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Chilika Lake: Birder's Paradise in Orissa, India
Chilika Lake, Asia's largest estuarine lagoon hosts over a million birds every winter. Migratory waterfowl wing in from places as far away as Siberia to jostle resident species over freshwater wetland. Water lilies open with the rising sun and a symphony of bird calls flutter to our ears.
We are perched on the northern edge of Chilika Lake overlooking the 1100 square kilometre expanse of waters as it stretches seaward toward the Bay of Bengal. Here, a small but remarkable village has come full circle to protect a vital wetland area of international importance.
Historically residents of Mangalajodi village posed a threat to bird life. Many families turned the lucrative poaching trade and it wasn’t long before bird numbers hit an all-time low. A local conservation organization Wild Orissa meet with the villagers a decade ago and has been instrumental in guiding their transformation ever since.
Poachers developed an intricate knowledge of bird habitats, breeding cycles and migration patterns. The challenge was to utilise this knowledge and their existing skill-set for conservation. Awareness campaigns combined with sting operations convinced many to change their ways.
The transition was not an easy one for Kishan Behera, who notes, "The pressure from within the community was hard to withstand, but how long can we keep killing [the birds] before there is nothing left?" As a reformed poacher himself, Kishan is well versed in the tricks of the trade and provides valuable information and insights against members of his own community. It's a brave effort that over the years gained momentum and support.
Now a local village committee has been formed by a core group of ex-poachers determined to continue their new role as protectors. Members of the committee conduct daily surveillance patrols to check incidences of poaching. During winter they are also engaged in monitoring the wetlands and are excited by the increase of migratory birds flocking to their homeland.
The new protectors double-up as impressive guides to this newly burgeoning destination. We glide through sun-flecked reeds with binoculars poised. Kishan Behera gently taps the side of the dung-out canoe to indicate he's spotted something; following his hand. We witness a pair of Asian Openbill Storks stretch their broad wings and take flight with extended necks. Kishan whispers the bird’s common name in English. His ability to navigate effortlessly through the watertable has been invaluable. His knowledge of local and migratory birds greatly enriches the experience.
Ecotourism activities such as boat cruises and nature walks provide a supplementary income for the poachers-turned-protectors. More than just extra pennies in their pockets, ecotourism serves to encourage local conservation efforts. Providing support and adding weight to the shift has made remarkable changes in the villages psyche. From a community bent on destruction emerges a concentrated collective focused on preservation.
The village at Mangalojodi is a unique example of how partnerships can give way to conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Ecotourism plays a vital key; one that draws attention and appreciation to local conservation efforts. Breathing new life into natural habitats and safeguarding local environments for generations to come.
Claire Prest, Grass Routes co-founder
"I have lived and worked in the Indian Subcontinent since 2000. More significantly I have traveled its length and breadth - working for Australia’s leading adventure travel company, connecting with people of various quirks and guises. I have experienced (and continue to experience) India’s untold charms and challenges. In honor of this irrefutable bond, and in gratitude of the countless people who have shared their genuine hospitality, I co-founded Grass Routes.
A pioneering travel company that operates community-based tours in the extraordinary East Indian state of Orissa, Grass Routes is an ethical effort to encourage ancient livelihoods. I now work in partnership with local communities employing sustainable tourism to revive local arts & crafts and breathe fresh life into traditional cultures. Here, I live close to nature and closer still to a way of life so far removed from my birth country, yet I couldn't feel more at home!"