Sunday, August 7, 2011

From Poachers to Protectors- Success story of Community based Conservation at Mangalajodi

Recently a lot of articles are being written on importance of Community based conservation and importance of local communities as prime protectors of wildlife habitats and after visiting Managalajodi , the birding paradise of Odisha, I have started believing that this might be a successful strategy that can be implemented in select sanctuaries & wildlife habitats if not all. Situated on the western fringes of Chilika Lake, the largest brackish water lake of Asia, Mangalajodi boasts of being one of the prime bird habitats for both migratory and residential birds.In some winters , it has clocked avian count of some where between 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh foreign visitors. Some of the common seen migratory varieties include varieties of Ducks to Sandpipers to Terns and Gulls.
After overnight stay in Bhubaneswar, Siddhu and myself were up early morning for Mangalajodi. Had a sumptuous breakfast at Khurda and reached Tangi in just an hour.At Tangi, take a left turn from highway and another 20 minutes drive will land you at the Birding Paradise of Orissa - Mangalajodi.
Couple of years back, there were more poachers than fisherman at Mangalajodi. Freshly slaughtered birds would be sent to Bureaucrat infested clubs in Bhubaneswar. Having grown up amongst birds and led a life along the coasts of Chilika, these poachers were living Encyclopedia of “ How to poach birds?”. Collecting eggs , poisoning and even shooting birds in day light was what they used to do rampantly in winters. And add to that the working of the dormant forest department. It required unselfish, brave and toiling effort and more importantly patience of some men to change the mind set of these poachers. One of them Mr Nanda Kishore Bhujabal , the governor of Tangi chapter of Wild Orissa ( a NGO working in the field of Wildlife Conservation in Odisha) was the face of this struggle and perseverance of transforming these cruel poachers to biggest protectors of birds.
We reached Mangalajodi and asked for the office of Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti, the organisation formed by these modern day Valmikis who once used to be the greatest threat to the birds of Chilika.There we met Madhu Behera one of these poacher turned protector. Siddhu and Madhu Bhai instantly had their chemistry going on with extensive and deep interest of birds. And for the first time , I was seeing Siddhu getting a good competition from some one in knowledge of birds. As we walked along with Madhu Bhai on the embankment of the lake, he shared the success story of the community based conservation. Way back in late 90s, when poaching was rampant, Nanda Kishore Bhujabal came out pursuing these violent group of youngsters to leave this heinous crime of killing innocent birds. But it was easy money for these poachers. Tricks of hunting birds through poisoning had been passed on from one generation to other. And every now and then a new trick of the game would be added. Huge demand of bird meat in far off markets ensured that this racket flourished. Madhu along with another group of poachers from near by villages were minting money. Bhujabal babu would go on pursuing arduously these group to give up poaching but with less or no avail. Madhu and others had even threatened Bhujabal babu many times but he turned out to be a person with a tough mettle and with a strong determination .A decade of persuasion and in December of year 2000, Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti was formed by these poachers. Poachers of birds had turned into their biggest protectors. And yes not to forget the parallel efforts of the Forest Department who by then had also played their part in supporting this movement. Over the years, this organisation has helped nab poachers, thanks to the excellent local knowledge of the members of Samiti. They carry out night patrolling during peak seasons of Winter when Mangalajodi is thronged by thousands of Foreign birds who come for roosting. And for living, they act as guides for Bird Lovers and take them on Boats.The income from Eco Tourism is equally shared between members. When asked about his income, Madhu had a smile on his face which expressed everything. During his poaching days, some times he would earn as high as 2500 per day. Today its well below that figure. But what was heartening to hear was this statement by Madhu Bhai- “ Ab jo hona hey ho jaye...bhale hi bhookhe rahein....lekin pakshiyon ko bachana hey.....marna nahin hey an unko...”. This was the statement being made by a person who has hardly seen the doors of a school, who does not watch or read National Geographic, who does not participate in Candle light processions of farcist metro dwellers ( I am also one of the participants of this kind of farcism) marching in support of environment and more importantly who has a family depending on him for a square meal. Me and Siddhu were amazed and delighted at seeing the passion of Madhu Bhai and for that matter all the members of the Mahavir Pakshi Surakhya Samilti of Mangalajodi. Hats off to the efforts of Nanda Kishore Bhujabal and Wild Orissa for this transformation brought in the poachers of Mangalajodi .

