Poachers are back at the world-famous Chilika Lake, India’s largest brackish water lagoon, experts and officials say.

Residents of dozens of villages around the lake had stayed away from poaching after the authorities and bird conservation groups launched a crackdown in 2003, offered them alternative livelihood and also involved them in conserving the migratory birds that come to the lake in their thousands every winter.

But recent arrests show that some residents have taken up poaching again, officials said here. At least nine people have been arrested since September this year by wildlife officials for hunting birds in the lake and 34 dead birds were seized from them.

“All the people arrested belong to the villages around the lake. These villages have always been known as poachers’ haunts,” Assistant Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) B.K. Mohapatra said.

“Last year also at least a dozen people were arrested on similar charges from villages around the lake,” he said.

Shockingly, Dibakar Behera, president of Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti - a bird conservation group - was among those arrested, said Biswajit Mohanty, coordinator of the Indian Birds Conservation Network (IBCN).

Twelve migratory birds, including exotic varieties of Gadwall and Shoveller, were reportedly seized from him.

The arrest of Behera in February came four months after the state government gave him the prestigious Biju Patnaik Award for contribution to protection of migratory birds, Mr. Mohanty said.

“The protection efforts the government has initiated seem to be not working,” he said, adding that the villagers need the right kind of motivation.

Authorities engaged the ex-poachers in bird protection as temporary workers. They were also helped to set up small business. Some were engaged in eco-tourism.

As no training was provided, the livelihood option provided became un-sustainable for many.

They were earning more from poaching than what was offered to them, Mr. Mohanty said, adding that each bird can be sold for Rs.200 and a poacher can easily trap five birds a day.

Spread across the districts of Puri, Khordha and Ganjam, along the east coast and about 100 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, Chilika is known for its scenic beauty and rich biodiversity.

Every year about a million migratory birds from places like Siberia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Himalayas come to the lake in October and return in March.

The most attractive birds sighted in the lake include flamingos, grey and purple herons, egrets, spoonbills, storks and white ibis.

The poachers usually catch the birds by trapping them in nets or spreading poisoned bait. They also smuggle out these protected species to cities like Bhubaneswar, Khordha, Puri and Jatni.

The wildlife department has set up at least 21 camps around the lake this year and deployed nearly 100 officials and villagers to ensure that no bird is killed.

There are 132 villages around the lake, housing over 300,000 people. Many of the villagers arrested this year had earlier left poaching but re-started it recently, Mr. Mohanty said.

“It seems that forest officials relaxed their vigil due to the claims of bird protection committees of working tirelessly for bird protection. Unfortunately, the ex-poachers betrayed the trust reposed in them,” said Mr. Mohanty.

“Once again the demand from places like Bhubaneswar is leading to poachers seeking lucrative incomes from Chilika birds. The forest department also needs to collect information about high society parties in the state capital where the meats of these exotic birds are served,” Mr. Mohanty said.

Chilika was declared one of the six wetlands of international importance for Arctic and Central Asian waterfowl by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Last year over 800,000 birds belonging to 168 species were counted in the lake. The next bird census in the lake will be held for two days starting Jan 11.

This year so far at least 600,000 migratory birds have arrived at the lake. About half of them have been sighted by wildlife officials in Nalabana - an island inside the lake which is also a bird sanctuary.