From Jodhpur we caught the earliest train possible (5.30am!), catching some more sleep en route to Phalodi.
We had organised to be met by Jitu Solanki, zoologist, wildlife guide, and owner of Viniyak Guesthouse, where we would be staying in Bikaner. But first stop was Khichan (like ‘kitchen’), a small village about 4km outside of Phalodi, which has become famous for hosting one of the unofficial natural wonders of India- possibly of the world- the feeding ground for over 23,000 Demoiselle Cranes.
Every morning and evening the birds descend on mass, feasting on over 23 tonnes of grain which the villagers leave out for them daily. Unfortunately, as we expected, we were a little too early in the year to see the cranes themselves. Apparently the call had been heard from the cranes circling overhead and checking out the sight (they are extremely cautious and easily frightened), they were yet to take the plunge and land on the feeding ground.
We did however, have the honour of meeting Sevaram Parihar, a true hero for the cranes. Despite having little or nothing for their families to live on, the people of Khichan continue to make it their duty as a Jain Hindu community to tend to the cranes and make them their guests, providing them with food throughout the winter, as well as setting up a local vet centre for injured birds. And in the case of Sevaram, this duty means going even further.
When huge electric pylons were erected very close to the feeding ground, the villagers were dismayed to discover that many birds were killed by flying into the wires and getting electrocuted. On behalf of the cranes, and the village, Sevaram single handedly took on the electrical companies to get the pylons taken down. First he and his family were bribed, offered vast sums of money by the electrical companies to keep quiet. Then their electricity was cut off for months through the winter. Finally, the companies took Sevaram to court, threatening him with fines that would send his family into crippling debt, as well as imprisonment for slowing down the development plans of the company. The case went all the way through to the Rajasthani High Court, and finally Sevaram won. The companies were forced to move the pylons, and the cranes of Khichan are now protected by law. Sevaram has been awarded numerous prizes for his bravery and dedication to protecting these beautiful birds, but he and his family continue to live in poverty.
Khichan’s people as a whole remain very poor, despite large donations from worldwide animal and conservation charities, and payment from things like wildlife documentary filming (the BBC featured them in their 2015 documentary. ‘India, Nature’s Wonderland’- where I first heard about the cranes and the village actually). Despite being so poor, the vast amount of the villagers’ collective income still goes into providing the cranes with the ludicrous amounts of grain. It is truly admirable.
After a delicious breakfast very generously cooked for us by Sevaram’s wife (India’s culture has a huge emphasis on looking after guests), we got to meet some of the villagers as they prepared the feeding ground for the soon-to-be-new arrivals. The cranes are fussy, and the villagers have to clear the roughly football pitch sized feeding ground of thorny weeds, by hand, with just a hand scythe, and no protective gloves. We gave it a go, much to their amusement- and it was hard (not to mention prickly painful)! Especially with the almost unbearable heat of the desert sun beating down on us.
The women, although cautious of Rich (in Rajasthani culture men and women socialise separately, and they would certainly not have much if any contact with men who were not from their family), were very excited to meet me, and fussed over my hair, my clothes, my engagement ring- and enjoyed showing me how to use my scarf to cover my head to keep the sun off. Despite the total language barrier there was a lot of giggles and hand shakes and laughter and so much smiles that my cheeks began to hurt with grinning. One particularly bolshy lady, clearly the boss woman, armed with a stick she liked to gesticulate with wildly, pretty much refused to let go of my hand the entire time we were there. I think they would have whisked me away into their homes if they could have, but unfortunately (or maybe luckily…!) it was soon time to wave goodbye.
Our Khichan adventure wasn’t quite over however. The next morning over breakfast at our guesthouse, Jitu showed us the local newspaper. A colour article showed our picture with the villagers, and Jitu translated it from Hindi to English for us- visitors from England, come to see the village, and joining in to help clear the field for the cranes, doing our bit of karma.
Jitu explained to us the reason the villagers were so excited. Khichan itself doesn’t actually get all that many visitors, aside from the occasional television crews and wildlife researchers, and maybe the odd twitcher to see the crane feeding taking place. In fact, he said, we were possibly the first tourists to ever visit the village while the cranes weren’t even there- and this was very exciting for the villagers. With ecotourism rapidly growing in popularity, there is the potential for Khichan to become a popular tourist attraction, bringing in huge financial benefits for both the cranes and the people. Of course with tourism there always comes risks, but I do hope that with good management and the right attitude, and under the careful supervision of people like Sevaram, the future of Khichan and the Demoiselle Cranes could be very bright.