Village of Water Birds

By Ashish KotharionFeb. 10, 2014in Environment and Ecology
Mangalajodi villagers have displayed a strong commitment to protect migratory and resident waterbirds at the edge of Chilika lake, Odisha.

As our dugout boat floated quietly on the water and sliced through the mist, I caught sight of hundreds of heads sticking out of the reeds. They turned their gaze to us as we approached, some getting restless, others casually carrying on feeding. Slowly, they rose together as a flock, and flapped across the lake to a safer location. Godwits, sandpipers, geese, ducks, and other winged denizens of this wetland became increasingly visible as the rising sun dissipated the early morning mist.

I was at the edge of Chilika Lake, one of the world’s largest lagoons, located in Odisha (Orissa). My hosts were Madhu and Madhav Behera, residents of Mangalajodi village. Avid hunters just about a decade back, the Beheras and other youth of the village have become zealous bird protectors over the last few years. Today, the village is one of the best places to watch water birds in Odisha and, probably, India.

That morning we weaved past thousands of birds of various species and I was enchanted. Most water birds are shy, but here they seemed to be more trusting. It was as if through unwritten and unspoken communication, the villagers had conveyed that they meant no harm. We saw the village fishing boats go within feet of several birds, but the birds flew away when our boat went as close. It was as if they sensed that I was a stranger to the area, but it was still much closer than most lakes that I have birded at.

The best way to spot the birds on Chilika Lake is by taking a boat ride with a local guide. | Dhritiman Mukherjee

The remarkable change from indiscriminate hunting to zealous conservation took place due to the work of the NGO Wild Orissa, and the leadership shown by some of the village youth in forming the Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (Bird Protection Committee). Dozens of villagers who earned a significant income from selling bird meat, or live birds, agreed to give up the practice. Undoubtedly some or all of them would have suffered as a consequence, so some help from NGOs and the Forest Department was urgently needed.

The villagers started an ecotourism venture, and received help to build a visitors’ centre, a watchtower, a walkway to the boat-docking area, and other facilities. Later they hired rooms from a resident to make a lodge, which provides basic but comfortable facilities for tourists. Some of the youth underwent training as wildlife guides, and learned the names of birds in English (they already had Oriya names for many). The Beheras, for instance, are able to rattle off English (and in some cases scientific) names of all the birds, even though they know hardly any other English. The entire effort was so remarkable that in 2007, the state government awarded the Biju Patnaik Award for Wildlife Conservation to the Samiti. Using this and some other funding available through support organisations, they have also obtained some pairs of binoculars, birding field guides, and other materials to help in their regular patrolling of the wetland.

During the boat ride that morning, and later at a simple and delicious lunch made with freshly-harvested vegetables from the village, I was told the history of the village, why they took to conservation, and what their future plans were. They told me that apart from boating, they also led birding walks, and took interested visitors around the village. They shared a checklist of over 200 bird species that they had seen. By the end of the day, I was impressed by their quiet confidence and expertise. I can only hope that more tourists that visit will encourage their effort, since this is the best way to ensure that this bird haven remains safe (; [email protected]).

Resolution passed at an Interaction of Stakeholders of Mangalajodi, held at Mangalajodi on the 22nd of February 2014

Mangalajodi is today one of India’s top wildlife tourism destinations having being placed firmly in the tourist circuit. The critical and catalytic role played by Wild Orissa, an organization for conservation of wildlife and nature, in a novel initiative of weaning away poachers/hunters from the perennial problem of poaching and ensuring an alternative livelihood for them, has been documented as case studies. This initiative stands out today as one of India’s best practices in wildlife conservation. Mangalajodi is famous for its birds and people come from all across the world to see them in their natural surroundings. Having understood the problems of birds and their habitat in Mangalajodi and realizing the need for their further sustainable conservation, this event today viz. Mangalajodi- The Road Ahead- People For Birds during the course of Interaction of Stakeholders of Mangalajodi, held at Mangalajodi on the 22nd of February 2014, resolves that:-

