India: Poachers to protectors

By Liz Light

Eco-tourism is popping up all over India. Liz Light goes birdwatching.

Birds are best viewed quietly by punt. Photo / Liz Light
Birds are best viewed quietly by punt. Photo / Liz Light

The boat is quietly poled along, gondola style, through channels in a vast marsh on the edge of Lake Chilika, Orissa. My problem is deciding where to look; there is a painted stork to the right, two large white egrets to the left, ducks of various kinds paddling nearby and a large kingfisher casting a beady eye on the world from the bank.

A cloud of Caspian terns fly off in a swirl of flashing wings. They move in wide circles as if they are one and then, tuned to the same instructions, they settle on the marshes again. There is a sea eagle high in the sky. Maybe this is why they took fright.

The gondolier stands on the stern and doesn't say much but he knows the web of channels in the marsh intimately and knows when we need to move quietly and when to stop and watch. A white stork with impossibly long, skinny black legs and a yellow sabre-beak stands absolutely still. After a silver splash and movement so fast it's a blur it stands with a small fish wriggling in its beak.

Our guide, who can identify the 167 species of bird that inhabit this area and rattle off their scientific names, is the son of a reformed poacher.

This young man, and his poling colleague, learned the habits of the birds and the nuances of the marshes by helping their fathers trap birds and gather eggs.

Fishing, trapping birds and selling eggs was a way of life to the villagers. These occupations, with pottery and boat building, maintained the village for hundreds of years but, by 1999, bird trapping and egg selling on a commercial scale had caused the bird populations to plummet alarmingly.

Mangalajodi is on the northern edge of Chilika Lake, the largest brackish lagoon in Asia (1100sq km during the monsoon), and home to close to 900,000 birds, endangered water cats and rare Irrawaddy dolphins.

It's big, it's globally significant for birds and it's in the middle of one of India's poorer states. The golden goose needed protecting not poaching.

Wild Orissa, the local conservation organisation, with funding from Royal Bank of Scotland and Indian Grameen Services, worked with the village to set up Mangalajodi Ecotourism to provide a sustainable livelihood and protect the birds. Bright young people received scholarships to study flora, fauna and conservation, boat builders adapted traditional boats to take tourists, the village constructed an eco lodge to provide accommodation and, today, erstwhile poachers patrol the Mangalajodi Marshes to protect birds and monitor their populations.

This is a project that worked. Tourists from India love it, birders from all over the world are thrilled by what they see and birds seem to know they are safe here. In 13 years the annual Wild Orissa census tells of a 20-fold increase in bird numbers. Now there are more birds in the Mangalajodi Marshes than the oldest granddads can remember, and these old poachers are now keen bird protectors.


Info

Getting there:
•Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Delhi every day via Hong Kong.
cathaypacific.co.nz
• From Delhi there are many daily flights to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa.
• Go India and Spice are reliable airlines.

Getting around Orissa:
• Heritage Tours Orissa can tailor a programme for you. A week-long tour with driver, guide, car, food and accommodation costs NZ$1000 each. It's a varied programme covering national parks and heritage sites.
heritagetoursorissa.com
• Mangalajodi Ecotourism has changed the focus of the community from exploiting bird life to protecting it.
mangalajodiecotourism.com

When to go:
• December to February to see migratory birds.

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