The Birds are Back: Ecotourism and Conservation in Mangalajodi

We feature two articles here, both relating to how bird conservation in a relatively unknown area of Mangalajodi on Chilika lagoon in the Eastern Indian state of Orissa is being enabled through community participation and eco-tourism. Chilika lake, along the Bay of Bengal is India’s largest inland lake and Asia’s largest saltwater lagoon. Though recognised under the Ramsar Convention, as one of the internationally important wetlands, it is facing environmental degradation due to population, prawn cultivation, siltation, overfishing and declining biodiversity. This story of ecological regeneration makes it all the more special given the context.

The first one is by Ashish Kothari who is with Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, a non-profit organisation in India, based in Delhi and Pune, working on environmental and social issues. This originally appeared in The Hindu , one of India’s national newspapers.

by Ashish Kothari

From a village of bird hunters, Mangalajodi in Orissa (Eastern State in India) is now a village of bird protectors. A story of how the transformation happened.

Black Tailed Godwits

Black Tailed Godwits

Black-tailed godwits,” said my companion, pointing to a swirling cloud of specks in the distance that alternately turned black and silver white. A few hundred birds circled and zigzagged above the marshes, their black and off-white plumage creating the effect of being two entirely different species.

I was at Mangalajodi village, at the north-western edge of the great Chilika lagoon in Orissa. An hour’s drive from Bhubaneshwar, Mangalajodi’s large stretches of marshes, reed beds, and open water harbour tens of thousands of migrant and resident birds, protected by the villagers. Madhu Behera, my guide, directed my gaze skywards. A v-formation of Open-billed storks was passing overhead. This species is abundant here, co-inhabiting the marshes with grazing buffalos, even congregating near the village in the evenings. I asked Madhu if he used to shoot this species also; he grinned, nodded, and said, “We ate everything. Not a bird was left 10-12 years back.”

Behaviour change

Therein lies a remarkable story of behaviour change. A decade back, Mangalajodi was a village of bird catchers. Virtually all species were trapped or shot, to eat or sell. It was a lucrative business, yielding up to Rs. 30,000 a month for some people. There was little that wildlife authorities could do. Till a NGO, Wild Orissa, stepped in. In 1996, along with some concerned villagers, it began to talk about possible protection efforts. With the use of cultural and ethical arguments, the attitude began to change. A Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti (Bird Protection Committee) was constituted by the village in 2000. Its efforts have almost completely eliminated bird poaching here and some ex-hunters like Madhu have become die-hard conservationists. In 2007, the state government awarded the Biju Pattnaik Award for Wildlife Conservation to the Samiti.

Pin Tail Ducks

Pin Tail Ducks

Suddenly, Madhav Behera, another guide, pointed excitedly to a clump or reeds. “Yellow bittern,” he said. Strain as I might, I could not see it…till it moved. It had been in full view, but so brilliantly merged with the grassy background it might as well not have been there. Even as I trained my binoculars on it, I was startled by the sudden swuuuush of 100 Pin-tail ducks rising from the marshes to our side. In the distance, a flock of Greylag geese circled and settled on some open water.

Mangalajodi’s checklist of birds numbers well over 200. Many of these are migratory, coming in such large numbers that the spectacle here in winter is comparable to the famed Bharatpur in its heyday. Interestingly, though, unlike protected areas like Bharatpur, local people in Mangalajodi continue to fish and graze their buffalos in the wetlands. There is little indication that these have had a negative impact. As is now acknowledged, closure of Bharatpur to buffalo grazing in the early 1980s allowed grasslands to take over, and had to be kept in check by opening up the area to grass cutting and other methods. Villagers complain that fish catch has gone down, blaming siltation from surrounding degraded catchments and inaction by the government with regard to dredging the lagoon.

Patrolling in the lake

Patrolling in the lake

Madhu mentions that there are “over 100” fishing cats in the area. I am not quite sure how he has arrived at this estimate, but it may not be far off the mark. Members of the Samiti (having grown from the original 6-7 to about 25) patrol the wetland along its bunds and on boat, especially at night. They keep an almost constant count of numbers of what they see (including nests and eggs in the season). They have even set up four guard camps. These strategies, say the Samiti members, are much more effective than the recently set up camps by the Forest Department. The local forester I met confirmed that, were it not for the villagers, protection would be impossible.

Bronze Winged Jacana

Bronze Winged Jacana

As we start back towards the village, Golden plovers and Indian pratincoles shift uneasily on a bund we are passing. Beyond them, Purple moorhens display their brilliant plumage, competing with the dazzling Bronze-winged jacanas. As we get off the boat, I notice an Open-billed stork on the other side of the bund; I try to approach it silently to get a close-up, but it flies off. Laughing, my companions tell me that the birds are much shyer of outsiders than of the locals. That, I respond, reflects the trust that the birds have in the villagers. It is an effective antidote to a recent pronouncement by conservation NGOs that community conservation in Chilika is failing.

