Fifty Rupees, says Purna Chandra Behera. That’s what he used to get 20 years ago for the meat of a bird he trapped and sold in Odisha’s Mangalajodi village, barely 2 km from one of the Indian subcontinent’s largest wintering grounds for exotic migratory waterfowl.
Today, the poachers of Mangalajodi have turned protectors. And, like 54-year-old Behera, they are part of an ecotourism model linked to the Chilika wetlands that’s now being showcased across the world. Last month, the Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust (MET) was chosen for the “Innovation in Tourism Enterprise” award by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
“Between October 2016 and February 2017, the last bird-watching season, I earned about Rs 30,000 just from showing visitors around the Mangalajodi wetlands. My 21-year-old son, who is now my colleague, earned Rs 20,000,” says Behera.
According to Chilika Development Authority, the brackish water lagoon spans the districts of Puri, Ganjam and Khurda, where Mangalajodi is located. “Flocks of migratory waterfowl arrive from as far as the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal, Aral Sea, remote parts of Russia, Kirghiz steppes of Mongolia, Central and South East Asia, Ladakh and the Himalayas, to feed and breed in its fertile waters,” the authority states on its official website.
“In the late nineties, the avian census recorded just about 5,000 birds. Today, we record around 3,00,000 winged visitors. Mangalajodi’s success is not just in the number of avian visitors, but their species diversity. Last year, about 176 species visited us,” says Sanjib Sarangi, vice-president, Kolkata-based Indian Grameen Services (IGS), a partner in MET, which has 85 members.
The trust was started in 2011 along with Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation India (RBS FI) and is now one of the village’s three community-owned conservation trusts. Trust officials say it was not hard to convince local fishermen-hunters that abandoning poaching in favour of conservation would help them earn more money, stop police raids and enhance the fish population, which feed on bird droppings. However, implementing conservation as a practice within the village has been a multi-dimensional challenge. “Bird protection activities created multiple conflicts in the village,” says an RBS FI spokesperson. Some residents objected to the MET, fearing it would not help them. They were also afraid that it would block their access to the wetlands.
“Caste divisions in Mangalajodi were another challenge in uniting villagers to work for a common purpose. The first conservation committees splintered into factions. But things are better now,” says Sarangi. “We are mostly fisherfolk, so the village’s upper-castes dismissed us,” says Ganesh Behera, a member of Mahaveer Pakhi Suraksha Samiti, another conservation committee. “But we are the guardians of Mangalajodi, and what they think is irrelevant now,” he adds, grinning.
Today, Mangalajodi’s success has brought help from the Odisha government. “The government supports the initiative by providing improvised boats, bird atlases, and will soon regulate tourist numbers so the locality continues to be a safe space for birds,” says Susanta Nanda, IFS officer and chief executive of Chilika Development Authority. However, larger challenges loom over the village and its conservationists.
“Only a jump in bird visitors is not necessarily a good thing. In the 2000s, a rise in numbers of coots, black-plumage visitors from Europe that visit Chilika, could have contributed to choking of the water system. These birds also feed on vegetation that regulate self-purification of Chilika waters,” says Dr Gohan Abedin, an amateur ornithologist visiting Mangalajodi since 12 years.
“The urbanisation of Odisha… is of concern. Also, climate change is leading to shorter winters around Chilika lake,” says Dr S Balachandran, deputy director, Bombay Natural History Society, citing his study of the lake. Back in Mangalajodi, a village of 4,000, the wetlands are not immediately visible, but bullock carts carrying newly made boats show the way. And Behera, the former poacher, has more immediate concerns to fret over.
“Some tourists still cause problems, Despite requests, they clap to make the birds fly for their cameras. They try to feed the birds. One man comes every year and orders me to help him click a falcon eating fish in midair. How can I do that?”