Chilika today is the finest bird sanctuary in India, and among the richest ecosystems in the world. This unique, half-saltwater, half-freshwater lake in Odisha is 70 km in length and 30 km in breadth.
Chilika hosts about 10,00,000 birds annually, spread over 250 species, both resident and migratory.
In 1981, this brackish lake was internationally recognized as a Ramsar Site for its ecological importance and rich bio-diversity. And then a dual tragedy struck Chilika.
On the one hand, poaching became the order of the day. And fishermen turned poachers to make a fast buck. On an average, about a thousand birds were killed every day—by shooting, by trapping in nets, and by poisoning them with pesticides. In a few years’ time the numbers dwindled till there were just a few thousand left. Around the same time, as luck would have it, the mouth of the lake started narrowing till it almost shut itself. This decreased the salinity of the lake, and freshwater weeds like hyacinth and ipomoeas flourished and started destroying the flora of the lake. Within a decade it was included in the Red List of Ramsar Sites as a ‘Degraded Site’.
That’s when a man named Nandakishore Bhujbal entered the scene, and changed the destiny of Chilika forever.
Nandakishore, while in his late teens, shot down an egret in Chilika that fell down to the ground with a twig clutched in its mouth. The fact that the egret must have been carrying the twig to make its nest dawned on him. And it created an unbearable guilt that remained as a raw wound in his mind.
In the 70s, Nandakishore moved out from his native village Tangi to earn his livelihood in urban Odisha, then called Orissa. When he came back here in the 90s, rampant poaching had taken its toll and there were just around a thousand birds left. This reopened the still-raw wounds of his personal guilt of shooting down a nesting bird. Spurred on by the guilt, he decided to act. He made discreet enquiries about the people behind these dastardly acts. And he was led to the Dirty Dozen (they were actually 12 in number!) whose leader was the firebrand Madhu Behera.
Nandakishore accosted them with the courage of conviction, and asked them whether they were responsible for the wanton killing of the birds of Chilika. They proudly claimed responsibility, and warned him that it would continue unabated, and that it was none of his business. He tried to threaten them saying that Chilika has been declared as a degraded site, and therefore would be closely watched by the forest authorities. Still they refused to budge.
When Nandakishore tried to build up public opinion in Mangalajodi, the site of the killing fields, Madhu went to his house in the night, armed with a butcher’s knife. But Nandakishore in true Gandhian style stood up to his outstretched knife and told him, ‘Kill me if you must, but spare those birds. They have nowhere else to go’.
These words somehow somewhere touched Madhu; and a week later he came to Nandakishore’s house, his Dirty Dozen in tow. They informed him that they have thrown away their air guns in the lake, and will never again kill a single bird in their life. Knowing the psyche of this fickle-minded fishing community, Nandakishore told them that their decision was welcome. But he would believe them only if they took the oath in the temple of Kalijai. They stood by their oath and did not kill a single bird thereafter.
Interestingly, one of these turned a renegade and went back to his old ways. He was promptly banished from the team, and handed over to the forest officials without any sympathy. The team of 11 then expanded to over 50, with each one of them having taken the oath to protect Chilika and all that dwells in it.
When Madhu and his gang gave up the lucrative business of poaching, a kind of vacuum was created in their lives. That’s when Wild Orissa, a NGO led by Nandakishore stepped in. He had realized that poaching was serious business. To conduct it, the poachers had to learn to identify scores of migratory birds that were winter visitors in Chilika; they had to keep a track of when they start coming in and when they start going back; and what do they feed on and where do they roost. In short, they had to become experts in birdlife.
Nandakishore, along with his understudy Aditya Roy, started conducting workshops for the ex-poachers to convert this vast knowledge to become nature guides. Aditya taught them the English names of these birds, and even helped them with their communication skills. Both of which were needed in their interactions with nature lovers.
To make these eco-tourism efforts truly successful, an organization called Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti was formed.
The Chilika Development Authority (CDA) gave them land to house their office and also to start an Interpretation Centre. They were supplied with tents in which they could put up visitors wanting to stay the night at Mangalajodi. And armed with the binoculars provided by CDA, the poachers-turned-protectors patrolled the waterways of Chilika, day in and day out. They took nature lovers in their boats, with the precise knowledge of which species can be found where. The division of labour among them was well-defined. Some of them became boatmen, some turned cooks who provided food on a day-long boat journey, and the ones with better communication skills became guides.
Parallely, CDA opened up the mouth of the lake with technical help from leading water management authorities, thereby restoring its delicate balance. And by 2002, Chilika was removed from the Red List of Ramsar, thus becoming the only ecosystem in Asia to ever come out of that dreaded list.
If a conservation effort has to be as successful as the one in Chilika, the local community has to be deeply engaged and passionately involved. That’s the only way to protect the last green bastions left in our country.