Mangalajodi Visitor Centre

Mangalajodi Visitor Centre

But their concern is also partly justified. Even as I prepare to depart, a Samiti member gets a call from Nandkishore Bhujbal of Wild Orissa. A case of bird poisoning has been detected in a neighbouring village, and he is proceeding there with forest officials. Madhu Behera decides to accompany him and current Samiti president Ramhari Behera remarks that committees in the neighbouring villages are not as strong as Mangalajodi’s. Effective empowerment of communities and forest officials to deal with poaching is clearly needed, with Mangalajodi’s example as an inspiration.

Visitors accompanied by Eco Guide

Visitors accompanied by Eco Guide

What of the future?
I make the payment fixed for visitors by the Samiti as part of a fledgling ecotourism initiative. Wild Orissa has trained some youth as birding guides, and Chilika Development Authority has funded a watchtower and visitors’ centre. Is the income adequate for their livelihoods? They mention that some youth are getting a small monthly allowance from Wild Orissa, but this will end in 2009. So what about the future? They are uncertain, and ask for help in increasing the number of genuine bird lovers visiting the village. They are also aware, however, that mass tourism could destroy the area. Alternative livelihoods? Not sure. I wonder why the money going to forest department staff cannot go to village youth in situations where they have demonstrated effective conservation results. Before I can voice this, Madhu quietly says, “Whatever happens, our commitment to protecting these birds is not going to diminish.”

The story continues……

The second article is by Dr. Pankaj Sharma who is currently working with the Wildlife Conservation and Ecotourism Project at Mangalajodi.

by Dr. Pankaj Sharma

June 2010: It was 5:30 a.m. and my phone rang loudly. Being a late riser, I was rather annoyed until I saw the number and recognised it as one of the villagers of Mangalajodi, a picturesque hamlet on the banks of the Chilika Lake in Orissa. Picking up, I heard the troubled voice of Madhu, an eco-guide at Mangalajodi, saying “Sir kuch log Mangalajodi main shikar kar rahe hain (Sir, there are people poaching birds in Mangalajodi).”

It was perturbing to hear of this occurrence in a habitat declared as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, which hosts more than 300,000 birds from across the globe and which is part of the Chilika lake that has been notified as a Ramsar site.

Promoting indigenous practices for sustainable fishing

Promoting indigenous practices for sustainable fishing

I had visited Mangalajodi in March 2009 and the trip had reaffirmed my faith in community conservation initiatives. A decade ago, the village was known for its infamous poachers and wildlife was often considered worth more dead, than alive. In 1996-1997, Nanda Kishor Bhujabal and members of a conservation group called Wild Orissa began conducting awareness programmes in the village. Their efforts bore fruit and the Sri Sri Mahavir Pakhshi Surakshya Samiti (Bird Protection Committee), driven by reformed poachers, was formed in December 2000. The members of the committee began to survey and patrol the area daily and keep a close eye out for poachers. Wild Orissa and the Council of Professional Social Workers (CPSW)  supported the group and provided them with small wooden boats to aid patrolling efforts and the Chilika Development Authority and the Chilika Wildlife Department chipped in with funds and seasonal jobs.

Ruddy Shell Ducks

Ruddy Shell Ducks

Madhu was one of the leading members of the group and my time with him in Mangalajodi opened my eyes to the impact a few driven people could have on the environment. From 5,000 birds in 1999-2000 to welcoming 10,000 birds in 2000-2001 and reaching a figure of 300,000 birds in the year 2003-2004, the SSMPSS had brought about a sweeping change in the region. SSMPSS was even awarded the Biju Patnaik Wildlife Conservation Award for 2007 by the Government of Orissa.

From Madhu, I learned how poachers trapped and killed birds to earn a living. His own income had dropped from around Rs. 2,000 a day to around Rs. 2,000 a month. His life had changed and today protecting the birds seemed to be all that mattered to him. My relationship with Madhu deepened and I got to know this living legend as few people do.

Despite never having attended school, this reformed poacher knows virtually all that a field biologist would want to know about the birds that visit Mangalajodi, including their morphology, breeding habits, life cycles and even their migratory patterns.

I discovered one night how far Madhu had come from being the poacher he was. When I called on him, I was dismayed to learn that  he was esconsed at the local police station where he had been arrested for assault when he caught a man who had killed a turtle for dinner.

