Chilika lake, once a hunter’s paradise, is brimming with water birds again

Much of the conservation success story owes to the residents of Mangalajodi village

Updated - July 15, 2018 01:18 am IST

Published - July 14, 2018 04:27 pm IST

 A flock of open billed stork in flight in the wetlands of Mangalajodi, on the banks of Chilika Lagoon, in Odisha

A flock of open billed stork in flight in the wetlands of Mangalajodi, on the banks of Chilika Lagoon, in Odisha

India’s largest wintering ground for waterbirds was a hunter’s paradise until two decades ago. But it has turned into a remarkable conservation success story because one man and his team coaxed and cajoled people to change.

Thousands of ducks, godwits, and other waders from the Caspian Sea in the west to Lake Baikal in the east take wing every autumn. They head south for about 4,000 km until they reach Asia’s second largest coastal lagoon, the 1,100-sq km Chilika lake in Odisha. Until 20 years ago, many never returned to their northern waters at the end of their winter sojourn. Just as they stuffed themselves on the plentiful fish, people made use of the season’s bounty by shooting them and setting traps and nets. The birds ended up in kitchen pans around the wetland. Some that chose to nest here couldn’t have picked a worse location. Their eggs also slid their way down people’s gullets.

Waterbirds were part of the local diet for generations. But the situation worsened when restaurants started paying between ₹20 and ₹60 a bird. Fishermen discovered a way of killing more waterfowl using a pesticide called Furadan. According to manufacturers of the chemical, treated crops are safe to eat. Apparently, those eating the poisoned birds didn’t suffer any noticeable effects. Hunters made ₹10,000 to ₹40,000 a year.

Soon, the number of avian visitors fell. The census figure for 1998-99 in Mangalajodi, the largest village on the banks of the Chilika, was less than 6,000. Even though hunting is illegal, the State Forest Department had no control over the situation. The neighbourhood was rough, and Mangalajodi cultivated a reputation as the ‘village of thieves’. It was just a matter of time before the vast lake emptied of birds.

Taming ‘Veerappan’

Alarmed by the numbers, Nand Kishore Bhujbal decided to do something in 1997. Through his NGO, Wild Orissa, his team insinuated themselves within the communities and won their confidence. It helped that Bhujbal’s family belonged to a nearby village. The NGO identified the main hunters, their hunting methods, the clientèle, and the economics. And then began the long process of proselytisation. Many renounced hunting by taking an oath on their deity Maa Kalijai. They gave up a source of good money for the respectability of a life lived within the bounds of the law.

What’s a leader without followers? The most notorious hunters, one of whom earned the epithet ‘Veerappan of Chilika’, felt threatened. One is said to have intimidated Bhujbal with a knife. Eventually, even these men came around to the side of conservation and the capitulation was complete.

In 2000, Wild Orissa set up an organisation, Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti, with the new converts from Mangalajodi village as members. The Chilika Development Authority, Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation India, Indian Grameen Services, and the State Forest Department supported the endeavour by providing land and funds.

How were the former hunters to make a living? The birdy spectacle attracted birdwatchers, so tourism was an obvious choice. The men already knew a lot about the waterfowls’ habits and where each species liked to hang out. They made excellent naturalists, but many tourists don’t speak Odia. Wild Orissa facilitated training programmes and raised funds for boats and binoculars. Some of the recruits learned the English names of birds, while others received training to take care of guests. When the group went into business, they offered tourists basic but comfortable accommodation and local cuisine. In return, the arrival of guests made the enterprise viable. A guide now earns about ₹30,000 in the five-month birding season.


The Samiti members use the boats not only to ply tourists but also patrol the lake for hunters and egg-thieves. The waterfowl responded to all these changes, descending from the October skies in flocks. Last winter, census takers counted nearly 900,000 birds on the lake, of which an estimated 300,000 frequent Mangalajodi. The more they arrived, the more they pooped. The more they pooped, the more enriched the waters became. As a result, fish thrived and so did the fishermen.

The enterprise is a game-changer. Many flashy resorts branded ‘ecotourism’, often do nothing more than change a few light bulbs. But here’s a real role model for one.

In March, when migrant birds leave, the season closes. The boats that ferry guests become fishing vessels. As summer advances, the lake dries up but still remains fertile ground for oriental pratincole nests.

Wild Orissa helped to set up seven more similar committees in other villages. The number of visitors has also risen. But the future sustainability of the programme needs to be taken care of. More tourists aren’t necessarily a good thing. Some of them are unruly and disturb the birds. But boosting visitor numbers is critical to providing livelihoods to everyone. Or, some other avenues for making a living have to open up.

For their efforts, the Samiti received the 2001 Pakhshi Bandhu Award and the 2007 Biju Patnaik Award for Wildlife Conservation from the State, and Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust, another community venture, won the United Nations World Tourism Organisation Award earlier this year. Mangalajodi ought to become famous as the ‘village of conservationists’.

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