June 2010: It was 5:30 a.m. and my phone rang loudly. Being a late riser, I was rather annoyed until I saw the number and recognised it as one of the villagers of Mangalajodi, a picturesque hamlet on the banks of the Chilika Lake in Orissa. Picking up, I heard the troubled voice of Madhu, an eco-guide at Mangalajodi, saying “Sir kuch log Mangalajodi main shikar kar rahe hain (Sir, there are people poaching birds in Mangalajodi).”
It was perturbing to hear of this occurrence in a habitat declared as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, which hosts more than 300,000 birds from across the globe and which is part of the Chilika lake that has been notified as a Ramsar site.
I had visited Mangalajodi in March 2009 and the trip had reaffirmed my faith in community conservation initiatives. A decade ago, the village was known for its infamous poachers and wildlife was often considered worth more dead, than alive. In 1996-1997, Nanda Kishor Bhujabal and members of a conservation group called Wild Orissa began conducting awareness programmes in the village. Their efforts bore fruit and the Sri Sri Mahavir Pakhshi Surakshya Samiti (Bird Protection Committee), driven by reformed poachers, was formed in December 2000. The members of the committee began to survey and patrol the area daily and keep a close eye out for poachers. Wild Orissa and the Council of Professional Social Workers (CPSW) supported the group and provided them with small wooden boats to aid patrolling efforts and the Chilika Development Authority and the Chilika Wildlife Department chipped in with funds and seasonal jobs.
Madhu was one of the leading members of the group and my time with him in Mangalajodi opened my eyes to the impact a few driven people could have on the environment. From 5,000 birds in 1999-2000 to welcoming 10,000 birds in 2000-2001 and reaching a figure of 300,000 birds in the year 2003-2004, the SSMPSS had brought about a sweeping change in the region. SSMPSS was even awarded the Biju Patnaik Wildlife Conservation Award for 2007 by the Government of Orissa.
From Madhu, I learned how poachers trapped and killed birds to earn a living. His own income had dropped from around Rs. 2,000 a day to around Rs. 2,000 a month. His life had changed and today protecting the birds seemed to be all that mattered to him. My relationship with Madhu deepened and I got to know this living legend as few people do.
Despite never having attended school, this reformed poacher knows virtually all that a field biologist would want to know about the birds that visit Mangalajodi, including their morphology, breeding habits, life cycles and even their migratory patterns.
I discovered one night how far Madhu had come from being the poacher he was. When I called on him, I was dismayed to learn that he was esconsed at the local police station where he had been arrested for assault when he caught a man who had killed a turtle for dinner.
Mangalajodi has not yet made it to the calendar of birders in India. It is not even on the Orissa Tourism map or even included in the Chilika Guide Map. But, thanks to the SSMPSS the birds are getting the protection they need and locals are getting the social support they need for livelihoods that revolve around bird protection. When I last spoke to some villagers they said that roughly 300 visitors come to Mangalajodi each year and that the income they bring supports several families whose members are acting as guides and boatmen. A delighted Madhu said that in the last season (November to February), some 611 visitors from six different countries visited Mangalajodi.
Hopefully a time will come when many more Mangalajodis will find protection and many more locals will discover sustenance from protecting nature rather than destroying it.
Dr. Pankaj Sharma is currently working with the Wildlife Conservation and Ecotourism Project at Mangalajodi.
MANGALAJODI: KINGDOM OF BIRDS
The Mangalajodi wetland (10 sq. km.) is a freshwater swamp to the northeast of Chilika Lake. The main channel runs south for around three kilometres and has a two kilometre-long nature trail running alongside ending at a watchtower from where nature lovers keep an eye on the myriad bird species that visit and live in the area. The area is a haven for waterfowl and attracts thousands of winter migrants and is home to a diverse population of breeding residents. Recognised as an Important Bird Area, over 300,000 waterfowl visit here in winter. The Tufted Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Fulvous Whistling-duck, Purple Swamphen, Asian Openbill, Cotton Pygmy-goose Grey-headed Lapwing, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Black-tailed Godwit, Garganey, Eurasian Wigeon, Ruddy Shelduck, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle and the Whiskered Tern are some of the species seen here.
By Dr. Pankaj Sharma