bicycles issued by the National Park. Thus your sole option is a noisy, clanky, single gear bicycle, which tends to notify most wildlife of one's presence long before you are able to view the animal yourself. There is no element of surprise. Nevertheless, there were a few moments of accidental sightings. I surprised a family of jackals savoring a cow's carcass and a mongoose and I enjoyed a fierce stare down. I was charmed by mud flap turtles, giant creatures, wrestling in their gooey environment beneath a small copse of deciduous. Owls and kingfishers delighted.

And that night I dreamt of the Siberian Crane. She was lovely in that cavernous, blue sky.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2006

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