Agra, India’s Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary & that Place Down the Street they Call the Taj Mahal
By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | June 25, 2013
When you share a destination with one of the eight wonders of the world it is sometimes difficult to catch any of the limelight whatsoever. It reminds me that everything is relative. And so even the greatness of one mecca for all things flighted can be trumped by the greatness of one uber-famous, white marble monument.
The Taj Mahal, built as a “testament to love” by one Mughal Emperor, draws people from every continent regardless of color or creed, or nationality. Perhaps the most famous building in the world, the monument, at the very least, is considered by many to be the most beautiful structure ever to be crafted by man—a true architectural phenomenon.
The Taj Mahal, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been replicated around the world from Shenzen, in the People’s Republic of China to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Of course, attempts to replicate the monument are just that. Perhaps one day it might be replicated, but undoubtedly, the mausoleum, built as a memorial tribute by Emperor Shah Jahan to his wife, will never be duplicated.
With that said, any other attraction in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, barely catches the attention of tourists, compared to the draw of the famed mausoleum. Everything other than the great mausoleum in Agra is really far less known to foreigners.
Perhaps as a consequence of rivaling cultural attractions in the area, opportunities to showcase one of the finest bird sanctuaries in the Eastern Hemisphere and possibly the world have been met with some challenges.
Located barely a few kilometers outside of Agra, literally footsteps from the Taj Mahal, a beautiful oasis known for stunning sunsets, and tranquil waters comes to life. The Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is a vibrant and beautiful wetland preserve nestled in the outskirts of Agra. The Taj Majal boasts its own nature walk on the grounds, but despite it being another fantastic venue for bird watching, it often goes unnoticed under the shadow of the great architectural icon.
The Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is well known to academicians, research biologists, and preeminent naturalists. British ornithologist and founder of the World Wildlife Fund For Nature Sir Peter Scott considered the wetland preserve to be the single best birding site in the world. And more recently, the great naturalist Roger Tory Peterson described it as one of the best places to see migratory species in Asia
But to a great many people, locals and foreigners alike, the sanctuary remains unknown. Included among a network of protected areas, the Soor Sarovar was declared a sanctuary in 1991 by the Government of Uttar Pradesh under Section 18 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
More recently, the preserve has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and has been designated a Ramsar site, as it meets criteria based on both the integrity of its wetland ecosystems and the number of water birds that it supports on a regular basis. Over 5000 birds have been reported to over-winter in the sanctuary, in recent seasons including a heronry of colonial birds whose nesting activities have been monitored since before the preserve was declared a sanctuary. Among them are four species of egrets, three species of herons, openbill and black-necked storks, white ibis, and spoonbill.
In Somini Sengupta’s acclaimed review of India’s nature parks India Through a Birder’s Eyes, published in January 2011 in the Travel section of the New York Times, the Newspaper’s former Bureau Chief for India, failed to suggest, much less mention visiting the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary just of 7 kilometers outside of Agra.
A highly seasoned lifelong birder in his own right Mr. Sengupta does indicate that his recommendations account for only a sampling of the highly regarded birding destinations in India worth visiting,
In his assessment of India’s feathered natural heritage, Mr. Sengupta speaks to the country’s great appeal as a haven for birders. Mr. Sengupta writes, ”From the cold lakes of the Himalayas to the sand dunes of western Rajasthan to the tropical rain forests in the south, India hosts a dizzying variety of birds, like a dizzying variety of everything else. Resident bird and visitors, common species and rare species, more than 1,200 types of birds have been recorded in India, which puts it somewhere between the United States (just under 900 recorded species) and Colombia (more than 1,800 species).”
To compare, the diversity of avifauna in India exceeds that of the United States but supports less avian diversity than say the country of Columbia. It would make sense in the context of zoogeography and climate. Like India, the US supports both resident and migratory species. This is because similar to India, avian assemblages in the US are comprised of mostly temperate species. The birds that do migrate, typically travel along specific flyways to overwinter following breeding seasons. Migratory water birds that overwinter in non-breeding grounds of the Indian Subcontinent do so by traveling along the Central Asian Indian Flyway. Not surprisingly, Columbia’s tropical climate supports more species of birds than are found on the Indian Subcontinent. Despite the rich heritage in terms of bird diversity, which far outnumbers India’s mammalian fauna, the lions, and tigers and bears and elephants and other misc. furred and warm-blooded species are what seems to draw the attention of eco-tourists. Ironically, you are not guaranteed a single sighting of a tiger, lion, or bear in the wild, no matter how many of India’s 80 National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries you visit. In these protected reserves, however, you are pretty much guaranteed to see a bird or two.
Again it is still surprising that although Mr. Sengupta acknowledges or suggests at least, that many travelers to Northern India will already have planned a visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, he overlooks a birder’s paradise right down the road in the outskirts of Agra.
Besides the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, the Taj Mahal’s Nature Walk, also managed by the Forest Department, offers a glimpse of India's majestic avifauna. Both are neglected by tourists because of the predominance of cultural attractions in the area.
As long as the sanctuary remains healthy, the prospects of promoting a most impressive natural wonder in the proximity of a monument such as the Taj Mahal may be an undertaking, but nonetheless possible and important to nature conservation.
The 403 hectare Soor Sarovar sanctuary lies about 20 km from Agra, and about 27 km from the famed mausoleum, which was built during the reign of one Mughal emperor.
