- Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, Chilika lake in Odisha, has witnessed a consistent rise in the bird population since 2018.
- The success is attributed to the removal of illegal encroachments from prawn culture as about 162 square kilometres of the area of the lake was recovered from prawn culture mafia.
- However, factors such as the remaining encroachments, siltation, and poaching still pose a threat to the birds of Chilika.
Chilika Lake in India’s eastern coastal state of Odisha, considered Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, has recorded an increase in the number of birds including migratory birds besides witnessing two species of the winged guests after a long period of time.
The latest census report, reviewed by Mongabay-India, claims that in 2021 (January) the lake, which is spread in an area of around 1,165 square kilometres, witnessed an estimated 1.21 million birds compared to 1.10 million in 2020. The two birds recorded by authorities, which are not commonly found in the lake, were spotted falcated teal (near threatened), a rare duck species, and a mallard.
The census was conducted by the Chilika wildlife division of the Odisha government and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai in association with some state government-owned institutions, non-governmental organisations, students and experts on the basis of headcount method.
A comparison of the census data for the past few years highlights that for the last four years, since 2018, the population of the birds spotted on the lake has been consistently rising. In 2018, the population stood at 890,000 which went up to 1.04 million in 2019 and continues to rise.
“Since 2018, there has been a consistent rise in the total population of the birds. The census data is authentic and is a result of arduous works of more than 20 teams of experts from different institutions who collect data on a particular day through the headcount method. They are equipped with equipment like binoculars, telescopes and others and strategically placed to conduct the exercise every year,” said Sarat Mishra, who is Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF), Chilika wildlife division.
Scientists and wildlife experts attributed the increase in the number of birds to the removal of encroachments from the illegal prawn culture mafia in the last few years from the lake.
Sushant Nanda, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Odisha government’s Chilika Development Authority (CDA), admits that around 15 percent of the large lake was encroached upon by people who were involved in prawn culture and used to threaten the whole ecosystem of the lake.
“One of the prime reasons for the rise in population of birds in Chilika is the removal of illegal gherries (barricades) put up by the encroachers inside the lake as well as on the peripheries of the lake. Around 162 sq. km. of the area was earlier encroached upon for illegal prawn culture. That was around 15 percent of the area. In the last few years, the CDA has been able to remove the gherries,” Nanda said.
He explained that the illegal barricades were obstructing the free flow of water into the lake and creating hindrance in the growth of fish on which several birds feed on. Nanda emphasised that after almost a decade diving ducks were spotted at the Rambha side of the lake in Ganjam district. The lake is spread in three districts of Odisha – Puri, Khurda and Ganjam.
Illegal encroachment is a continuous struggle
The officials, who have worked for the removal of gherries from the mafia, have never had an easy task as they note that they faced threats and attacks.
Sasmita Lenka, who was the CEO of the CDA between 2015 and 2018 claimed that she faced several threats while executing the plan to remove the encroachments on Chilika and taking on the mafia.
“The prawn gherries mafia were very powerful men. They were basically people with money and muscle power and didn’t belong to the Chilika region. They had made their base deep into the lake. They used zero nets and barricaded several parts of the lake to catch prawns. These gherries were a major threat to the Chilika ecosystem,” she said.
In fact, Lenka survived two fatal attacks where local bombs were thrown against her team during an inspection in the middle of the lake while seven men allegedly also threatened her with death and rape threats. This had forced her to complain to the police and file a case against them.
Lenka, who is now posted as the deputy conservator of forests (DCF) with Odisha’s wildlife department, claimed that during her raids and demolition drive she had even seen illegal two-storeyed to three-storeyed thatched houses constructed in the middle of the lake with good amenities with the help of iron and wooden base on the lake by the prawn culture mafia.
There has not only been a rise in the number of birds after the removal of encroachments but other species are breathing easy too. For instance, Chilika is known to harness dolphins and H.S. Upadhyay, who is the Principal Conservator of Forest (PCCF) – Wildlife noted that dolphins have also increased in the state as they were also seen in areas like Rambha (in the lake) this time where they were earlier not seen.
