November to December is the peak season, when as many as 3,00,000 birds descend on the village.
Mangalajodi in Odisha is one among 132 villages situated on the shore of the Chilika, India’s largest lagoon. During the late 1990s, it was famous for being a haven for migratory birds, and infamous for the people who poached them.
Dead birds were in demand in the village, thanks to dhabas frequented by those who wanted a taste of the exotic. The villagers would snare, poison or shoot the birds, and sell them along with their eggs at a high price. Poaching was so lucrative that some villagers earned as much as Rs 40,000 a month.
At the turn of the millennium, poaching birds became so widespread that their numbers began dropping drastically, affecting the ecosystem. That was when activists and government officials stepped in to take corrective measures.
One such activist was Nanda Kishore Bhujabal, who ran Wild Orissa, an NGO working to conserve wildlife in the state. He began educating villagers about the effects of poaching on the ecosystem, but the villagers paid no heed at first. But Bhujabal persisted and ultimately convinced them that poaching was bad.
A student from the village, Niranjan Behera, and a few of his friends soon joined the movement. They formed a bird protection committee, comprising people who wanted to put an end to poaching in Mangalajodi. Thanks to their efforts, a lot of villagers decided to bid poaching goodbye.
But they had a problem: finding an alternative means of livelihood. To help the villagers, activists and officials at the Chilika Development Authority and the forest department decided to join hands. “The initiative was so impressive that everybody wanted to extend cooperation,” said Ajit Kumar Pattnaik, conservation expert and former head of the CDA.
The villagers formed the Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti under Bhujabal’s Wild Orissa, which was supported by the state government, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Indian Grameen Services (IGS), a not-for-profit company focusing on making livelihoods sustainable. The villagers were educated about migrating avian fauna, so that they could act as guides for tourists and bird enthusiasts.
“The major challenge was to create alternate livelihood opportunities for the local communities by establishing Mangalajodi as an ecotourism destination,” says Sanjib Sarangi of IGS. “Once the visitors started coming, things fell in place…. Mangalajodi is now a classic model of conservation and livelihoods working hand in hand by using ecotourism as a key driver.”
The villagers now stand guard, even at night, to keep the wetlands and birds in Mangalajodi out of harm’s way. “It was a tough decision for me to give up poaching, as I used to make good money by selling birds and their eggs,” said Kishor Behera, a villager. “But I realised that this was not a good livelihood option…. The CDA gave us a monthly stipend of Rs 500 to encourage us [to stop poaching]. Finally, we took an oath in front of the goddess Kalijai not to kill birds.”
According to ornithologist Bikram Grewal, Mangalajodi is far ahead of other wetlands in the country in terms of the richness of the habitat, the number of birds it hosts, and the proximity at which one gets to see the birds. November to December is the peak season, when as many as 3,00,000 birds descend on the village. From ruffs, godwits and plovers to sandpipers, bluethroats and grey-headed lapwings; from pintails and ruddy shelducks to whiskered terns, river terns and gulls, Mangalajodi is now a paradise for birds.