Nestled on the northern banks of Chilika, India’s largest brackish water lake, is the quaint little village of Mangalajodi. Every winter tens of thousands of migratory birds flock to the sleepy hamlet in Odisha from Eurasia and the Arctic. Mangalajodi provides them with warm nesting grounds and friendly environment.
With a unique ecosystem of paddy fields, marshy lands, and a ubiquitous reed jungle called the Nala Bana, Mangalajodi plays the perfect host for its winged visitors. However, things were not so hunky-dory just a few years ago. Poaching was rife in Mangalajodi. Fishermen turned poachers to make fast money.
They killed thousands of birds every day by shooting, twisting their necks, or poisoning the fish that the birds fed on. It was an endless story of horror and killing. The village became a death trap for millions of unassuming birds that flocked its shores.
Over time, the number of birds dwindled and Mangalajodi was degraded to the Red List of Ramsar Sites. The village was on a downward spiral when a different story started shaping up. And, that was the story of hope and humanity.Help came from unexpected quarters in the guise of Nanda Kishore Bhujabal, a fellow villager from Tangi. In his teens, Nanda Kishore had shot down a bird, the guilt of which he still carried in his heart.
When he found out about the relentless poaching in Mangalajodi, he was determined to put an end to it and revive the bird-friendly ecosystem of the village. This gave birth to the Mangalajodi Ecotourism Initiative and surprisingly, the poachers turned out to be its greatest assets.
Despite all the harm that poaching had inflicted upon the ecosystem, it had left the poachers equipped with a unique skillset –an in-depth knowledge of the migratory birds, their arrivals and departures, feeding habits, roosting areas, and even an understanding of their cries and calls. In short, the poachers had, inadvertently, become birding experts.
With encouragement and inspiration from Nanda Kishore and funding from the Chilika Development Authority, the poachers of Mangalajodi embarked on the most difficult but promising journey of their lives.
A journey that would not only change them for the better but usher in a period of prosperity in lives of the people of Mangalajodi – the journey from poacher to protector.
These fishermen knew the swamps like the back of their hand and made excellent tour guides. Armed with binoculars and birding books,the poachers made their way into the more respectable profession of tourism.
They could spot birds from far away, knew their nesting patterns by heart, and could tell exactly when a certain species would be visible. Nobody knew the marshlands and their feathered inhabitants better than their old rustlers, a fact that proved to be extremely beneficial in ensuring the success of the initiative.
Today, Mangalajodi is a pristine ecotourism destination and every birdwatcher’s paradise.