Emperor Ashoka, 268 – 223 BCE, popularly known as Ashoka the Great became a Buddhist after witnessing firsthand the large number of casualties during Kalinga War. It was a turning point in human history. One among the many measures the emperor took was promulgating and execution of world’s first animal right laws. Through his edicts Ashoka expressed his concern about the number of animals killed to provide him meals and his intention to end their killing. He therefore stopped the royal hunting practice and abstained from eating meat. He outlawed the sacrifice of animals and made it illegal to kill many species such as parrots, ducks, geese, bats, turtles, and a few more. He prohibited tree felling as forest was the prime habitat of various animals.
We don’t know what happened to the practice after the Mauryan rule declined. But just two decade ago, Mangalajodi, not far from the Kalinga battle site, hundreds of innocent birds were being hunted regularly. None was spare, both resident and migratory birds were slaughtered for selfish reasons. In mid 1990s, I happened to spend a lot of time at Chilika Lake for my PhD fieldwork and often would listen to stories of poaching. Ashoka’s Dhamma found no takers in the place whose people once dared to face the mighty emperor and the sight of whose blood vanquished the evil in Ashoka making him Great.
At the core of this violent poaching was Kishore Behera, a man in his 20s, whom the locals nicknamed as the Veerapan of Chilika. Today, Mangalajodi has a different story to tell. For Kishore is the modern Ashoka who had a change of heart and today is at the forefront of conservation programs aimed at saving the wetland and its birds. He has influenced many youths of the area to join the conservation brigade.
Mangalajodi is a small village in the northwestern corner of Chilika Lake (Asia’s largest brackish water lake). What makes Mangalajodi different from the rest of Chilika is its unique geography, enriched with marshy reeds, grass and a shallow waterbody. Here the water is sweet compared to the rest of Chilika Lake due to the flow of rivers of the Mahanadi Delta system, such as Daya and Bhargavi.
I have been yearning for years to visit Mangalajodi and hear its stories from the people and I could make it in December 2017. Thanks to social media, an event initiated by Utkala Photography Club and posted by my friend Anirvan Bhattacharya, an IT professional working with TCS Bhubaneswar led me to Mangalajodi and its stories on a lovely weekend morning. I registered my name without a second thought.
We, 17 souls including some well known birding experts and wildlife photographers started from Bhubaneswar at 4.30 AM and were at Mangalajodi by 5.45 AM, just before the sunrise. It was a moment of silence as there were no human activities but was chaotic due to the continuous murmuring of countless birds.
Suddenly the human silence broke with sighting of a flock of geese flying high against the golden morning sky. It reminded me of the Odia folk song from the movie Matira Manisa that I heard as a child –
‘Udi gale gendalia jhadidei para, Raja jhia bahudechei dekhi Budha Bara’ which translates into ‘Geese flew flapping their wings, the princess returned after meeting her old husband’.
As we got into the boat, the boatman, an expert guide was going to unravel for us many more magical moments then one could imagine in the reed filled shallow pool, the winter home of around 150 species of migratory birds and 40 species of resident birds.
The boatman himself was a poacher in his childhood. They would poach either through poisoning or shooting the innocent birds some of who came from as far as Siberia. They earned a huge amount of money those days by selling dead birds whose meat was much in demand in local dhabas, some restaurants of Bhubaneswar and even in Kolkata. The forest department of Odisha had limited powers at Mangalajodi as the area fell under the Revenue Department. Therefore poaching continued unabated turning the marshy wetland into an eerie graveyard.
In the year 1997, enter Nanda Kishore Bhujabala, an unconventional Odia activist from Wild Odisha whose heart wrenched seeing the violence and he set about transforming the hearts and souls of Chilika’s famed poachers.
What happened next – watch the video to hear the story in the words of the boatman himself who has been a part of this incredible journey of transformation.
It was now 8 AM; the boat is in the core region of the wetland leaving behind the human settlements far. You have perfect light now and see hundreds of water lilies emerging like red and white water pearls from the reed. Surrounding them are hundreds of grey headed lapwings and gulls, all sitting motionless within a three metre distance from the boat. Then you see countless ruffs, godwits, plovers, sandpipers and migratory ducks. However, the star attraction were the soaring take-off scenes by the pintails and the ruddy shelducks.
By the time it was 9 AM, the marshland was filled with scores of experts, photographers and tourists, each occupying a tiny boat.
Eco tourism may have worked wonders as a source of living but the tourists need to be sensitive to the laws of nature. In a limited time most tourists want maximum action shots, such as take-offs or hunting. Birds do have their own routine, when to rest and fly. You can’t interfere in it. It was disturbing to watch my boat inmates, their continuous clapping and even throwing stones so that the birds would be compelled to take off from their perch!
The other thing I found both alarming and disturbing is the increasing number of fishing boats, who show little concern for protection and are taken into the heart of the wetland ferrying tourists. Ashoka’s Dhamma needs to be reinterpreted for today’s generation who have hardened and become selfish.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at email@example.com