Humanity is woefully embattled, both internally and externally, constantly bickering over habitat and moorings. At Odisha’s Mangalajodi, birds from across continents have found their no man’s land. They flock here for an annual global commune of soaring beauty, guileless embrace of fragile ecology, nonstop chatter and meeting "Maa Mangala" before flying back home.

These include grey-headed swamphen, black-tailed godwit, northern pintail, grey heron, glossy ibis, sanderling, about 150-160 representatives from the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal, Aral Sea, Mongolia, Central and southeast Asia, Ladakh. A global meet without any artifice or agenda. I am no birdwatcher, but Sanatan Behera, the local guide and our barefoot ornithologist, explained all this to my friend and I, when we visited last.

We were gliding in his boat, quietly watching the birds preparing for an early supper, meditating on their food. Some had dozed off after a long day. After a fortnight they would end their vacation, and fly homeward. Next winter they will return, in patterns, and bring in more siblings and friends to visit the cousins at Mangalajodi, COVID or, no-COVID. The birds are beyond human frailties, they are ‘simply soulful’. The Little Stint, a tiny almost pocket sized beauty, astounds in its temerity, tenacity and self-belief. Every winter it covers 12,000 kms and more from the Arctic to come to Mangalajodi. Strength and size can mean completely different things if we care to understand.

About three decades, the avian visitors at Mangalajodi, meant meat business and food, for the villagers. The birds were poisoned and poached. These birds, which were delicacies on the plates of callous people who did not care that these visiting flying angels, were blessings for humanity. Birds have been the emissaries of faith, love and divinity. Despite this cruel treatment the birds persisted, as if on a mission to change the hearts of the local people.

There are many bird reserves in India, but Mangalajodi is unique. As the boatman-birdwatcher oars you around the channels of thick water netted with weeds, you can hear your own breath in tandem with the ripples of water. You are boating in the middle of a canvas. The birds are surprised, they have many questions.

Sanatan Behera speaks on their behalf. He is their interlocutor, friend and mentor. The boatman is the go between the moody, handsome, and mercurial birds and us humans. A visit to Mangalajodi will certainly alter your life. It is not only sighting birds, but being in the middle of unviolated wetlands, in solitude. Only the fluttering of the wings shakes one back to reality.

Behera and his people live in around 130 hamlets at Mangalajodi and have discovered positivity, embracing the birds in a way that has almost obliterated memories of the gruesome past. The villagers are the caring, extended families of the birds. Sanatan is fiercely possessive, protective and a vocal advocate of Mangalajodi eco system who guards its fragility.

Goddess Mangala blesses the village and the migratory birds. At two corners of the village are two Mangala deities and hence the name Managalajodi (the Managala pair). Almost providentially, Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti(Mahavir Bird Protection Collective) brought the birdwatcher community together. Members decided to protect the birds and to live in harmony with them.

Mangalajodi, a part of the Chilika estuarine lagoon, has gained global recognition and identity. It has been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA), and is considered to be one of the biggest global waterfowl habitats. The wetland is visited by more than 3,50,000 birds, mostly in the winter but is not completely deserted, rest of the year too.

The erstwhile poachers have now altered their attitude, and work to preserve the ecology and birds. This is one of the most powerful behaviour changes I have ever come across. I have studied behaviour change social interventions in the health, livelihoods and education sectors. But I have never experienced such a monumental change in a low income, ecosystem dependent community. In the change process I could sense the development of meaningful partnerships with the communities and ensuring interventions which are culturally anchored and centred on collectivism using family or social support. Collectivism has been the key.

With the change in perspective, nature smiled, opening legitimate livelihood opportunities. Nandakishore Bhujabal led the process and helped remodel the lives of over 1,50,000 people of the area. I have never met Bhujbal but his name came up during our conversation with Sanatan Behra. Bhujbal reached out to the community and triggered an uncommon impact, that is till protecting lives and the rich biodiversity here. Without that change, Mangalajodi would have been barren. Now locals’ incomes are enhanced, allied small businesses have opened.

Sanatan Behra knows the names of all the birds and says that he has been trained in birdwatching. He can fluently rattle the names both in English and local dialects. Most important is his attachment to each bird we spotted. His lack of exposure to the English language has not dimmed his tremendous passion in studying the birds behavior, physiology, conservation and habitats. He has been involved with bird lovers and researchers in surveying, recording and reporting bird activity.

For us he is an ornithologist who is a bird lover first and an expert later. He may not be titled as a wildlife biologist, ecologist, researcher, or environmental educator. But he is all of this, as well as an eco-tour guide. His limited access to technology has not dampened his curiosity and interest in understanding migration routes, reproduction rates, habitat needs and life patterns. But his household income is much below Rs 25,000 per month. During peak season he earns a little more, but for almost six months a year his income is hardly enough for his family. He is aging, and his children are keen to explore other avenues.

These champion barefoot ornithologists need our support. They have devoted their lives to the Mangaljodi’s birds. We have to ensure enhanced incomes for them. When photographers and researchers flock from different parts of the world, they should pay an entry fee and a fee for their specific purpose (e.g., research or photography or filming).

Today they take pictures, paint or do anything that fetches them hefty amounts, without any investment in Mangalajodi. I saw a few power boats in the area, which should be banned and replaced by manually rowed boats. Banks should give loans either to Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti or the individuals to buy such boats, as I assume that there are no other collectives at Mangalajodi now.

The road that leads to Managalajodi took us straight to the watchtower. I was surprised. Battery rickshaws should be used and all vehicles should be stopped where the embankment starts. Sound, and air pollution should be stopped at any cost. Tourists can use battery rickshaws from the parking point to the tower site and back. The infrastructure here is falling apart. The watch tower is a badly constructed small elevation. There are no proper viewing blocks. There are no toilets for tourists. The place is not cleaned and there is trash strewn around. But photos of birds from here are featured by National Geographic and Discovery.

The collective Sri Mahavir Pakshi Suraksha Samiti needs a lot of support. The members and their families should be trained and their skills and capacities need improvement. We should not discourage them from their expertise of birdwatching, but their income should be fortified for the whole year.

Since Managalajodi is an exemplary turnaround story in community awareness and social change, we can help the community create an enterprise with locals as stakeholders. These on-the-ground conservationists need much more than lip service. We should not use them only for Facebook posts and social media “thumbs ups”. One doesn’t become a birdwatcher merely by sightseeing, we have to demonstrate it. Act to support the community, which makes the place alive. People like Sanatan ensure we are pampered and turn us into ‘nature lovers’ overnight. We then seek accolades as “naturalists”. This is superficial, but then, sad birds still sing.

Charudutta Panigrahi is an author, policy expert and a social commentator