Agnipankh Flamingo Point: Birdwatching as an alternative livelihood

By Akshay Chettri and Vasudha VaradarajanonDec. 22, 2022in Environment and Ecology

Once ridiculed for wasting time watching birds, Sandip’s passion has now led many of his community members to follow his footsteps

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

A flock of Flamingos captured in the Bhigwan Dam. Credits: Ashish Kothari

The story of Sandip Nagare is one to learn from. A personal journey interwoven with the social and environmental fabric of Bhigwan. An incidental story of an avid birdwatcher leading to a transformation of Kumbhargaon, its economy, and its interaction with the bird population of the area.

To get to Kumbhargaon you have to travel through skewed dirt roads, narrow enough only for one car. This road goes on for a good kilometer as you slowly descend into a village with newly built cement houses still waiting to be painted. Our jeep had landed next to a one-storied building near a vast lake which at the hour we arrived was reflecting the moon in its tide. This is where Sandip Nagare built his venture Agnipankh Flamingo Point in the Kumbhargaon Bird Sanctuary. While the area is not notified as a sanctuary under wildlife laws, it is referred to as such due to the diversity of birds present in the area. This little getaway in Pune District in Maharashtra, located just on the outskirts of Pune, about 100 kms from the city, is filled with the wondrous vision of birds. 

Sandip Nagare sitting in on the verandah of his homestay. Credit: Ashish Kothari

Sandip’s personal journey

Sandip Nagare, a resident of Kumbhargaon, grew up close to the Bhigwan dam amidst the thousands of birds that reside there. He often accompanied his father, a fisherman, in a small boat to the reservoir. Like his father, a large population of the village depended on fishing for their livelihood with there being limited opportunities to sustain themselves. Sandip, from an early age, was fascinated by the bird population and diversity in his backyard and developed an interest in bird-watching.

He fondly recollects the efforts he made, and the repercussions he had to face in his birdwatching journey. Often he fled from school to pursue this interest, regardless of the consequences he had to face. He also recollects being called mad for ‘wasting time’ observing birds, and being beaten up for not performing well in school, but he continued to deepen his interest. Perhaps, the birds, with their language, instilled in him something more than what a school could offer.

The diversity of the bird population residing in Bhigwan was unknown to outsiders and even to the residents and therefore its significance hadn’t been yet explored or understood.

Sandip shared his first experience of taking some tourists around. A few people from Pune had come to Bhigwan and were on the reservoir’s shores, observing birds with their binoculars and cameras. It was an unusual sighting for Sandip and he followed them to understand why they had come. 

Woh binoculars aur badhe camera se birds dekh rahe the, mujhe thoda ajeeb laga, par mujhe bhi birds achhe lagte the, toh me unke piche pandra bees minute ghooma” (They were looking at birds with their binoculars, and large cameras, so I thought it was a bit peculiar, but since I too liked birds, I followed them around for a good 15-20 minutes) shares Sandip. Noticing him following them around, the bird watchers asked Sandip to take them around the dam. Sandip was quick to arrange his father’s boat. The reservoir was the same and so was the boat but little did Sandip realize that only this time he was sailing towards a different future. While the thought of earning a livelihood from this hadn’t crossed his mind yet, he saw this as an opportunity to learn more from the birders. He was aware of the local names of the birds and their behaviour but there was so much more to be learned about the fascinating creatures and this provided him the opportunity to do so. After the boat ride was over, before parting ways, the tourists handed him Rs 50 for taking them around and that sparked an idea within him.

A view of the Bhigwan Dam. Credits: Ashish Kothari

Growth of Agnipankh 

Sandip started with a small business of his own, birdwatchers would keep recurrently visiting Bhigwan and he would take them on his boat. He shared that along with fishing, villagers would also practice hunting birds for consumption, and some were sold. Hunting was believed to be rampant and impacting the bird population. Ganesh, a nature guide and one of the first members of Agnipankh Flamingo Point shared how the villagers used to consume Northern Shoveler, Garganey, Indian-spot billed duck, and other such birds as they were easy prey. They claimed that one would see only a hundred or so ducks then, to the thousands that are present now.

To address this issue of excessive hunting, Sandip realized he could not do this on his own when the villagers would ignore his cries. As a result, he banded with a group of his friends. It was necessary to change local perceptions of the significance of birds and seeing them as more than a dietary product. He employed a handful of youth and trained them as nature guides. This helped to generate a viable source of income for the young group while also serving as an example for others to see the benefit of moving away from hunting.

In 2006, Sandip took his initiative a step further by opening his house for night stays for tourists, naming his venture ‘Agnipankh’ after the flamingoes that grace the Bhigwan water every year for a few months between December and April, before they make their journey forward. 

