Twenty five years ago, when S Balachandran, Deputy Director of the Bombay Natural History Society, first visited Chilika Lake, he was amazed at the beauty of birds frolicking in its waters.

The boisterous blue lagoon was teeming with lakhs of winged visitors jostling for space in the sun. Birds like godwits, plovers, sandpipers, stints, ducks, geese, and other waterfowl conducted glorious fly-pasts across the sky. It was a magnificent sight to behold, he recalls.

But along with natural riches comes exploitation and Chilika Lake was no exception. The bonanza of fish and birds drew people from nearby areas to indulge in netting fish and catching birds for the pot, and also for sale in the markets. Since the beginning of the century, the growing demand for fresh fish, bird meat, and even turtle flesh, has turned Chilika into a significant tracking and trapping destination.

Reforming ‘the dirty dozen’

Ten years ago, RBS Foundation and Indian Grameen Services engaged villagers to revive the Mangalajodi Wetland, a tiny village located at the northern edge of Chilika.

But the biggest problem was to create an alternate livelihood option for the villagers who had made poaching their primary income source instead of fishing. Tourism was a solution but not easy to implement as the effort of changing mindsets was a difficult process.

The first victory came when ‘the dirty dozen’, a notorious gang of bird trappers, agreed to give up their old habits and help create the first tourism facility called Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti. Gradually, tourists started visiting for guided tours as the villagers knew the best spots for bird sightings. The proximity at which one gets to see the birds in the lake waters is something that no other bird sanctuary of India provides.

In less than three years, the situation changed as the community turned into protectors by providing birding and photography trips for visitors. More community members got involved in ecotourism and today, more than 200 people in Mangalajodi are employed in boating and bird watching.


Boatmen and birds live in harmony near Managalajodi (Inset) Reena Sahoo, Manager of Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust Pics N Shiva Kumar


Eco tourism hubs now

One person who watched all this change happen at close quarters is Reena Sahoo, Manager of Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust, as she grew up on the shores of Chilika. Back then, Mangalajodi was a wetland with floating grass beds echoing with the calls of exotic birds feasting on fish and aquatic plants. Sadly, these birds were also an easy prey, giving Mangalajodi the tag of ‘Poachers village’. Birds of multiple species that frequented the area started to decrease in number or fly elsewhere because of constant poaching.

In recent years, Chilika has turned from being hunting and poaching grounds to award-winning eco-tourism hubs and the narrative motto of these wetlands is “wings at work and villagers on vigil” says Rusia Behra a local tourist guide. The so-called poachers converted to protectors of birdlife, making Mangalajodi a popular tourist destination for bird watching.

Last year, Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust, the community-owned-and managed venture, won the prestigious United Nations World Tourism Organisation Award for “Innovation in Tourism Enterprise.” The ceremony was held in Spain and the award was received by Reena Sahoo in Madrid.

Mangalajodi has been making slow but big strides on the birding map of India as the wetlands draw scores of photographers, researchers, and ornithologists, including some of India’s ace birdmen every winter when the bird count increases. Accommodation at Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust and Godwit Eco Cottage are the only options providing rustic rooms and cottages for those who want to stay for longer durations. Similarly, other villagers around the Chilika are planning to start related ventures of ecotourism for a better livelihood to wean them away from indiscriminate hunting and excessive fishing.

The conservation efforts have been heart-warming for Balachandran, who explains why protecting Chilika Lake and its environs is so vital.


Why Chilika is special

The sprawling Chilika Lake, situated on the edge of the ocean in Orissa, is spread over 1,000 sq km and regarded as Asia’s largest, and the second biggest coastal lagoon in the world. The massive water spread of the lake has the right mix of fresh water with sea water as it is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a narrow strip of 60-km long permeable marshy islands, points out Balachandran.

Awash with rich biodiversity and blessed with numerous rivulets bringing in mineral-rich waters, Chilika provides livelihood for over 2 lakh fisher-folk living on the fringes in 132 villages. Besides playing the role of an extensive socio-economic provider, the large lake is also a global runway where thousands of travelling birds arrive from abroad.

The lake is endowed with a matrix of habitats like marshlands, mudflats, freshwater pools with a range of water plants, making for a wonderful concoction of micro and macro plankton for thriving aquatic wildlife.

Balachandran, an accomplished ornithologist and authority on the avian diversity in coastal wetlands of India and their conservation, emphasises that the Chilika ecosystem is extremely dynamic in nature.

Health in numbers

Balachandran, who is passionate about conservation of flora and fauna and has experience of over 35 years in national and international ornithology, says as per annual bird surveys he has conducted with the help of officials, stakeholders and villagers, a total of 10,47,868 birds belonging to 181 species thrive on and off the wetlands of Chilika.

Worried by depletion in their numbers, Balachandran deployed bird banding as a research method to acquire accurate information about bird migration. He has ringed 17,000 birds with bands and metal rings bearing unique numbers and colour codes. He has also introduced sophisticated satellite-tags on endangered birds to discover the secrets of their migratory journeys.

He stresses that stringent protection methods need to be adopted to save birdlife as they are indicators of ecologically healthy environments conducive to human habitation. In this context, he has helped nurture regional NGOs and voluntary groups to take up wild bird management and census.

Slowly but surely, Balachandran has succeeded in educating villagers, school children, and even forest officials in conceptualising conservation for flora and fauna. What better way to protect flora and fauna than to make the predators themselves the protectors?

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida