Waterfowl Protection & Conservation: Mangalajodi, Chilika Lake, Orissa
Wild Orissa’s initiative supported by Chilika Development Authority & State Wildlife Wing, Orissa to script a success story
Circa 1996: Chilika’s birds and people
Chilika Lake, indenting into the Orissa coastline on India’s eastern seaboard, turns into a global carnival of birds, each winter. Migratory waterfowl, by the thousands, jostle for this prime wetland real-estate with resident birds, amid a great cacophony of calls. But on the fringes of this great lake, there has been, for long, an uneasy calm. As night falls, sleepy villages wake up: dark shapes slinking off, gliding in canoes, crush water lily pods into tasty morsels lacing it with a deadly poison, Furatin. Pintails & Whistling Teals, Gadwalls and Godwits feast, on what becomes their last supper, and die by the hundreds; canoe-loads of bird meat are ready by dawn for markets far and near. Furatin is the upstart: it’s upstaged the convention of nets, traps and guns. But the killing is an ancient ritual, almost folklore but for the meat fresh and sold, that has visited Chilika faithfully like its moonlit winters and bird flocks.
In village markets, by the highways, you can bargain for a bird. You can also buy a dozen eggs. Chilika harbours rare waterfowl and water bird breeding habitats and that is where the eggs keep coming from. The rate for bird meat is pegged to the species and to the way it’s killed. The supply lines keep running thanks to the fifty-odd poachers that come from each of the villages of Sorona, Mangalajodi, Bhusandpur, Kalupada, Chilikasahi, Jatiapatna, Satpada, Sundarpur, Kumandala and the like. These poachers know the waterways like the back of their hand and can kill a bird in their sleep. The technique is a hand-me-down, passed on like precious family silver; the skills, of course, are polished each passing year. The palate for bird-meat is as old as the killings. Orissa, like any coastal state, relishes its fish and the taste for meat extends naturally to birds. The taste for birds keeps the poison supply running and a skilled poacher can make unto half-a-laky rupees a year. The authorities watch helplessly, wary of local sentiments fuelled by politics. Conservation is a well-meaning word, at best, when Wild Orissa steps into the brackish waters of Chilika.
Summer of 2002
Kishore Behera, christened “Veerapan of Chilika”, rows the canoe noiselessly in the weeds a little off shore Mangalajodi. Wild Orissa founding members are in the canoe with ornithologists from the Bombay Natural History Society waiting to catch the Oriental Pratincole and get a glimpse of her eggs. Kishore will ensure that. After all, he has caught these birds all winters. It has taken a few years, a slow, steadfast persistence, long listening and these boats to coax a gentle change of heart in Kishore and his kin. They guide tourists across the waterways that sneak between the tall reeds, wake up drowsy sentries who volunteer to watch over roosting birds at unearthly hours, and greet you with cobras in transit which they have caught and will soon release in the wild.
Sometime in 1997
Wild Orissa first steps into Mangalajodi. Heavily involved in poaching, this village will be an acid test for us. But the dark cloud of suspicion has a silver lining - a personal, involved effort might turn around this trail of poaching. Wild Orissa members start a long journey, a slow process of persistence and trust building. For long hours they listen, sharing with villagers in their grief and rejoicing in their happiness. The villagers open up with their problems, as they sit together in the remains of the day. The relationship matures, tested by time and tried by forces, forging a bond between Wild Orissa and the people of Mangalajodi.
Three Years Later (2000)
The DFO of Chilika Wildlife Division invites Wild Orissa to help contain the rampant waterfowl poaching. Working in tandem with the local community, Wild Orissa gains insights into the dynamics of this trade.
The first milestone of efforts is Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti at Mangalajodi on 10th December, 2000: a committee for bird protection, constituted by Wild Orissa, whose chief activists are the erstwhile poachers. The metamorphosis of poachers into protectors of waterfowl has been an arduous task often fraught with danger. But when the bigger poachers like Kishore Behera turn around, this committee is empowered beyond belief. Poaching supply lines are hit, their resources dry up, information on poachers and poaching attempts helps apprehend offenders and, more importantly, the credibility of the bird protection body enhances manifold. Poaching figures plummet. Wild Orissa’s efforts at Tangi are an example for many in the region. Kishore Behera, and his kin - Madhav, Madhusudan, Mahendra, Dibakar and others - have shed their past and played stellar roles in Chilika’s bird conservation. Armed with the knowledge of the waters, they have been scouring the region with Wild Orissa and the forest department nabbing poachers, destroying nets and rescuing birds. Soon, the Chilika Development Authority, together with Wild Orissa and Mangalajodi’s bird protection body, adopts a direct action program to accelerate this change.
A slew of direct action programs follow. There are poachers to snare, waters to scour, and tourists to take around. There is also coordinating with the forest department, assisting research, helping scientists from organizations like BNHS and creating awareness and interest in children.
These are busy years.
2001: Wild-life Week
The Mangalajodi experiment is recognized by the Government of Orissa when the Hon’ble Chief Minister gives the Pakhshi Bandhu (Friends of Birds) Award to the Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti of Mangalajodi during the course of the wildlife week celebrations. The members of ‘Wild Orissa’, play their parts in this story to remember and enact.
Of memories and moorhens
Documentation on film of a varied species of avi-fauna records birds and eggs of the Purple Moorhen (Poorphyrio porphy) and Oriental Pratincole (Glareola maldivarum). The dinghies, double up for eco-tourism by the day and patrolling by night. Wild Orissa boats, bought at donated at shoestring budgets have proved invaluable for fishing for one-time poachers. With about twenty-five rupees of catch on an average day, they make a sustainable nine thousand rupees a year. Not enough, but a start, nevertheless.
There is a sense of urgency at Mangalajodi about conserving this waterfowl-breeding habitat. Perhaps only a few such spots now exist in India making Mangalajodi’s Chilika priceless. Mangalajodi Ghera (an embanked area of 1.5 sq km), draws special attention from Wild Orissa and the bird protection committee as a crucial bird habitat. It retains water for most of the year, is protected from draining and boating and sees an explosion of waterfowl, resident and migratory.
The Government - state wildlife wing, the forest and tourism departments have visited this site on the heels of the spectacular turnaround of poachers and the efficacy of the bird committee at Mangalajodi.
Small delights too happen. Like the discovery of five eggs in a Little Grebe nest with which the tiny bird laid low a holy ornithological count of three.
Chilika Development Authority has financed construction of a bird interpretation building at Mangalajodi, apart from a Watch Tower and Jetty.
Mangalajodi wetlands are fragile.
Human traffic will hamper nest building, nesting and rearing for these birds. We have urged control and restrained overuse of wetlands for eco tourism. We advocate that breeding be cocooned from human interference. The movement is down now and it’s better for bird breeding this way.
Oil spills from motorboats, especially if eco-tourism takes off, might be a nightmare for birds and the aquatic life at large. An early movement towards eco-friendly transport like sail boats will preempt such dangers.
We suggest using cycle rickshaws like in Bharatpur, to ferry tourists along the Mangalajodi embankment.
The involvement of locals, more importantly the poachers-turned-conservationists, in bird conservation is imperative.
We have already addressed the authorities to involve people like Kishore Behera in eco-tourism projects. Without them, this wetland might become a mirage.