Keetham Lake sits within the sanctuary, comprising half of the entire preserve. The shallow 245-hectare manmade lake is the signature centerpiece of Soor Sarovar. The reservoir was built to provides freshwater resources to the region, but the abundance of wetland bird species that have since colonized the sanctuary, have added a whole new dimension to the already scenic area.
In total, Keetham Lake and its man-made islands are what have attracted as many as 165 spp. of birds, as reported over wet and dry seasons in one year. Herons, egrets, and flocks of bar-headed geese, flamingos, pelicans, and 106 other species of avifauna to the region are year-round residents or seasonal visitors.
The Soor Sarovar is also home to the Agra Bear Rescue Center a captive facility home to the largest population of sloth bears in the world. Run by Wildlife SOS under the auspices of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, the rescue center is home to more than 245 former dancing bears. These dancing bears also known as tame bears were confiscated over a period of several years with the help of police, Wildlife SOS, and the Forest Department. And down the street, Wildlife SOS manages a new rescue center for injured and orphaned Asian elephants.
I sat down with India’s Forest Department’s Deputy Conservator of Forests National Chambal Sanctuary Project Wildlife Division, Sujoy Banerjee Sujoy administrates several wildlife-related projects in the area including the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary where the Agra Bear Rescue Center is located.
Last week, the Deputy and his staff graciously shared part of the sanctuary with us, escorting us on a motorized boat tour of Lake Keetham at dusk. Baiju Raj, Senior Wildlife Biologist for Wildlife SOS-India and Supervising Manager of the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, which sits inside the Soor Sarovar campus, and the Executive Director of Wildlife SOS-USA were also along for the early evening excursion.
The Deputy, quite an accomplished birder himself, was eager to point out several species of resident herons and egrets, and a resident species of ibis that roosted on treed vegetation and understory, which seemed to overtake small islands and sand dunes. Some birds and occasionally roosting flocks of Ciconiiformes took flight as we approached.
The Deputy was excited to see the numbers of birds; he took several photographs to document the population as an informal census. As a manager of several sanctuaries, he relies on such casual data collections to assess the health of resident ornithofauna and the wetland ecosystem at large.
I sat down with the Deputy at his office in Agra to learn more about this beautiful wildlife sanctuary not far from the Taj Mahal to find out what we can do to secure its future and the future of its flighted and furry residents.
Jordan Schaul: Sujoy, If you could draw more attention to the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary among visitors to the region what would like to share with them?
Sujoy Banerjee: I would like to share with them the exciting boat ride over the Keetham lake which provides an excellent view of the bird diversity including the pelican, flamingoes, black-necked, and wooly necked stork, the sarus crane, and a host of migratory and resident species of birds. The forest around the lake is a wonderful place for a trek along the nature trails, bicycling, and catching a panoramic view from the four watchtowers located along the lake. A visit to the Education Awareness walkway of the Agra Bear Rescue Center is an added experience.
Jordan Schaul: Sujoy, You are so well versed in India’s protected parks and the amazing diversity in flora and fauna that in my opinion far outcompetes any other hot spot on the planet. The continent of Africa may have two species of rhino, but the country of India is home to more big cat species than the whole of Africa and boasts rhino and elephant among its charismatic megafauna.
Sujoy Banerjee: No doubt, Africa has wonderful wildlife to offer to tourists including the big five. But visiting the rich forests of India is an equally wonderful experience. Whether it is watching the elusive tigers or the one-horned rhino in Asam or the Asiatic Lion in the forest of Gujarat, each experience is unique in its own way.
Jordan Schaul: Sujoy, What is your favorite nature preserve in India and why?
Sujoy Banjeree: Kanha Tiger Reserve in the state of Madhya Pradesh. I am just mesmerized by the natural beauty of the area. And there always is a high likelihood of catching the glimpse of his majesty, the tiger!
Jordan Schaul: Sujoy, Are there any new events or future plans for wildlife conservation in India that you would like to share with the National Geographic readership?
Sujoy Banjeree: The wildlife laws in India are by far one of the most stringent laws in the world for protecting wildlife. Some new areas are in the process of being declared as Tiger Reserves and hopefully, Asiatic lions will find a second home in Palpur Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh. There are many more exciting things happening in the field of wildlife conservation in India.
Jordan Schaul: I understand that during the summer the lake becomes covered with an introduced species of water hyacinth (Eichornia sp.), which I know can be a problem for man-made bodies of water. The invasive floating perennial plant has been introduced around the world, and although they provide food for herbivorous freshwater fisheries, they also can compromise aquatic ecosystems. Do you need to actively control this species and does it negatively impact any native flora or fauna in the sanctuary?
Sujoy Banerjee: The weed is removed manually after the rains. In this way, it is controlled well before it reaches uncontrollable proportions.
Jordan Schaul: As mentioned above crane species are highly regarded indicator species of wetland ecosystem health. Can you talk about the cranes living in the Soor Sarovar, the unfortunate demise of the Siberian crane, the status of the sarus crane, and the hopeful future for these beautiful birds in the world-class bird sanctuary?
Sujoy Banerjee: I have not come across any instance of Siberian Cranes visiting this sanctuary in the last ten year. Among other crane species, the Saurus Crane is found in the area. Unlike other crane species, these are resident species, though they are seen more abundantly in summers. This sanctuary definitely has a future for these elegant birds.
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MEET THE AUTHOR
Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife and conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (As executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.