Every year hundreds of migratory birds from afar come to the warmer locations of India in the winter months and a large congregation settles on the country’s largest brackish water body, the Chilika lake in Orissa. Nestled in the north-eastern part of Chilika is a village called Manglajodi. A village where poachers prowled the waters, killing hundreds of birds and thereafter selling the meat, a good source of income for them. In the last decade, the bird count in Manglajodi fell by 98 per cent.
For a local conservationist, N K Bhujabal, this was alarming news and so he decided to intervene. Thus ensued a decade-long endeavour to convince poachers that by killing the birds they were depleting a treasure and that with the mass killings, fewer and fewer number of birds were coming to the wetlands of Manglajodi. Soon there would be no more birds to kill, how would the villagers survive after that? Bhujabal not only asked questions, he also had answers. He knew that the poachers knew a lot about bird behaviour. One has to understand the pulse of a species well in order to be able to hunt it. With more discussions, people in the village agreed to stop hunting and do something which would bring about a win-win situation for both the people and the birds. The poachers would turn into protectors and bird guides and Manglajodi with its marshes and matrix of matted reed beds could become an eco-tourism spot. Funding agencies willing to support the venture helped to set up watch towers and field stations. They gave the villagers boats to take tourists for a ride around the waters. Bhujabal and others taught them the English names of the birds.
Now when one goes to Manglajodi, one can see the once notorious poachers taking the lead in surveying the waters, looking out for bird catching nets and even chasing away crows which run off with jacana and moorhen eggs. It is amazing to observe how easily they can tell you the location of a painted snipe and make you spot a bittern and gurgle out the names of the ruddy shelduck, northern shoveller, pintails and teals in a jiffy — all that in English laced with an
The poachers, who have formed a committee called Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti, have proposed to declare the wetland a ‘community reserve’ wherein further degradation and conversion of the marshland will not be possible and the area will be protected legally with the community’s participation. According to the villagers, due to dredging activities, the flow of water in the marshes and the population of fish have decreased. As a consequence, fishermen now have to go out further into the Chilika which again has its limitations, since Nalban Bird Sanctuary nearby is a protected area and hence there are restrictions on fishing.