The resilient ecosystem of Chilika
Wildlife experts emphasise that Chilika Lake is highly resilient in nature and several of its virtues make the site a perfect site for the migratory birds.
“Chilika is a mosaic of habitats. At any point in time, you will get freshwater, brackish water and seawater in the lake in different regions. This is the reason habitat availability is quite wide here. That is why in Chilika, we see the largest congregation of migratory birds in Asia,” Ajit Patnaik, a retired officer of the Indian Forest Services (IFS) said.
He said that despite bouts of cyclones in the state, the lake bounces back sooner. “Chilika is very resilient and it bounces back soon. Post Cyclone Phailin, the state government with the help of the premier agencies from the country conducted studies and found that within six months, it bounced back. The state has seen several cyclones but within months, the lake bounces back due to its strong ecosystem and good health,” he added.
S.N. Patro, an environmentalist from Bhubaneswar, claimed that the aquatic health of the lake is maintained due to lesser industrialisation in Odisha coast rather than other coastal states of India along the sea. He, however, expressed concern that with the proposal of construction of 14 ports in the state, the wildlife including that of Chilika might get disturbed.
He also tried to explain the reason behind the high number of migratory birds coming to Chilika Lake. “Chilika Lake hosts a bird sanctuary inside the lake known as Nalabana Sanctuary. It offers a special grass called Nal grass which is much sought after by the migratory birds. It gets submerged during the rainy season and comes out during winters. The sanctuary sees a number of local and migratory birds during winter,” Patro said.
The 2021 Census also claimed that 424,788 birds (113 species) were counted in Nalabana Sanctuary alone – recording an increase of 18,480 birds over the last year.
Environmentalists state that besides the Nalabana sanctuary, Manglajodi is another area which in the last one decade has turned into a good site for the birds owing to the changes in the area due to siltation and other regions. But experts are concerned that remaining encroachment and poaching activities in Manglajodi and other areas in the lake threaten the lake’s ecosystem.
“Chilika is a natural ecosystem and capture fishing is the conventional and healthy way of fishing here. But prawn culture still exists which is unhealthy for the lake. Illegal gherries have not been fully removed which is still a concern as they also facilitate deposition of siltation which hampers the health of the lake,” Jaya Krushna Panigrahi, an environmentalist from Odisha who has extensively researched on Chilika Lake for about 20 years, told Mongabay-India.
Some species witnessed a decline
While the Census hinted towards an overall rise in the population of bird species, the spotting of some species has dwindled. Among the most dominant bird species spotted in the lake included Gadwall (222,000) and Eurasian Wigeon (210,000).
According to sources in Odisha’s wildlife department, species like greater flamingo and migratory bird species such as cotton teal, northern shoveller and lesser whistling duck were also seen less compared to earlier years.
S. Balachandran, deputy director with the BNHS which has been part of the census exercise for more than two decades, applauded the Odisha government for restoration of the lake by acting against the illegal gherries but expressed concerns on the decline of few species of birds who are dependent on mudflats of Nalabana.
“Some bird species are declining due to changes in mudflats availability. Some fed on other worms available in mudflats. So, the changes in mudflats can affect their population. Mudflats offer some invertebrates for feeding to birds,” he said.
Balachandran said that the visits of several species of migratory birds are indicators of the health of the lake and any change in the pattern hint towards some issues with the overall health of the lagoon.
However, environmentalists complain that the state despite repeated demands for more than three decades has failed to bring legislation on Chilika to properly manage its affairs.
The state Cabinet had passed a bill in 2017 on Chilika but till date, it has failed to see the light of the day in the legislative assembly. The demands started way back in the 1990s when the Chilika Bachao Movement had started in the state to protect it.
Banner image: Chilika lake has consistently recorded an increase in the population of the birds over the last few years. Photo by Chilika wildlife division.