Local Communities of India and Birds

Local Communities in India are the closest to wildlife in all its forms as the areas of residence between the two overlap greatly.

Despite a need for greater understanding of the role and contribution of local communities in conservation, it is imprinted or has been consciously developed over time in India.

Here, we take a look at some fine examples of local communities protecting the bird life of their area :

1. Khichan, Rajasthan – Land of the Demoiselle Crane :

Khichan, an unassuming village in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, has a conservation story which started with one man Mr.Ratan Lal Maloo aka the Bird Man of Khichan who started off with feeding a small number of Pigeons, Sparrows, Peacocks and Palm Squirrels with grain as a family tradition, one day chanced upon a small number of migratory Demoiselle Cranes in the 1970’s.

Mr.Maloo had for the first time seen Demoiselle Cranes,around 70-80 in number, which visited the nearby salt pans and small natural lakes passing through Khichan on their migratory venture into India, and was fascinated by these foreign visitors.

The cranes stayed till the end of winter, and left abruptly one day. They did return the following year at the onset of winter – doubling up in number!

Demoiselle Cranes visit India from colder breeding grounds of high altitude Mongolia, North China and Tibet on their annual winter migration to India and Khichan is now their preferred home where they are welcomed after their long and grueling journey to prepare for the mating season whence they return.

Today, 12000 to 15000 Demoiselle Cranes visit Khichan every year due to the compounding effort of Mr.Maloo, the Jain Community of Khichan and now a worldwide support system to the cause – it has resulted in getting Khichan on the world map for its Demoiselle Crane congregation and spreading of the beautiful grassroots conservation success story which goes with it.

Mr.Ratan Lal Maloo is no more, however, the local people of Khichan led by Mr.Sevaram Mali continue his legacy selflessly, with lakhs of kilos of grains which are distributed to the thousands Cranes – a grand spectacle.

It has been declared a Bird Sanctuary and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2. Eaglenest, Arunachal Pradesh : The Endemic Bugun Liocichla and the Bugun Tribe

Any birder will tell you that their dream destination for bird-watching in India is Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.

Made popular with the discovery of the Bugun Liochichla in 2006 – an endemic bird of Eaglenest aptly named after the local Bugun tribe.

The Bugun Liocichla is the 1st bird to be discovered in Independent India since 1947, and this has brought a lot of pride to the people of the area. Only 15-20 individuals are known to exist in the wild.

Formally described in 2006, the bird brought fame to the small tribe of around 1500 Buguns. India even launched a 25-rupee postage stamp, a face value of about 30 U.S. cents, featuring the Bugun Liocichla in 2012.

It prompted both a community bird ecotourism business, and a series of small conservation actions to protect the forest that harbors the rare bird.

In 2013, the idea to protect the Bugun liocichla’s home took a more definitive shape, culminating in a community reserve. The reserve was formally created in 2017 after several rounds of discussions between the Buguns, researchers working in the area, and the local forest department.

Today, the community reserve is more effectively patrolled by a Bugun team than the Sanctuary it abuts. Illegal logging, trapping animals, over-fishing, and mad-made forest fires have almost been abolished.

  • Young Bugun men and women have been trained as forest guards, providing employment.
  • Local trackers and guides well-versed with the forest, behaviour of the animals and birds and are enthusiastic about Eaglenest have gained employment through the tourism model.
  • 02 eco-camps are run by the Bugun Community here.

In 2018, the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve received the India Biodiversity Award from the Indian government and United Nations Development Programme. The award comes with a 100,000 rupee ($1,400) prize and honors “outstanding models of biodiversity conservation, sustainable use and governance at the grassroots level.” The community had earlier received a 500,000 rupee ($7,000) award from the Arunachal state government for having the “best conserved community forests”.

The Ecotourism camps now run entirely by the head of Bugun Bird Tourism and his staff from nearby villages, continues to turn a profit, with annual revenue of around 5 million rupees (about $69,000). The bird tourism business also generates employment and other business opportunities for people living in nearby areas.

3. Pangti, Nagaland – The Amur Falcon Story :

Amur Falcons breed in Southeast Russia and Northern China, and migrate each winter via Northeast India, across Peninsular Indi where they take to the Arabian see and migrate non-stop to Southern Africa where they spend the winter.

This great journey extends over 20000 km per year.

In 2012, people of Pangti, in Nagaland used to hunt Amur Falcons at a stupendous rate. It was estimated that 14000 Amur Falcons were shot for meat in 2012!

The rise in numbers of Amur Falcons to the area due to the Doyang Reservoir was unprecedented in recent years. Hunting these birds created a source of wealth for the Nagas of the area.

This news shocked the word, and immediately steps were taken by the local people, local conservationists, NGO’s along with the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change to mitigate these occurrences and now the hunting has almost completely been stopped.

The onus was given to the local community to set up check-posts and carry out patrolling duties to ensure that no trappers or killers were about in the areas.

Education camps, research and strict sanctions on those who killed the bird, contributed to this major success story.

Today, people from around the world come to Pangti to witness the astounding sight of 100’s of thousands of Amur Falcons who fill up the sky as they fly.

One of the last great migrations of the world, the hunter-turned-conservationists of Pangti have understood the value of protecting the bird.

4. Pakke, Arunachal Pradesh – Hunters to Protectors of the Hornbills :

The Nyishi Tribe who lives around Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East of India, use Hornbill Beaks and casque as their traditional headgear. They also consume the bird for meat.

04 species of Hornbills are found at Pakke : Wreatheed Hornbill, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Great Hornbill and Oriental Pied Hornbill. They make their nests in cavities around summertime and are easy to capture during this period.

The numbers of these magnificient birds had drastically reduced.