  1. Placing on record the deep sense of appreciation and gratefulness for selfless work at the cost of great personal sacrifice carried out by the members of the Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti of Mangalajodi, constituted by Wild Orissa during 2000, it is resolved to request this committee to continue with its work for many years to come and to ensure that the name and fame of Mangalajodi village is further taken to higher heights.
  2. While placing sincere gratitude to Chilika Development Authority (CDA) for having supported the unique wildlife conservation initiatives by Wild Orissa in Chilika Lake viz. Mangalajodi and adjoining areas for more than a decade, it is resolved to request CDA for deepening of channels where the boats of fishermen ply.
  3. While placing sincere gratitude to the important role played by the Chilka Wildlife Division in affording protection to birds by way of conducting patrolling and setting up of anti-poaching camps, it is resolved that Chilka Wildlife Division is to be requested introduce strict norms for tourists by way of issuing Do’s and Don’t’s for visitors thereby ensuring sanctity for birds and bird habitats.
  4. The Mangalajodi Ghera is a landmark for the village and serves a multifarious purpose for the villagers, including a mode of path for traversing from Mangalajodi to Sundarpur, etc. This structure not only encloses an area for the economic activity of the village but also is a very critical bird breeding habitat. Because of the Phailin impact, this earthen dam has been broken at many places. This earthen structure’s safety is of utmost importance, and it is resolved that measures need to be taken to ensure its longevity. Use of non-polluting cycle rickshaws for ferrying tourists upto the jetty is the best ecological option for transport. Accordingly it is resolved to request the Irrigation Department of the government in ensuring that the breaches in the Mangalajodi Ghera are repaired and that to ensure motor vehicles are barred from using it by putting up of a barricade.
  5. Tourism which got initiated during 2002 by Wild Orissa with the support of the CDA, is today one of the chief bread earner for the families of the onetime poachers. It is understood that regulated, low-impact tourism has the potential to be a vital conservation tool as it helps win public support for wildlife conservation. The objective of wildlife tourism should be to inculcate amongst the visitors empathy for nature, both animate and inanimate and to provide a communion with nature, rather than to merely ensure sightings of a maximum number of bird populations and variety of species. Eco-tourism must primarily involve and benefit local communities and the first benefits of tourism activities should flow to the local people. We understand that tourism exists for the natural habitat and not natural habitat for tourism, and that tourism demands must be subservient to and in consonance with the conservation interests of the natural habitat and biodiversity. Accordingly it is resolved that only ecologically sustainable practices will be used by the resort owners/tour operators/guides/etc. in Mangalajodi in a manner that does not harm the birds and their habitat.
  6. Mangalajodi is a very critical bird breeding habitat for a large variety of resident birds. Some of extremely rare and endangered species of birds lay eggs and raise their young. There is an immediate need to safeguard this delicate ecosystem from getting destroyed forever, because if that happens then Mangalajodi will be forgotten and economic benefits from wildlife/eco-tourism will stop accruing. Accordingly it is resolved that CDA, Wild Orissa and Chilka Wildlife Division to be requested to earmark routes in the water area along which tourists will be taken and necessary signages put up for the same.
  7. We are aware that the good name of a place is carried by good memories and such memories are gained by experience. Providing a clean environment to our visitors is of utmost importance in this regard. Accordingly it is resolved that the Mangalajodi Gram Sabha to request Khurda District Collector to consider enlisting Mangalajodi as a tourist as well as eco tourist destination and to provide minimum infrastructural facilities and to provide assistance to keep the village surroundings clean.
  8. We are aware that regular monitoring of direct and negative impacts of tourism is needed. The parameters for such an evaluation should include ecological effects on the habitat, animal and bird behaviour as well as secondary effects caused by changes in lifestyles and cultures of local populations. Accordingly it is resolved to request Bombay Natural History Society, Chilka Wildlife Division and CDA to undertake such exercises.
  9. It is understood that tourists play a major role in sustaining a wildlife conservation movement. It is resolved that it will be appropriate that tourists undertake responsible behavior during their visits to the Mangalajodi wetlands.
  10. The unmanned railway crossing en-route to Mangalajodi bird area famously known as Mangalajodi watch tower is required to have a manned level crossing to avoid any unfortunate accident. Hence it is resolved that through the Gram Sabha all the Government functionaries such as General Manager of East Coast Railway, District Collector, local MLA, Members of Parliament, Union Minister of Railway, Chief Minister, etc. are to be requested to look into the matter and cause furtherance for having a manned level crossing.
  11. Due to Phailin impact, almost all the major/big trees have been uprooted, which were mainly used by the birds for nesting, and urgent measures are required to be taken for plantation in and around Mangalajodi eco system. Hence it is resolved to request the forest department to take immediate step for plantation in Mangalajodi and nearby villages with local and species which are of use for birds and animals.
  12. It was noted that the number of tourists to Mangalajodi has increased manifold in the recent years and it is expected to increase in coming years as Chilika, a Ramsar wetland of International importance, has been declared as Destination Flyways recently by United Nation’s World Tourism Organisation. After birding for three hours in Mangalajodi bird area, when the tourists alight at Mangalajodi jetty, it becomes a foreseeable requirement especially for lady tourists to have certain facilities. Hence a toilet with water facility (tube well) at Mangalajodi Watch tower is required. It is resolved to mobilise the system available in Panchayati Raj through Gram Sabha, Sarapanch, etc. for the said purpose.
  13. It was noted that there is a need to stop ferrying of vehicles on the road leading to Watch Tower to keep the area free from disturbance as both sides of the road is a good bird habitat area and a number of birds are using the area. The incoming vehicles are required to be stopped and parked in a designated parking area near the road entry point and parking fee could be collected which could be accounted to an appropriate account. It is resolved that the Gram Sabha will suitably earmark a parking area where the required fees and personnel will be laid down/provided.
  14. It was noted that Check lists of all the birds both resident and migratory noticed in Mangalajodi (Chilika) is required by tourists. It is resolved that Wild Orissa will prepare such a bird list which could be given to tourists at a nominal cost.
  15. It was noted that there is an immediate need to make the bird area a Plastic free area. The visiting tourists may be requested to strictly dissuade from using and throwing polythene bags in the bird area during visit. It is resolved that to the extent possible eco friendly carry bags such as paper bags, jute bags, etc. may be made available to them on the spot on cost basis by the tour operators/guides/etc.
  16. It was noted drinking water may be made available at watch tower. It is resolved that immediate availability of the drinking water may be made available at Watch Tower on cost basis by the Gram Sabha/Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti.
  17. It was noted that local made products could be put for sale which could add to the earning for the local villagers. It is resolved that various self help groups/women groups would be requested to place their products for sale.
  18. We understand that the civil society at large including Press, Media, Non-Government Organizations, Educational Institutions, Banks, etc. have played a major role in furthering the wildlife conservation initiative in Mangalajodi. It is resolved to request for support, including from Bakul Foundation, Kalinga Birds (Facebook Group), Kalpavriskh, WWF-India, Kolkata Trekkers Youth, etc.
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