Sunday, May 14, 2006


2, 3, 4 May 2006

Ghodahada dam is a huge reservoir surrounded by densely wooded hills adjoining the Lakhari Valley Wildlife sanctuary in Orissa. Since quite some time, the Forest Department had been stating a population of just three elephants for the region. But, during the 2005 elephant census Mr. Nanda Kishore Bhujabal, Vice Chairman of Wild Orissa and naturalist and philanthropist par excellence, visited the area and was treated to a sighting of no less than 17 elephants! The Department seems to have copy-pasted figures without conducting any actual censuses, thus failing to register the growth. The herd had migrated from Lakhari to the Ghodahada area and, according to villagers, had become resident in the area since quite a few years.

The area is not included in the sanctuary and Mr. Bhujabal was so overwhelmed by the richness of this ‘non-sanctuary’ area that he decided to work on the area and involve the local people in community wildlife protection.

On the banks of the Chilika lake, near the town of Tangi, is a village called Mangalajodi. This area was notorious for waterfowl poaching. The Forest Department staff did not have the guts to take on these ruthless gangs and birds were dying in thousands. This was when Mr. Bhujabal interfered. He believed community protection was the answer to this. Disregarding his own safety, he visited the poachers’ villages, tried to make friends with them (this was difficult, the villagers were very suspicious of outsiders and especially conservationists - Mr. Bhujabal was both) and explaining and educating them about the need to conserve by showing them a new livelihood – ecotourism. When he caught poachers in the act he educated them instead of getting them arrested. Thus, 11 long years later, Mangalajodi is one of the safest havens for waterfowl in the whole of India. The villagers have formed a committee – the Mahabir Pakhi Surakhya Committee. They now take tourists on boat rides and use their bird catching skills for bird watching instead. Mr. Bhujabal’s efforts have borne fruit – the last census registered over six lakh waterfowl in Mangalajodi while the Chilika Sanctuary registered, ironically, just 90,000!

Coming back to our story, this was what Mr. Bhujabal had in mind when he visited Ghodahada early this May and I had the privilege of accompanying him, along with Madhaba, poacher turned conservationist from Mangalajodi.

Day 1:

We reached Ghodahada at around 2pm and spent the afternoon in the shade of a mango tree chatting with the local villagers while the ripe fruits dropped at intervals, barely missing our heads. The villagers were fishermen, making a good living from their catch and did not find a reason to poach. They offered to take us on a boat ride that evening so that we could get a chance to watch the elephants. We started around 3:30pm with the sun beating down hard upon us. The reservoir had quite a few water fowl on offer – dabchicks, grey herons, night herons, kingfishers, openbill storks, whistling teals, to name a few. The area has a large population of Brahminy kites and the boatmen, Basu and Amulya, said that the waters were full of mugger crocodiles – I didn’t see any though. We halted on a small islet close to the bank where the elephants were expected and sat there in patience until sunset. No elephant appeared. Strangely, we didn’t even hear the common jungle sounds like peafowl or jungle fowl calls. ‘Our’ villagers didn’t poach, but there still were poachers in the surrounding villages that did. There used to be two leopards, a mating pair, near the dam. The male was poached for his pelt and the female was killed when she turned cattle lifter. Perhaps she had cubs to feed and this caused her to take to cattle lifting. The cubs must have followed her in death.

We didn’t see any elephants but we had one interesting sighting nevertheless. While waiting for the elephants Mr. Bhujabal pointed out a spoonbill to me. Anyone with birding experience will tell you that the spoonbills we find in India are gregarious white birds with black legs, black bill, a crest and are tinged with yellow. But this lone bird was marked with black on its wing tips and had pink legs. I had mistaken it for yet another openbill and didn’t care to look trough the binoculars but Mr. Bhujabal did. It was smaller than an openbill and the grayish black bill was distinctly shaped like a spoon. Unfortunately, the bird was far beyond my camera’s range. Even the expert Madhaba claimed never to have seen one.

At dusk we rowed back to the village collecting some prawns from locally made traps called ‘baja’s. We cooked dinner - prawns along with some rice and dal under the mango tree and slept on the verandah of an inspection bungalow belonging to the Irrigation Department. It was too hot inside even with the fans switched on. Not long after we hit our beds thundershowers poured giving us respite from the heat but at the same time drowning all my hopes of elephant sightings. With the heat gone the elephants would never come down to the reservoir to drink or bathe as there would be enough water inside the jungle.