However, since 2002, involvement of the Nyishi community themselves to curb killing and create awareness about protection of the species ; NGOs and the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department learnt a lot about the birds themselves, their nesting habits and were able to protect a lot of these birds from hunting.

Employment and community welfare funds were generated. In 2011, the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme was introduced :

One can become a hornbill parent by adopting a hornbill nest. The adoption rate per hornbill family per year is Rs. 6000 per year or US $125 per year. Monetary contribution is tax-exempt. The funds raised go towards the salaries of the local Nest Protectors and the running costs of the program.

This has helped majorly in protecting the current population which was only down to 40 or so nests in the areas of operation.

The real hornbill beaks were replaced with fibre-glass headgear which were distributed to the Nyishi Tribe.

Hornbills are known to disperse seeds of over 25 species in a single forest, thus playing a huge ecological role for the forests and the people who live around it.

Habitat destruction though, yet remains as the biggest threat. However, through these instances one can see that people can change their ways.

5. Kokkare Bellur, Karnataka – Protection of the Spot-billed Pelican :

Storks and Pelicans have been historically visiting Kokkare Bellur to breed for hundreds of years. A small village located about 80 kilometers from Bangalore, ‘Kokkare Bellur’ in Kannada means “the hamlet with white storks” and was situated on the banks of the River Shimsha until the early 1900s.

Until a plague in 1916 compelled the villagers to abandon their settlement and relocate a few kilometers from the river, they observed something curious. 

The birds that the villagers had grown accustomed to sharing their old residence by the river with, had followed them. This would have been normal, had the relocation of the village been near a river or large water body – everyone knows that wetlands and birds go together. 

But in this case, the birds had followed the people to a place with no large water body or river in close proximity. It did not make sense – to anyone outside the village. 

For the villagers themselves, this was extraordinary but not unusual.

Just as the 140 species of birds that had already chosen the village along the river as their home, so also had the people of Kokkare Bellur adopted the hundreds of storks, pelicans, grey herons, ibis’ and other birds, likening them to their own daughters returning to the village to deliver their young.  

These people, mostly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, used the bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphate, as manure. They would dig huge pits around the trees the birds had chosen to nest in and allow the nutrient-rich bird droppings to accumulate. 

This is supplemented with a layer of silt collected from the lakes nearby, over which more droppings would fall. This dropping-silt mixture would be used as excellent manure for their fields. 

And so, one could not tell which was true of Kokkare Bellur – a village that had built itself around nests, or one that was itself a cradle for life. 

In 2007, Kokkare Bellur was declared a community reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act – the only community protected sanctuary in Karnataka. This was in large part due to the efforts of Manu K., founder member of the NGO, Mysore Amateur Naturalists (MAN) and the group that came to be called the Hejjarle Balaga (Friends of the Pelican). 

The Hejjarle Balaga was a band of young locals that Manu K was able to inspire and train to care for the winged visitors to Kokkare Bellur, especially pelican and painted stork chicks that had fallen out of their nests.  The Hejjarle Balaga plants tamarind and ficus trees – ideal for pelicans and stork – along the road, cleans the irrigation tanks where the birds forage and teaches locals how to be bird-friendly. In 1998, members of the Hejjarle Balaga successfully prevented a local farmer from cutting down a tamarind tree that was home to nesting birds – they offered to rent the tree for the season instead, so the farmer wouldn’t harvest the tamarind and disturb the birds. The group also conducts camps and workshops for urban schools, using stories, plays and fun activities to speak of the need to protect the birds that the village is named after. 

Kokkare Bellur is now rapidly becoming a knowledge hub – with bird-watchers, researchers and journalists making a beeline for this unusual village. Hejjarle Balaga members help visitors spot and identify birds, explain the history of the place and give visitors an insight into exactly how intrinsic the birds are to life in this village. Most villagers, when they spot birds nesting on one of their trees, forfeit the harvest from the tree so as not to disturb the birds. Children in the village are taught to protect eggs. And having birds nesting in one’s backyard is considered a sign of prosperity – villagers prefer to marry their daughters into such homes! 

In 1994, a member of the Hejjarle Balaga, Bera Lingegowda, voluntarily earmarked around 2500 sqft of  of his own land towards the nurturing of orphaned chicks by  constructing a pen for these birds – here the chicks would be fed, treated for injuries and kept safe from attacks by dogs and other predators. “Our identity has become synonymous with the birds’, but like all relationships, we need to invest time and effort to maintain it. I see the youth moving away from tradition, moving out of the village in response to market forces. We are trying to set an example to maintain our traditional interdependence with nature and hope that following generations will realize the mutually beneficial value of this bond”, he says.

6. Guwahati, Assam – Women for the Greater Adjutant Stork :

25 km Northwest of Guwahati, in the Kamrup District, women are welcoming the ungainly and infamous Greater Adjutant Stork – an Endangered species.

The Greater Adjutant is considered to be the most endangered Stork in India, and one of the most endangered in the world.

Here, on the outskirts of Guwahati, these storks have been left with no option to scavenge on the vast amounts of human created waste that is left in the big dump yards outside Guwahati.

This gives them the reputation locally as being unclean and unwelcome visitors to the area.

A group of women known as the “Hargila Army” are creating awareness for the protection of the Stork by participating in festivals dressed in Stork-shaped heads during the breeding season – welcoming them as they are welcomed in many cultures as a sign that fertility is thriving, and babies are around the corner.

Local NGO Aranyank are being empowered to :

  • Work with 10,000 villagers, schools and government to increase the greater adjutant population; protect nesting sites and rescue fallen chicks
  • Expand the Hargila Army, engaging 300 women with conservation and helping them to pursue sustainable livelihood and education opportunities
  • Seek legal protection of wetland habitat home to the largest nesting colony of greater adjutants
  • Use research findings to make recommendations for more environmentally-friendly waste disposal.

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