When the birds come flying in
The Chilka Lake has been home to migratory birds for ages. With the scare over avian flu, what awaits the environment in Orissa?
PHOTO: ASHOKE CHAKRABORTY
Touching base: Migratory birds have become part of Oriya life.
CHILAKA in Telugu means bird, more specifically parrot. Chilika (popularly known as Chilka) is the largest salt-water lagoon in Asia covering more than 1200 sq. km. For hundreds of years, close to a million birds have been flocking to it from November through February. Not parrots, but birds of many species from far and near, Siberian cranes, bar-headed geese, Brahmani ducks and many more.
Over the past few decades, migratory birds have also made their winter homes at a number of other water bodies in Orissa Bhitarkanika (1,00,000-1,50,000), Baghabana, Nalabana, Anshupa and even the Hirakud Dam region (about l,00,000). For generations, these migratory birds have become part of folklore, literature, even seasonal food for certain regions of Orissa. Is all that going to change?
Sounding the alarm
A major part of the Chilka comes under the estate of the erstwhile Raja of Khallikote. V. Sugnani Kumari Deo, daughter-in-law of the last Raja, has represented people of this area in the Orissa Assembly for the better part of the last 40 years. She says that she did not go anywhere near the lakes last year, though she spends a good part of a year at her cottage in Khallikote, a few miles off the lakes. "I am too scared of this avian flu," she said with visible candour.
In the last week of September even before the first birds arrived Biswajit Mohanty, a chartered accountant-turned-champion of endangered species, sounded the first alarm about bird flu (Avian Influenza Virus) He says that a number of newspapers took up the story, but the State government did not wake up to the scare for some time.
After a few weeks, a couple of officers from the Forest Department were sent to Kolkata for specialised training in taking blood samples for analysis. By November, experts from the Bombay Natural History Society came to Orissa to help collect samples and study the situation. Biswajit is happy that Forest Department officials have helped create public awareness of the danger. As a result, poaching of migratory birds has come down. But he is disappointed by the apparent sluggishness and lack of co-operation from the Health Department who seem to look askance at the "scare" he has created.
He sounded the warning bell since the Wild Life Conservation Society, of which he is Secretary, found that the State Government had not woken up to the risk even after 6,000 bar-headed geese were reported to have succumbed to bird flu in China.
Bar-headed geese are a major species that migrate to Chilka and other wetlands in Orissa. Biswajit rues that the State Health Department even today does not have an emergency action plan in case an epidemic occurs.
Dr. L.N. Acharya, a veteran veterinary scientist, spent more than 30 years tending the wild animals in the Nandan Kanan Zoo.
He says there has been no perceptible fall or rise in the number of birds or species coming to Orissa over the decades. It all depends on weather conditions in a particular year. As for the bird flu scare, he thinks that though there has not been a single case of avian flu, the effort and expense to monitor and prevent human mortality is justified. "It is always better to be on the safer side," he says. I asked him if any bird infected by the virus could fly long distances. His answer was an emphatic "No". Dr. Acharya believes that mutants of the virus can be lethal to humans, though there is no evidence that any of the H5M1 variants had human-to-human potential.
I went back to Sugnani Kumari Deo. The old Rambha Palace with 160 rooms, whose frontage is washed by the waters of the Chilka, is a heritage building she plans to resurrect. She points at a six-year-old boy who walks past us. "Look, this is my nephew from Chennai who has just returned from the Nandan Kanan zoo. He and his sister love animals. Tomorrow, I am taking them to Khallikote. But I am not going to allow these children anywhere near the Chilka. Of course, I am not going there, at least not this season"
Meanwhile, the boys and girls of the Chilka area no longer snare or poison the winter visitors to their shores. The Pandab Pakhi is not sought as a delicacy at the dining tables by the high and mighty, at least this year. Even dhaba owners in distant Sambalpur off Hirakud rue the loss of business, since truck drivers suspect they may be feeding them migratory bird meat as `chicken'.
With the onset of spring, the world will know if the chilakas of Chilka are dangerous to the human species or if it is the other way round. Spring would also tell us if Biswajit Mohanty was right in sounding his alarm and whether Sugnani Kumari Deo's fear is justified.
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