SUBJECT :A whiskered tern dives to catch a fish in the wetlands of Mangalajodi, on the banks of Chilika Lagoon, in Odisha 

By  Nivedita Ganguly

January 25, 2018: From poaching ground to award-winning eco-tourism hub, the story of these wetlands is one of beauty and inspiration.

The smudgy orange glow of the rising sun pierces the shimmering veil of mist over the vast wetlands of Mangalajodi. The waters of this eco-tourism hub, nestled on the banks of Chilika Lagoon, transform into a vista of colours; of tiny specs of birds that dot the interlinking water channels. As our boat’s oars slash through the waters, a flock of black-tailed godwits passes above. Around us there are black-winged stilts, purple moorhens, bronze-winged jacana, northern pintail and a flock of black-headed ibis — all soaking in the warmth of the sun. The birds, winter visitors from Europe and Asia, don’t seem to be bothered by the boats. They occasionally stop to glance at the visitors, many of whom have come armed with professional cameras and a battery of lenses. The proximity at which one gets to see the birds is something that no other bird sanctuary or wetlands of India provides.

The landscape of Mangalajodi is swampy and flat for as far as the eye can see. It feels like you can row beyond the horizon. We are lost in the ethereal magic of Nature. Inhabited by over 200 species of birds, 115 of which are migratory, Mangalajodi has been making slow but big strides on the birding map of India. The wetlands draw scores of photographers, researchers and ornithologists, including some of India’s ace birdmen every winter when the bird count soars to over three lakh.

Success story

But Mangalajodi is much more than an emerging birding spot. At the heart of it lies the villagers’ belief that fragile ecosystems like these belong to everyone and their protection is important. Its remarkable turnaround from a murky bird poachers’ den more than a decade ago to a model eco-tourism hub run by villagers is inspiring. Last week, this extraordinary success story was recognised on a global platform, when the Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust won the prestigious UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) Award for Innovation in Tourism Enterprise at Madrid, Spain.

“It’s a victory of the villagers’ hard work,” says Poornachandra Behera, 51, member of Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust. Behera was a poacher and was behind bars in the late 90s. Today he, like all other villagers of Mangalajodi, is a die-hard conservationist. He has a wealth of knowledge about the birds visiting the region. Most of the villagers till 2000 were engaged in the poaching of migratory birds. A census in 2000 counted a mere 5,000 birds in the region. To save the dwindling population, various agencies initiated a concerted effort to reverse the situation. They focussed on making people sensitive towards the importance of conservation. The RBS Foundation India partnered with Indian Grameen Services to create livelihoods through ecotourism as a vehicle of change.

“It was not an easy task to change the mindset,” says Shashanka Sekhar Dash of Indian Grameen Services. Thus, a community-owned social enterprise, ‘Mangalajodi Ecotourism Trust’, evolved in the process, managing responsible tourism.

The marshy wetlands interspersed with reeds and vegetation provide shelter to many waterfowl from October to February. “We used to shoot the birds or poison them. There were days when we simply caught the birds in the nets and twisted their necks,” says Nivas, another villager. They earned up to 30,000 a month from selling the meat. Now, the poachers have transformed into birding guides and actively protect birds.

As our boat glides to a stop, a flock of friendly whiskered terns descends on the waters. Soon we get to see magnificent take-offs by the northern pintails, leaving behind a shoot of water trails, and then comes the stealthy purple heron with the prized catch of a snake. Even as cameras go on a clicking spree, our guide spots two pairs of ruddy shelducks in white and orange against the green at a distance.

The boat rides at Mangalajodi start from 6 am and last for three to four hours. In the afternoon, they begin by 2 pm and the boats return by sunset.

How to get there: Mangalajodi is in Khordha district of Odisha, nestled at the northern end of Chilika Lake. It is located about 68 kilometres from Bhubaneshwar and 380 kilometres from Visakhapatnam. The roads are excellent and run through National Highway 16.

Source: The Hindu