India Interior

Guide and guardian angel

N Shiva Kumar | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on February 12, 2016

In sync Standing in the shallow waters, Akbar the guide, shows the way tothe boats to the middle of lake where tall cranes forage N SHIVA KUMAR

His love for birds has fuelled the economy of NalSarovar wetland

Standing at the edge of the lake, pointing towards the hazy horizon, Akbar Kasim said matter-of-factly, “I love being alone with these delightful birds," before hastening to add, “Bird watching is a hardnosed occupation, but has its own rewards.” The 26-year-old guide at the NalSarovar Bird sanctuary, in Gujarat, can effortlessly tell a water bird from a land-based one even when they are in the air.

Situated 70 km southwest of Ahmedabad, the 120 sqkm NalSarovar is one of the largest wetlands in the country, dotted by 300 tiny islands. Besides hordes of flamingos, the lake is a favoured destination for local as well as migratory birds flying in from the snowbound northern hemisphere. Its popularity with tourists has resulted in innumerable benefits for villagers in the surrounding regions, especially the 260 licensed boatmen, vehicle owners, a few horsemen and the many amiable tourist guides.

Arriving at the lake in the cold predawn, the silence was almost eerie. The day broke out lethargically and through our binoculars we could detect the blurred outlines of birds on the waterline. The ground under our feet was parched, fractured and difficult to walk on. Kasim reeled out a series of bird names as the saffron sun climbed the indistinct horizon.

As visibility improved and a multitude of birds stirred from slumber, we tired to advance further afield but Kasim firmly held us back in order not to disturb the flamingos. “Not all photographers and birders are brought to this remote part of the NalSarovar lake,” he explained. These precious, and increasingly scarce, shallow water bodies are conducive for the specialised feeding habits of flamingos, he said.

As a teenager, Kasim had watched with curiosity as people flocked to NalSarovar from all over India and abroad, armed with binoculars, long lenses and complex cameras merely to watch birds. His curiosity over the years transformed into the serious business of bird watching, bird spotting and identifying. He began guiding birdwatchers, helping them locate various species. Recognising his flair for the job, the forest department roped him in as an authorised bird guide, complete with an identity card, and this became his livelihood. His earnings help take care of his family of five, which includes his wife. “Sundays and holidays are busy days and I make ample money as a guide, but on other days there are only a handful of visitors,” he says. Sometimes he teams up with the boatmen to supplement his earnings, which averages about ₹30,000 a month, depending on tourist arrivals and the type of assignment he gets.

Entry of visitors was banned during the recent bird census on January 29 and 30, said the District Forest Officer of NalSarovar Bird Sanctuary, RG Prajapati. Kasim was among those enlisted for the survey and he points to the problem of rampant poaching of flamingos.

“We protect the birds round the year with our limited manpower, funds and resources. We also ensure water supply for farming in the 12 villages located on the perimeter of the lake. Occasionally, we help villagers with fodder, housing material, fishing rights and menial employment under the eco-development programme,” the officer said.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida

Published on February 12, 2016
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