Today, the Mangalajodi marshes on the northern fringes of Odisha’s Chilika Lake are again a haven for water birds. Thousands of them flock there every winter, from November-February. The black-tailed godwit, the Siberian bluethroat, an assortment of ducks, geese, grebes, harriers, bitterns, herons, snipes, gulls, terns and crakes—you get to see them all. Many of them fly thousands of miles south to beat the harsh winter in their breeding grounds. According to local bird guides, some migratory birds have even started staying back in the area.

Chilika is the largest coastal lagoon in the country. It is spread over 1,100 sq. km and three districts: Puri, Khurda and Ganjam. Mangalajodi is one of 132 villages that dot this vast lake adjoining the Bay of Bengal. It is a poor, sleepy fishing village with a population of about 5,000, most of whom live off the land. So a wild duck for the pot or a waterfowl for a feast is not uncommon.

But in the early 1990s, the birds came under attack on a much bigger scale as Mangalajodi gained notoriety for the exploits of Kishore Behera. He is said to have begun poaching as many as 4,000 ducks daily, using nets, traps and pesticides, supplying the birds to markets nearby. Behera came to be known as the “Veerappan of Chilika", a reference to the infamous sandalwood smuggler who eluded the authorities for years.

Enthusiasts out birdwatching in the marshlands around Mangalajodi.

That was a time when “villagers were expected to carry a wild duck as a gift to officials to get work done, or if they were visiting family or friends outside Mangalajodi," says Nilanjan Behera, founding chairperson of the Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust (MET), a community-owned and operated eco-tourism enterprise that has been working on conservation issues since 2010.

Slowly but surely, efforts such as MET’s have brought about a remarkable change in Mangalajodi. The villagers are now involved in conservation. Binod Banik, 29, who dropped out of school in class VIII and was my guide for the two days I spent in the village, can easily spot about 70 of the 211 bird species recorded in the village. Bala, who effortlessly navigates the boat through the tangle of floating vegetation, knows exactly where to find an elusive crake in the reed beds.

The common greenshank.
The common greenshank.

Sugyan Behera, a bird guide, shows off a photo album in which his father, also a guide, has neatly pasted the currency notes of different countries that he and 12 other guides got as tips. George Washington, the first US president, looks down from the one-dollar bill in the plastic album, which also has a Bhutanese ngultrum, Bangladeshi taka, United Arab Emirates dirham and currencies from South-East Asian countries.

Mangalajodi is slowly turning into a birding destination, says Nilanjan. India Post has recognized the change, releasing a special cover on Mangalajodi in association with the Eastern Indian Philatelic Association.

The transformation, however, wasn’t easy. Nilanjan recalls the day he was mocked by his college teacher as someone who belonged to a village of poachers. That was in the 1990s. “I wanted to do something to change the image," he says.

A northern pintail in flight.

With the help of Wild Orissa, a non-profit, they formed a bird protection group called Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (SMPSS) in 2000. In 2010, this became the MET, with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Foundation India and Indian Grameen Services, a non-profit, playing a pivotal role in its establishment. Today, it provides alternative livelihoods for 70 households.

The turning point came in 1996, when they managed to convince Kishore Behera to give up poaching and take up pisciculture. Other poachers followed suit.

Black-tailed godwits.

Today, the marshland teems with birds. According to the BNHS, Mangalajodi sees around 150,000 migratory birds every year; it’s designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International, the world’s largest nature conservation partnership.

N. Sunil Kumar, director, RBS Foundation India, says: “Mangalajodi has struggled to get out of the infamy it had gained due to bird poaching in the 1990s. Today, the place is considered one of the best to spot different species of birds."

It is now off the radar of Kishore Behera, who has left the village, and on the radar of tourists. Around 1,000 tourists visit every season. A number of hotel chains are showing interest in the area.

It is equally clear, however, that Mangalajodi cannot sustain mass tourism. Much, then, will depend on how Mangalajodi and MET walk the tightrope between economics and environment.

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