A muster of peacocks dancing with multihued plumage amid sounds of gunshots reverberating through the forest may appear strange. But a shooting range of Odisha Police has become an unlikely haven for India’s national bird.
A sizeable population of peafowl in Naraj-Siddheswar Firing Range on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar has never felt threatened in the past two decades, ever since they were taken under wings, first by a lower-rung policeman, then by his family members and finally by the local community as a whole.
The shooting training site, which is deemed too dangerous for movement of humans, boasts of 117 peafowl population and stands on a par with other protected areas in the region.
Super cyclone impact
It all started in 1999 when the super cyclone ravaged the coastal regions. One peacock and two peahens were believed to have flown in from the nearest Chandaka-Dampada Wildlife Sanctuary and were seen limping in the police firing range. They did not escape the watchful eyes of Panu Behera, a home guard, deployed at the shooting range spread over 54 acres.
Showing concern for the beautiful birds, the home guard began sharing his lunch with them. In the forested range, the three birds almost became friends of Panu Behera.
In the next two years, the population of the endangered species grew to five and then the numbers kept increasing.
Amid all this, the Odisha police never abandoned their shooting practice. Last May, when Mr. Behera passed away, the number of peafowl had already crossed 80.
Private shooting training
Of late, a portion of the firing range has been thrown open to private companies for shooting training, but that hasn't affected the birds.
“Even when a shooting practice at the firing range began at 8 a.m. and continued till evening on a day last month, the peacocks descended at the feeding points braving the sounds of the gunshots,” said Kahnu Charan Behera, 20-year-old grandson of Panu Behera.
Kahnu, who picked up the habit of taking care of the peacocks from his late grandfather, continues to visit the site every day from his house located 2 km away. He feels proud of his grandfather who had earned the distinction of "Peacock Man of Odisha". He said there were 117 peafowl counted at the firing range in September 2017.
“It is not easy to feed these birds twice a day as it costs Rs. 500 per day. But those who come to see the peacocks dancing and hopping in free environment contribute for the food. In rainy season, when the number of visitors comes down, we pay from our pockets — all for the protection of the birds,” said Kahnu.
The forest is surrounded by two villages with nearly 9,000-strong population and a busy road close by. The villagers have taken it upon themselves not to harm the birds.