This was the humble beginnings of Agnipankh Flamingo Point. It started with him and his friends.

Agni means Fire, Pankh Means Birds, the description of the flamingo is based on the appearance of the pink and black wings giving the impression of fire.
Credits: Akshay Chettri

Over the years, his venture has undergone several changes with opening up food enterprises, more rooms for visitors, shops etc. With the increasing popularity of the village, more birdwatchers and other tourists began to reach out to him. As a result, Sandip saw his initiative grow organically. His journey also served as an eye-opener to several others in the village who opened up similar initiatives in the area. Villagers started earning money through their homestays, selling their products, and avenues of employment for others like cooking in the kitchen, and nature guides were opening up. Not only was he able to work on his passion, he was also able to help bring a change in the village’s economy.

Alongside his entrepreneurial effort, Sandip also worked on nourishing his own knowledge of the local birds. Since 11th grade itself, he had started documenting the different birds he saw, tracking their movement, and keeping a count of their population. In 2013, he released his first booklet on the birds which was well received by the people who visited.

A photo booklet of the different birds of Kumbhargaon including their Marathi names
Credits: Vasudha Varadarajan

Tourism has, according to Sandip, led to a significant change in the community’s lifestyle, expenditures, etc. Interestingly he shared how their efforts toward conservation have also changed. The initial list recorded by the birdwatchers was a list of about a hundred birds, but when the locals started recording the birds they found up to 300 different species. The local nature guides are even learning to record the species they see using eBird (an online database created by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in efforts to document birds by scientists, researchers, birdwatchers, and naturalists). The villagers’ interaction with birds changed, and as a result their ecosystem changed too. The village collectively saw the pertinence of this ecosystem for their sustenance and made efforts to preserve it. Sandip shared how if people can understand their needs through nature, they would most naturally protect it.

The shift in mindset was evident in the village. Ganesh is one such example. He became a nature guide initially to earn a livelihood, and soon after he learned more about the world of birds. It became both his livelihood and his passion. He said that this newfound livelihood for birdwatching has not only prevented hunting but has also become a means of protecting birds. If during their rides they see any bird stuck in a fishing net, or hurt they free them and/or take them back to aid them. 

What has this preservation meant for the birds? It meant more harmonious coexistence. Through the change in the interaction of the villagers, the birds also recognize the presence of people but are comfortable knowing they will not be harmed. As Sandip stated, you could go near the birds without startling them. Nevertheless, no one goes too close to the birds as the nature guides are trained with certain guidelines during bird watching such as allowing the birds to have their space and that boats not get too close to the birds.

Birdwatchers trying to capture the flock of flamingos flying. Credits: Ashish Kothari

Challenges and Threats

However, tourism and its consequent development come with its own unique set of challenges. The tourists have increased the plastic waste, there have been incidents of them disturbing birds, and apparent demands to construct ‘pucca’ roads for their conveyance. Ganesh shared how many of the tourists who come to their homestays complain about the travel being too difficult, making the local folks feel compelled to construct tar or concrete roads. Further threats by the growing climate crisis have also impacted the birds. Sandip shared how the flamingo’s migration patterns have shifted, and how the ducks are leaving faster due to the growing heat. Moreover, for the community, their efforts of creating this ecotourism-based local initiative are yet to gain recognition and support from the government for them to scale their efforts. 

Future of Agnipankh 

Despite these growing threats, glimmers of hope exist in these locally-led initiatives. Sandip shares how the gram panchayat is making attempts to make signboards to create awareness of the different kinds of birds, preventing waste etc. The community members are making attempts to grow more plants, and focus on locally sourcing their food. Although they haven’t made concentrated efforts to train the youth, those who want to be guides are allowed in and experientially trained. The local villagers are making attempts to reduce plastic and properly dispose of it. 

There is a long way to go in this journey. With the tourism department making inroads, change is inevitable it seems. The one thing that has led to this transformation, albeit with challenges, in Bhigwan has been the symbiotic relationship between the people, the dam, and the birds and that needs to be preserved. A model focusing on only economic gains would spell disaster for the birds as well as the community.

Bar tailed Godwit. Credits: Ashish Kothari
Cormorants during Sunset in Bhigwan. Credits: Akshay Chettri
Small Indian Pratincole. Credits: Akshay Chettri

Watch the interview with Sandip Nagare and learn more about his journey.

Sandip Nagare started Agnipankh Flamingo Point in Kumbhargoan near Pune, Maharashtra. He shares his incidental story of how his passion for birdwatching turned into an eco-friendly enterprise that created new livelihoods for his village

The story is penned by Akshay Chettri and Vasudha Varadrajan who work with Kalpavriksh.

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