Saunak Dutta shares his experience of the not so popular Odisha wetland which is a paradise for birders and nature lovers. The travelogue focuses on the transformation tale of the village.
When we started our journey in our Auto, there was a gust of wind blowing from the direction of the sea; but there was more dust in the air than amiability. The village of Mangalajodi seemed to be a trapped and lonely settlement of a few hundreds of ordinary and lower-middleclass people who did everything to make their both ends meet; yet probably it was not enough. Above all, it was the physical distance from the techno-cool, modern society which could make one strongly believe that there was no hope for the people in Mangalajodi and the small village has fallen behind in the race of time. That is why an “ought-to-be” lovely spring breeze also seemed to be heavy and sultry. Yet hope is something that lingers when all other emotions die.
It was a sudden planning that resulted in the trip. Mangalajodi was never in our wish-list for travelling. Off-late we heard that flocks of migratory birds crowded this wetland during winter. Mangalajodi is a small village some kilometers away from the local town of Tangi in Odisha. The wetland in the village is actually an extended part of Lake Chilka, which is a vast water body and well known tourist spot. However, our assumption was that if we are trying to spot a lot of birds in the wetland, we were pretty late, since the temperatures already had started soaring in this part of the country during the afternoons, it was early March. An overnight train journey from Howrah station led us to Khurdah Road station (in Odisha) and then it was another 100 minutes drive. We reached at our huts by 9.00 am.
The accommodation was arranged in beautiful and neat mud huts in the village. For our meals, they mostly stuck to basics because it is quite a remote place, but nevertheless, their arrangements were appreciable.
The eco-tourism hut also made arrangements for an Auto for our boating cum birding tour in the wetlands and it was then we met Rajani. Rajani looked smarter with a nice outfit. His Auto had space for just three persons and we fitted into it. As we passed the small village the odour of hopelessness that initiated even got stronger. There were not a lot of people apparently. We passed few temples with priests having vermillon painted forehead wearing elaborate religious outfits. Some villagers were seen making fishing nets and baskets, others carrying wooden parts of boats, others just staring at the newly arrived guests in the locality, probably with a queer question in mind, ‘Why of all place, are you visiting Mangalajodi’? Probably it was a question that we also started asking ourselves. But we didn’t know that the answer was not far away. After a short stretch of dusty village road, suddenly the scenario opened up to marshy lands with channeled strips of water. There were a lot of fishing boats with fishermen doing their daily chores.
The road gradually became narrow with water on both sides, and it was when our Auto broke the silence of the atmosphere, we could feel that there were birds feeding in the shallow marshy lands. Yes, there were many both in ‘number’ and ‘species’. We became excited and urged Rajani to stop his vehicle. After stepping out of the vehicle, and taking few good snaps with our camera, we started predicting their identity, the godwits, the swamphens, the storks, they were all there! Rajani started to make his contribution. We were surprised; although he looks smart, we didn’t take him to be that knowledgeable to predict and distinguish between migratory birds. But, he was not predicting, he made statements. We were probably wasting too much time catching our first glimpse of Mangalajodi birds, when he urged us to hurry. He said, ‘This is only the beginning, you will get to see all of them during your boating tour’. We hurried and reached our boating point.
The wetland was like a breathing space for the village. It was marshes all around and the quacks and the chirps of birds made the atmosphere livelier. Anand and Sankar were assigned to take us through the boating tour. One would do the ‘boat-pushing’ (they actually did not row; they just pushed the muddy ground keeping the direction as desired) and another would point at different birds and introduced them to us. (However we later guessed that all of them could do either). The water was shallow, muddy and blocked by fishing nets at certain places. As we started the tour, we saw common water birds, like Indian pond heron and Egret. A Whiskered Tern flew just before us, as to show the right way. Not far did we witness Black tailed Godwit, and other waders like Ruff, Stint, Stilt, Snipe and Wood sandpiper. It was difficult to identify, but our guide, Anand helped us. He carried two books and even we had a bunch of notes. As we gradually went through the canal, we ticked one after another in our checklist. After about half an hour, we saw our first glimpse of the much celebrated Ruddy Shelduck. It’s a yellow orange duck with colorful wings and looks absolutely gorgeous when it flaps it wings or even during its flight. Then we gradually came across all kinds of ducks, in pairs or in groups.
