The 300-year-old lakes of Bhandara face two prominent problems among others: proliferation of invasive species of fish leading to decrease in local species and habitat destruction.A bird-enthusiast turned development worker, an older Dheevar (fisherfolk community) and a gutsy young woman from the same community have fallen back on traditional wisdom and encouraged local participation to safeguard their livelihood.The triumvirate of Malgujari lake conservation in eastern Vidarbha has not just rejuvenated over five dozen lakes and water bodies in Bhandara and Gondia districts but have also given a new hope to the local community, especially the women, of a dignified life. During his college days, Manish Rajankar was an avid birder. Ably guided by one of his professors, he further developed an interest in conservation and his home ground proved a perfect foil. The then undivided district of Bhandara, on the eastern border of Maharashtra, was known as the ‘Lake District of India’ owing to large number of traditional tanks – ancient lakes and water bodies, majority of which are now around three centuries old. There were approximately 15,000 of these tanks, locally called MaMa Talao, a short form for “Maaji Malgujari Talao” in Marathi, meaning, lakes from the former malgujari system (akin to zamindari, wherein the revenue came from the lake). The MaMa Talaos, were extensively used for irrigation and fishing. Extensive paddy plantations; lush green forests, including a National Park and a Wildlife Sanctuary; thousands of lakes (locally also known as tanks), big and small; hundreds of migratory and local birds, especially around Navegaon Bandh, the biggest lake in the area (over 500 ha); a major river, Wainganga and scores of its tributaries; and yet a perceived backwardness – that was Bhandara district then. Bifurcated into Bhandara and Gondia few years ago, both the districts, located in the Vidarbha region of the state, are no exception to the general apathy towards waterbodies across India. Bhandara and Gondia, two districts in the Vidharbha region at the eastern end of Maharashtra. Map from Datawrapper. About 25 years ago, regular travels from his hometown of Bhandara to remote areas of the district increased Rajankar’s yearning to ‘do something’, prompting him to explore the development sector. That was when one of his mentors suggested living with the community to learn from them. In early 2000s, Rajankar packed his bags, landed at Arjuni Morgaon, deep inside Gondia district, a place that had bare minimum facilities, uncertain power supply and nothing that was quick and urbane. For almost a year and a half, he spent all his waking hours following Patiram Tumsare, a member of the dheevar (fisherfolk) community from a nearby village Jamhali. “That was the best hands-on training. I watched Patiram bhau (brother in Marathi) fish, prepare the nets, speak with his fellow fisherfolks, carry out work in the lake, negotiate with traders, work on the lake. Everything. That gave me huge insights,” Rajankar told Mongabay-India. Slowly, Rajankar developed a clear focus: encouraging local leadership to ensure that the communities that are waterbody-dependent get a decent livelihood along with conservation of the three-century old tank systems in the two districts of Bhandara and Gondia. Bhandara-Gondia region had 15,000 lakes (locally referred as talaos or tanks ) that were extensively used for irrigation and fishing. Photo from Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskruti Abhyas Mandal (BNVSAM). From what his mentors had taught him, and from what he observed and absorbed while interacting with the local communities, he was sure that the local talaos can be rejuvenated with traditional wisdom of the Dheevar community, a local fishing community. And a major break from the tradition that he witnessed was gender parity in decision making – women from the community took a lead in the tank management and other things that affected their life by participating in the Gram Sabhas (village councils). In 1996, Rajankar joined the non-profit Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskruti Abhyas Mandal (BNVSAM), which had been started in 1993 by environmental enthusiasts of Bhandara. Tumsare and some others also joined the organisation around 15 years ago. Later, Rajankar also became the Principal Investigator for a project on Freshwater Biodiversity Conservation under the Maharashtra Gene Bank Programme, a project by the Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Commission (RGSTC) of the Government of Maharashtra.