Day 2:

The nest morning there was no trace of last night’s rain. After unsuccessfully scanning the waters from the IB’s verandah (the IB overlooked the dam) for any muggers I went down to the boat ‘ghat’ with Basu for a morning check on the ‘baja’s and especially to photograph the Brahminy kites as they swooped down to pick up fish thrown away by the fishermen. The day was spent collecting provisions and then discussing about the prospects of ecotourism as a livelihood with Basu and his father – a respected personality in the village. We asked them to gather a few villagers for a meeting in the evening.

Meanwhile we prepared for an afternoon tour of the forests. So, after lunch we got back into the boat (rather late as the skies, falsely, threatened us with another storm) and rowed some distance to a relatively undisturbed patch of forest. From there we trekked up the steep, wooded hills for an hour or so and returned to the boats as the sun hid behind the mountains to the west. On the trek we came across some very old elephant spoor and one leopard pugmark – a fair sized young male. The area had sambar and wild boar but the last spotted deer was sighted two and a half years ago. It is true that spotted deer are rare in hilly areas but this was unusually rare. Spotted and rufous turtle doves were quite common and Mr. Bhujabal saw an emerald dove but I missed it. We didn’t see anything more and rowed back to the ‘ghat’. As we got out of our boats we saw, perched on a tree atop of a hillock and beautifully silhouetted against the evening sky, the dark form of a huge horned owl. As we stood there admiring it majesty a local quipped in “nice size, will fetch a good sum in the market.” Owls are regularly captured and sold. There is a belief that their meat has medicinal values.

The meeting was a complete success with the few gathered villagers agreeing that ‘their’ forests would not last long if they went on felling and poaching. We gave them the example of Mangalajodi and Madhaba was living proof to them. We made them understand that if they themselves protected their forests and wildlife then there would be no reason for the Forest Deptt. to include the area under the sanctuary and they wouldn’t have to move out. With the resulting increase in wildlife the area would become famous and they could add to their income by taking tourists for rides in the river, show them elephants, birds, muggers and other wildlife. They unanimously agreed to the proposal and agreed to send an official request to the Forest Department asking it to assist them in this venture and stating that they would form a committee for the protection of wildlife and forests. The only thing remaining for us to do was to rope in the other remaining villages in the area into this committee. But we were short of time and it might take another trip or two before this happens.

We went back to the IB for dinner and sleep. A talk with the ancient caretaker revealed some old tiger stories. He told us that before the dam submerged the forests the area abounded in tiger, gaur and spotted deer. All these are gone now. Elephants, it seems were not previously known in this area. Only after the dam was built did they start coming here. The present resident herd came over from Lakhari to escape poachers. Two tuskers associated with the herd had been poached and the herd was being very protective of the two young bulls it held. A few human casualties had occurred in the recent past. The villagers, surprisingly, are of the belief that the elephants attack people belonging to the poacher communities only and that they are safe from the elephants since they don’t harm them. Strangely none of them has been attacked.

Day 3:

This was our day of departure. After bidding good bye to our hosts we left Ghodahada. We dropped in at the range office in Podamari, a few kilometers away. We learnt from the ranger that the last tiger census had revealed no pugmarks and that they were yet to receive the GPS systems, needed to carry out the census, from the Project Tiger Directorate. They had found scat, hair samples and scratch marks though.

The ranger agreed that the entire system needs to be changed and that full police powers should be given to forest officers in order to properly implement our wildlife laws. The recent naxalite attacks were very demoralizing to the forest staff. Let alone naxals, our forest staff are not even equipped to face sundry poachers. When will the government wake up?


hamadryad said...

Fantastic ....... May your tribe increase and let the forests surrounding Chilika prosper and reverbrate with birdcalls all day long.

Three cheers for your awesome effort in educating the villagers and helping them realize the value of protecting the local flora and fauna.

I have seen chilika through a train window :D while going to calcutta ... Planning to visit bhitarkarnika sometime this year or early next year.

dani c said...

its really sooo nice to see that there are people who care to go to villages and tell them the importance of conservation..i feel it is far more important to educate rural india about the present situation at hand than the people in the concrete jungles..hope you keep doing this

manoj said...

This location is also one of my dream destination, but two over night staying at there, indicates a lots of fun & pleasure,.....!!!

suraj kumar gantayat said...

is there any croc alive .or that is just a paper work.??????