It was out of sheer curiosity that one of us asked Anand that are they safe here, since ducks are well known for their tasty meats. The response came quick and clear. Sir, we were only poachers! We did not apprehend or believe what we heard. Were these people poachers who killed birds? It seemed unbelievable. We wanted to hear more and Anand did not refuse. Their detailed explanation of the situation left us not only surprised but also we were beginning to respect these almost illiterate boatmen.
It was 20 years ago. Young people of Mangalajodi knew how to kill birds apart from fishing. They used and innovated techniques to master their then known art, the art of killing these guests, for money, or meat, or both. The situation became worse with Chilka transforming to a fresh water lake. Due to excessive growth of fresh water weeds, the ecosystem was falling apart. Migratory birds decreased and the ones who visited did not survive the traps of human beings. The Ruddy Shelducks were sold for 150 rupees per piece, Anand recalled later. They did not spare any bird visiting the wetlands.
The situation had to change, there had to be some force that could turn the tide. But trapped in poverty and illiteracy and lacking moral values, it was a tough ask for the people of Mangalajodi. Villagers, who thought it to be a problem didn’t have a clear cut solution. It was in the late nineties that local nature activist Mr. N. K. Bhujawal, stepped in along with local people. He interacted with several of these ‘poachers’ and slowly but surely brought about a positive brain wash. He explained that this mean work which they did for their livelihood could lead them nowhere but behind the bars. However, if they started conservation of nature and birds, perhaps one day they would receive appreciation. On the other hand, in the year 2000, the Government decided to make a new channel from the Bay of Bengal to connect Chilka once again to the salt water system. Things began to change; life came back to the wetlands. There were several bargains and negotiations. People of Mangalajodi took oaths by taking dip in Chilka by the name of Kalijayi (local Goddess). Relentless effort was put in. It took a decade to transform the situation.
Anand told us that he can recall situations when the number of Ibis visiting the wetland could be counted. At present, however hundreds of thousands of wader birds visit the wetland. The situation is so favorable now that birds are starting to become residents of Mangalajodi. Villagers do not eat any birds’ meat; they worship them and protect them. The Mahavir Pakshi Samity has been set up to execute everything in an organized manner. Along with Mr. Bhujawal, other NGOs have contributed. The hopeful ray is that Mangalajodi is now becoming an ideal example for Eco-tourism. Every year people, especially nature lovers, bird watchers and wild life photographers come here to have a good time in the serenity of Nature without disturbing its balance. Actually that is what we read in text books! That is what a true eco-system should be!
The evening sun was becoming milder. It was time to return. The boats passed through a flock of Stilt standing in one-legged position. The wings of a bronze-winged Jacana glistened in the rays of the setting sun. Gradually our boat returned to the starting point where Rajani was waiting with his Auto. We stepped out of the boat and watched the marsh lands once more. Our view was different now. The marshes looked beautiful in the setting sun. The atmosphere was filled with sounds of different birds; it looked serene and more importantly sounded nice. The Auto took us back to the resting huts through the same village. Strangely enough, the village now looked so energetic and positive. We saw kids playing, running carelessly, falling and getting up. The air smelled different; we had witnessed an unbelievable tale of transformation and everything happened in this village.
Mangalajodi has never been a popular travel destination. But the extremely ordinary people of this village are making it popular. We heard from Rajani that Anand is an illiterate fellow and has now just learnt to write his name properly. These illiterate fellows are teaching a good lesson about conservation of nature. It’s the other way round, the bird poachers had become their protectors.
After the end of the trip one evening Rajani took us to the local market in his Auto, when he was speaking about a recent project of conservation of fishing cats that is being planned and executed by a Bengali nature lover. I smiled, and said to myself, ‘Well, this is Mangalajodi, and it is unique, anything related to Nature will find a safe ground here, that is how it has been at least…..’ Rajani looked at me, and smiled, as if he heard what my mind had said and accepted the fact humbly.
About the writer
Sounak Dutta is settled in Kolkata, West Bengal. He is a Professor in Chemistry and a travel blogger. Sounak is passionate about birding and bird photography. Managing time out of his regular schedule , he has been travelling different parts of the country , from North to South , in pursuit of rare avian species , documenting them in his writing and research .