A typical boat at Mangalajodi

A typical boat at Mangalajodi

Mangalajodi has not yet made it to the calendar of birders in India. It is not even on the Orissa Tourism map or even included in the Chilika Guide Map. But, thanks to the SSMPSS the birds are getting the protection they need and locals are getting the social support they need for livelihoods that revolve around bird protection. When I last spoke to some villagers they said that roughly 300 visitors come to Mangalajodi each year and that the income they bring supports several families whose members are acting as guides and boatmen. A delighted Madhu said that in the last season (November to February), some 611 visitors from six different countries visited Mangalajodi.

Hopefully a time will come when many more Mangalajodis will find protection and many more locals will discover sustenance from protecting nature rather than destroying it.


The Mangalajodi wetland (10 sq. km.) is a freshwater swamp to the northeast of Chilika Lake. The main channel runs south for around three kilometres and has a two kilometre-long nature trail running alongside ending at a watchtower from where nature lovers keep an eye on the myriad bird species that visit and live in the area. The area is a haven for waterfowl and attracts thousands of winter migrants and is home to a diverse population of breeding residents. Recognised as an Important Bird Area, over 300,000 waterfowl visit here in winter. The Tufted Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Fulvous Whistling-duck, Purple Swamphen, Asian Openbill, Cotton Pygmy-goose Grey-headed Lapwing, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Black-tailed Godwit, Garganey, Eurasian Wigeon, Ruddy Shelduck, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle and the Whiskered Tern are some of the species seen here.

(Courtesy: Kolkatabirds.com )

Further links about the Mangalajodi project:

1. Wild Orissa: From the Biju Patnaik Wildlife Conservation Award

The methodology adopted in Mangalajodi involved the following:
1. Direct intervention by way apprehending poachers operating in the waters of Chilika Lake, with prior information on such activities, alongwith members of ‘Wild Orissa’ and forest staff.
2. Monitoring with members of ‘Wild Orissa’ in the waters, especially in the poaching prone areas adjoining Mangalajodi waters, in both motorboats as well as in boats procured from local sources.
3. Patrolling with members of ‘Wild Orissa’ and forest staff, during odd hours, against poaching of bird eggs.
4. Holding of regular meetings with the members of the bird protection committee of Mangalajodi.
5. Holding meetings with the forest staff of Tangi Wildlife Range and Mangalajodi Section.
6. Outings with visiting scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society etc., to the breeding habitats.
7. Involvement of school children in boat excursions to the bird breeding habitats.
8. Organising competitions on Chilika Lake and its birds, amongst school children of the area.
9. Seeking interventions of the Chief Wildlife Warden, Irrigation Department, Chilika Development Authority, etc., on the fragile waterfowl breeding habitats.
10. Ensuring some income generation for the poacher turned conservationists, which could help mitigate the poor economic conditions of these people, which would ensure their continuous involvement in water fowl conservation, through initiation of an Eco-Tourism Project in Mangalajodi village in the year 2003.

2.. Project Website: Mangalajodi Ecotourism
3.  Facebook Group Mangalajodi Ecotourism
4. Birdlife International Birdlife IBA Factsheet Mangalajodi
5. Sanctuary Asia NGO Profile : The Sri Sri Mahavir Pakhshi Surakshya Samiti (SSMPSS)
6. Travel Writers Forum- Kolkata Birds.com/Mangalajodi
7. Your Travel Choice.org – Birders Paradise Chilika Lake Orissa India

“Want to visit Mangalajodi?
Grass Routes Journeys operates special customised tours to Mangalajodi on request. The winter months from November to February are the best time to visit. Grass Routes has generously donated a community eco-tour package, “India Nature & Wildlife Journeys, 6 days/5 nights for 2” which is currently available on TIES ecoAuction.”

Other related links:

1. IPS News: Violence escalates around India’s Largest Inland Lake

2. Learn about EcoTourism from this YouTube video.

Short URL: http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/?p=3908

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Posted by on Aug 10 2010. Filed under Animals/Wildlife, Behaviour Change, Green Tourism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “The Birds are Back: Ecotourism and Conservation in Mangalajodi”

  1. I visited Mangalajodi in January of this year and was amazed by the work done and also the beauty of the place. Though we spent overall 2&1/2 it was a fanstastic experience and surely a bird lover’s paradise.

    I also went to a nearby place Sunderpada where one can do birding activities also.

    Posted our experience in my webpage, you can visit the wildlife section of our website to see photos and a small note.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sandip.

    I’m putting up the link here for other readers to see:

    http://www.enigmaticindia.info/destination/wildlife/chilika-bird-sanctuary-Mangalajodi-Orissa and your gallery https://picasaweb.google.com/pupu1972

    Lovely pictures :)

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