Converts to the birdsong


With dark clouds hanging heavily over the majestic Chilika Lake in the evening, Mangalajodi, on its northeastern edge, dissolves into a euphony of chirps, tweets, whistles and warbles. As a drizzle starts, the birds fly back to their nests in this Odisha village. For Hazari Behera and Deenabhandu Behera, it’s just the time to leave home for a night of “birdwatching” — no notebooks or field glasses — with the forest guards to stop poachers from prising apart the peace of the three lakh birds nesting in the village trees and bushes. Tomorrow, two others will take their place, as the village roster assigns men for the bird beat.

Back in 2000, hardly 5,000 birds roosted here, with the villagers themselves poisoning or shooting them down and selling the meat in local eateries and neighbouring cities. Each poacher would pocket between ₹10,000 and ₹40,000 a month. Today, the hardened poachers are diehard conservationists as they have come to realise that ecotourism around Asia’s largest brackish water lake offers a better prospect than poaching. They are stakeholders in the Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust, which runs stay facilities, plies boats, and deploys guides during the birding season from October to March. Trained by the Bombay Natural History Society and the Chilika Development Authority, the guides have become expert birders. During off-season, they get by with fishing and cattle-rearing, meeting every month to stay one step ahead of the poachers.

Ruffs, godwits, plovers, sandpipers, purple moorhens, bronze-winged jacanas, purple herons and a variety of other winged beauties call Mangalajodi their home. In the winter, guests going by the names of northern shoveller, northern pintail, gadwall, glossy ibis and so on fly in from as far as Siberia and Central Asia. In their wake flows a steady trickle of ornithologists, birders and photographers, taking up residence in the village to be with the birds. Watch the whiskered terns tantalise shutterbugs by diving to pluck fish out of the brackish lagoon. At last count, Mangalajodi had 160 species of migratory birds and 40 resident species during the peak migratory season beginning November, all safe thanks to the poachers-turned-protectors.


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