Tucked away in the northeastern fringe of Orissa’s Chilika Lake, Mangalajodi is well known to the best birders in India.

Visitors accustomed to focusing on tiger tourism are discovering the joys of birdwatching in one of the most exquisite natural landscapes in India, suggests Panchami Manoo Ukil.

Watch the enveloping dusk from a boat gently cruising through the marshes and reeds of the wetlands. Around you are seemingly smug stilts and godwits, lapwings and moorhens, their squeaks and grunts blending with the soft gurgle of the water as the boatman rips the oar through it. Nature’s harmonious symphony is sweet music to the ears with the floating white water-lilies lending a soothing sense of peace. The smudgy orange glow of the setting sun casts an ethereal spell on the ambience truly making for a “wish time could stand still” kind of moment.

Welcome to my magical Mangalajodi. Tucked away in the northeastern fringe of Chilika Lake in Orissa (the largest brackish water lake in Asia), this little hamlet harbouring rich wetlands is much less known than its famous parent lagoon. The Chilika area is recognised globally for its great biodiversity. Mangalajodi is one of the largest of the 132 villages located on the banks of Chilika lake. The present generation of inhabitants of Mangalajodi village recount that this wetland has been a winter home for migratory birds for as far back as they can remember. These birds arrive in the region by the middle of October. The marshy wetlands interspersed with reeds and vegetation consisting mostly of Typha angustata and Phragmites karka and expanses of water running through the channels provide food and shelter to these waterfowls and raptors until they start moving to their breeding grounds by February-March. The main channel runs north to south for about three kilometres and has a nature trail running parallel to it for about two kilometres terminating in a watchtower.

An hour and thirty minute drive from the capital city of Bhubaneswar, Mangalajodi is slowly making a mark on the birding map of India. Inhabited by nearly 150 species of migratory birds and about 40 resident species including some passerines, Mangalajodi was the quiet and murky bird poacher’s den until 20 years ago. Most of the villagers were engaged in poaching, usually poisoning or shooting the birds. Some of them claim to have simply caught the birds and twisted their necks after catching them in nets. They earned up to forty thousand rupees a month from selling the dead birds whose meat was much in demand in local dhabas and in the cities; five months of poaching coupled with income from fishing provided them with their livelihood and sustenance for the year. Since Mangalajodi land comes under the Revenue Department, the Forest Department authorities had limited powers as far as enforcement of laws was concerned. Therefore poaching continued unabated rendering this rich bird habitat fragile and vulnerable.

Change is possible

In the year 1997, a visionary named Nanda Kishore Bhujabal decided to make an attempt to bring an end to poaching of birds in Mangalajodi. As a local belonging to the Tangi area, Bhujabal realised that the only way that a change could be brought about was by taking the villagers into confidence. This effort at changing mindsets was a tough and stormy one. Yet after a lot of cajoling and counselling over years Bhujabal managed to make them see the senselessness and cruelty in the activity of poaching. While doing so he also had to provide them with ideas for an alternate means of livelihood which was not easy. Gradually, the poachers were taken into the fold with the formation of the Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti, a wing of Wild Orissa, Bhujabal’s organisation working for wildlife conservation in the state. This step marked a watershed in the history of Mangalajodi. Wild Orissa partnered with the Forest Department of the Government of Odisha, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Indian Grameen Services (IGS) to initiate community development schemes that provided assistance for alternative livelihoods to the poachers. They were also provided training and education about migrating avifauna so that they could assist and guide tourists and bird enthusiasts who visited the place. Today it is an exemplary turnaround story – the poachers are now the protectors of the wetlands and the birds. The most feared poachers are the best bird guides; the sharpest and most knowledgeable amongst them being the chubby-faced Madhu Behera who says that they do not sleep night after night during the peak season in order to patrol the wetlands with the forest guards to ensure that their beloved birds are safe.

Migrants arrive

Come October and there is a surge of winged activity in the air. Flocks of birds circle the skies over Mangalajodi as if on a recce. Soon they are followed by larger flocks in their typical flying formations. For the bird lover it’s a huge feeling of relief and comfort to know that the birds have come back again. As the birds arrive and settle amongst the lakhs of water-lilies in the wetlands, it is an amazing sight. Gradually, the wetlands begin to fill in with lakhs of Ruffs, godwits, plovers, sandpipers and migratory ducks. From bird murmurs in the initial stage of migration, the sound that envelops the wetlands at the peak of the migration, especially in the nights, can best be termed as a bird roar. The Peregrine Falcon perches exactly at the same point on the mud bund as it had done the previous year while the Bluethroat might come and perch on your brown shoe if you sit motionless enough. You will see thousands of the rarer Grey-headed Lapwings taking off while hundreds of Gulls will sit motionless at three metres from the boat, nonchalant, as if playing a ‘who blinks first’ kind of a game with the birder. The famous take-offs by the Pintails with the flying water-trails and the stoic Ruddy Shelducks are a birder’s delight. The friendly Whiskered Terns readily oblige the bird-photographers with their myriad poses while the River Terns allow you the closest looks as they line the mud bunds in hundreds, looking skywards, their orange beaks glistening in the sun. From January onwards the skulkers like the Ruddy-breasted Crakes, the Baillon’s Crakes, the Slaty-breasted Rails and the Greater Painted Snipes forage in the open. The Black-tailed Godwits, Oriental Pratincoles and the Pacific Golden Plovers assume their breeding plumages by April while May sees the largest congregation of Glossy Ibis and Large Whistling Ducks.

Recently, I visited Mangalajodi in the company of India’s ace birdman and author Bikram Grewal. Bikram says that Mangalajodi is far ahead of other wetlands in the country in terms of the richness of the habitat, the number of birds, and the proximity at which one gets to see the birds. In fact birder friends who visit Mangalajodi with their long prime lenses say that you don’t really need the zoomsters in this habitat as the birds are too close. If developed in the right manner through controlled ecotourism, Mangalajodi can well become another Bharatpur without the pitfalls associated with the random growth of tourist activity in such habitats. The promotion of would serve a dual purpose – while the bird and nature lovers have access to basic facilities, the benefits of these activities would peter down to the local people who face some displacement due to ecotourism ventures as they would get more opportunities for livelihoods and income.

The Odisha Wildlife Lounge (OWL), Birds of Orissa (BOO), The Bhubaneswar Bird Walks (TBBW), and Mangalajodi Ecotourism are some of the newer NGOs in Orissa that have been doing their bit for the cause of Mangalajodi. Recently, these organisations got together to host a photo-exhibition on the theme ‘Mangalajodi’. Photographers from all over the country contributed their images taken at Mangalajodi, which were put up for display and sale at the exhibition. The proceeds from the sale of these photographs would be used for community development initiatives at Mangalajodi. Members of these groups regularly visit Mangalajodi and regulate the activities related to ecotourism.

Mangalajodi has been my learning ground. Like a mother who never tires of embracing her child, this magical wetland has given me the most treasured birding experiences over 52 trips in two seasons. With my movements restricted because of the call of many duties, Mangalajodi at an hour’s drive from my home in Bhubaneswar has given me every lesson that any fledgling birdwatcher could have asked for. I will never tire of this pristine paradise where the birds seem like your own, coming back on an annual jaunt to meet you in an ambience of utmost trust and comfort. As I watch a flock of godwits soar into the rising sun on a crisp and cold winter morning, I can only admire with breathless amazement and awe the splendour of nature’s inimitable artistry in my magical Mangalajodi.

Author: Panchami Manoo Ukil.
Photos: Avinash Khemka and Panchami Manoo Ukil.

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