Making Way through Nala Bana(reed bushes)

Eurasian Spoonbill

Little Grebe

Rare Grey Headed Lapwing

A group of Spotted Billed Ducks

Black Winged Stilts

A nesting Pacific Golden Plover

We reached the watch tower and got on to a dinghy. Along with us, Madhu Bhai and his brother in law was there. These boats are not motorised and are excellent for seeing birds from close range and photographing. Within matter of minutes we came across a Grey Headed Lapwing which is very rare to sight. In next 30 minutes list just got longer with Pintails, Gadwals, Common Pochards, Shovellers,Wigeon ,Red-crested pochards. Mangalaojodi is basically a swamp spread over 10 sq km and has marshes of reed grass ( Nala in Oriya) all around. It acts as an excellent nesting place for Water Hens, Purple Moorhens, Bronze Winged Jacanas,Spot Billed Ducks and Lesser Whistling Teals.In January of 2006, as many as 5000 Cotton Teals were sighted at Mangalajodi. This is a sort of record till date and is also one of the reasons why Chilika is one of the important Ramsar Sites (List of Wetlands of International Importance) of the world. Chilika beats every other birding site of India in terms of volume of bird congregation. Last census of 2010 reported a staggering and herculean number of around 9 lakh birds. No other birding site of India has been able to match this figure. Birds from as far as Siberia , Mongolia and Caspian Sea travel thousands of kilometres to reach Chilika’s Nalabana Sanctuary and Mangalajodi area.

While we were wading through Nala bushes, we saw some domesticated Buffaloes grazing. This was one of the few lows of Mangalajodi trip. Grazing buffaloes pose a great threat to the nests of shoreline birds like Ducks and Waders. Separate enclosure for the grazing purpose may be developed so that Nala vegetation is intact for the usage by the birds. Eco Tourism at Mangalajodi can be promoted in a planned manner and some of the Tour Operators based out of Delhi, Mumbai , Kolkata and Bhubaneswar should be roped in for this purpose. I am not suggesting that Mangalajodi overnight becomes Bharatpur or Ranganathittu. But we should start thinking in that direction. There will be dual purpose that can be met if this becomes successful. Income of bird protectors would increase which will ensure that we will have many more Madhu Bhais in future protecting the avian life at Mangalajodi and Nalabana. And also it gives them a chance of sharing their success stories with outside world. The pride with which members of Pakhi Surakhya Samiti share their knowledge on birds with visitors can be imagined when one sees Madhu Bhai flipping the pages of “Birds of Indian Sub Continent by Grimmet and Inskipp” and telling the Ornithologists that he was correct in naming a particular bird when a debate arises. I have always supported the implementation of “CONTROLLED” Eco Tourism projects in protected areas. No point in having Sanctuaries where local people who get displaced or effected don’t get benefited. If that benefit does not come in, they see wild animals as their enemies and reason for their plight. In return they resort to hunting and illegal tree felling. You give them proper opportunity for earning livelihood through eco tourism and I am sure Wildlife protection would go forward in a longer run.

Large Egret

Purple Moorhen

Our Dhingy

Anti Poaching Camp at Mangalajodi

Over next 2 hours , we did spend a wonderful time listening to tales from Madhu Bhai. He jokingly shared about some of the lighter moments spent with Prof Balachandran of BNHS and Dr U N Dev, the renowned Ornithologist of Orissa during their various birding trips to Mangalajodi. One striking difference that I found while birding at Managaljodi is that I never got a feeling that some body was accompanying you as a guide because he has been paid fees for the same. It was Madhu Behera’s passion for birds and “ Athiti Devo Bhava” attitude that makes me write again and again on the feeling of hospitality experienced at Mangalajodi. We had a lunch of Sweet Bread and Banana on the boat which got more sweetened by sight of a Large Egret and a rare Goliath Heron flapping their huge span of wings. One has to inform prior to Surakhya Samiti Members about Lunch plans and they will prepare you fish curry and rice on boat. My advise to readers that don’t do impromptu planning like us and enjoy a full meal of local cuisine prepared by guides on boat amidst chirping of birds and blowing Nala grasses.

Bird watching on a cycle along with Madhu Bhai

After clicking some more pics we returned back to the office. Such a complete trip in terms of photography , general awareness on water birds and seeing a success story of community based conservation unfold . And guess what ...only 500 rupees for that 3 hour trip along with a knowledgeable guide in the birding paradise of India- Mangalajodi. I wish more people can come over here and see the vibrant bird world of Chilika. We hugged Madhu Bhai and assured him of a return trip this year again. Insha‘Allah, come October as soon as monsoons get over, I would be there again in Mangalajodi with my new lens, sitting alongside real life heroes fighting for Wildlife Conservation and gazing with wonder at Kingfishers, Ducks, Pochards, Sandpipers, Stilts.... ...list is endless.