History has it that the storks and the pelicans have been coming to Kokkare Bellur to breed for hundreds of years. Previously the village was situated on the bank of the river Shimoga (a major tributary of the Kaveri River) and the birds lived there with the villagers. A plague in 1916, forced the villagers to abandon the area and set up the current village a few kilometers from the river. The birds moved with the people. This might explain the strange choice of breeding ground of these birds away from a large water body.
For a long time, this extraordinary village had escaped the notice of wildlifers, bird enthusiasts and forest officers. Dr. Salim Ali too did not know of this pelicanry, when he discovered Ranganthittu and got it declared a bird sanctuary in 1940. The only possible reference to this village may be found in the 1864 writings of British naturalist, T.C. Jerdon where he makes the following observation: “I have visited the Pelicanry in the Carnatic, where the pelicans have built their rude nests, on rather low trees in the midst of the village, and seemed to care little for the close and constant proximity of human beings.” Further he describes the spotbilled pelican as the most abundant species found in India, occurring in all districts where rivers and tanks abound. After 130 years, the same species is on the endangered list, with not more than 5000 birds in the whole of South Asia1 and only 10 breeding sites left in India, Kokkare Bellur being one of the most significant.
So who are these people, that the birds love to live in close proximity with even though there is no large water tank or river in the village? The current human population of the village is around 30002. The dominant occupations have been agriculture apart from which there are potters (kumbara-shetty), fishermen (ganga matha) carpenters (aachari) and silkworm rearers. Besides animal husbandry, sericulture, sand dredging and labour on village farms as well as in surrounding urban areas, are also practiced.
As to their relationship with the birds, the older generation have in the past, followed a policy of benevolent tolerance, a policy of live and let live. They had willingly given up their claim to the tamarind harvest from trees in their backyards when these trees were selected by the birds for nesting. They believed that the arrival of the birds assured good luck for the village and their absence was associated with drought and murders. People preferred to get their daughters married to the son of a family that had birds in their backyard, as this was considered a sign of prosperity. One important benefit that villagers receive from the birds is the droppings or guano, which is used as fertilizer for agriculture. The villagers dig huge pits around the trees that the birds select to nest and allow the phosphate and nitrogen rich bird droppings to accumulate. These are then mixed with the silt from the nearby lakes and spread in the guano pit. This exercise i s repeated several times in the nesting period so that the layers of guano and silt alternate in a sandwich effect. This provides ready mixed compost which is then spread over the field. Another benefit from this practice is that the removal of silt from the lakes prevents them from silting up.
Children in the village have for generations been taught not to tease birds or steal their eggs. When hunting tribes and outsiders were caught harming the birds in any way they were arrested by the local panchyat and asked for a penalty of Rs. 100, a princely sum for both the villagers and the tribe, where the barter system still played a large role in the economy. Failure to pay the fine resulted in being tied up to trees or being locked up in a room for a day.
Since the 1990s, however, changes have occurred in the lifestyle and attitudes of the people, due to the influences of the larger developmental model being pursued by the country at large. This change manifests itself in a number of ways like in many other villages across India. Today mud walls are making way for brick walls, local tiles making way for Mangalore tiles, earthen pots and pans being replaced with gaudy plastic ones, the dark brown nutritious raagi (finger millet) dumplings losing favour as local staple diet and making way for white polished rice. Further manifestations of this change can be seen in rich farmers increasingly growing cash crops and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, whereas earlier they grew a variety of dry land nutritious millets and beans. Motorised vehicles have also entered the village life.
Behavioural patterns also manifest this change, e.g. families of potential brides that once looked for families with guano pits in their backyard, now give the young men of such families a wide berth, as the once auspicious guano pit is now seen as a source of trouble and hard work for the bride to be. As a result today most graduate youth migrate out to the cities looking for jobs. The free and abundant availability of phosphate and nitrogen rich guano had for long staved off the use of urea in the fields. However the cheap and easy availability of urea and the ease of application of the same to the farm vis-à-vis the long drawn and relatively messy method of preparing natural fertilizer from the guano is attracting more villagers to the idea of replacing guano with urea, breaking an important link in the human-bird symbiotic relationship.
Change can also be seen in the new acquisitions in the village. Kokkare Bellur has not been left untouched by the overall atmosphere of increased consumerism and urbanization that has overtaken the country. The lure of buying things from far off markets has necessarily increased the dependence of the locals on the market economy and increased their need for money. This coupled with the fact that there are no innovative yet sustainable income generation schemes within the village creates intense competition for all cash providing resources, and this includes the resources shared traditionally with the birds.
It was in this scenario that Manu K., founder member of the NGO Mysore Amateur Naturalists (MAN), came to the village in 1994 on a habitat assessment program. This proved to be the beginning of MAN’s long and committed association with Kokkare Bellur working towards the re-establishment of harmony between the birds and humans. Towards this, MAN initiated the formation of a local youth group called the Hejjarle Balaga (Pelican Clan) to look after the welfare of the birds in general and fallen and injured pelican and stork chicks in particular. A local farmer B. Linge Gowda, donated a part of his land for the use of a pen, which has been fenced so that dogs and other predators do not get to the helpless chicks. As of 2006, the youth and children of Hejjarle Balaga have put back around 300 pelicans into the wild. An impressive number when one considers the endangered status of the birds. Chicks that fall to the ground and would otherwise perish, are taken into the pen, fed, tended to and raised to the fledgling stage, then returned to the wild to join their naturally raised siblings. Besides counteracting the drastic decline in pelican and painted stork numbers, this exercise seeks to and has been successful in recreating and strengthening the close bond between the children/youth and the birds while giving a hands on experience in the daily care of these birds. Hejjarle Balaga members also actively plant tamarind and ficus trees along the road, clean the irrigation tanks that are the foraging grounds of the birds and discourage people from either cutting trees or picking fruits from the trees that birds have chosen for nesting in their backyards. In 1998, members of Hejjarle Balaga successfully stopped a local farmer from cutting his tamarind tree on which birds were nesting. The group asked the farmer to lease his tree to Hejjarle Balaga for the season instead of harvesting the tamarind from the tree and disturbing the birds. Ultimately a combination of moral pressure from the group along with a little financial benefit persuaded the farmer to leave the trees for the birds.
Some recent intervention by the members of the Hejjarle Balaga helped stop a road widening plan that would have involved cutting of some wayside trees. Between 2004 and 2006 many birds had got accidentally electrocuted on the high tension lines that passed through the village very near to the nesting trees. The community has been successful in getting the authorities to increase the distance between the power lines and the neutral lines of the high tension wires, which has put an end to the birds getting electrocuted.
Besides this, older Hejjarle Balaga members act as resource people in the many camps that are conducted for urban schools in the summer holidays. The younger children repeatedly attend the workshops filled with slideshows, stories, activities and drama, and will themselves be useful resource people someday. Many bird watchers, researchers, film and TV crews and newspaper photographers visit the village and young Hejjarle Balaga members spontaneously help these visitors spot and identify birds. Children also show the visitors around the pen where the birds are kept and explain what is done here. All this is done free of cost and the only payback is in the inherent act and a sense of pride about the uniqueness of their village.
However as this generation grows up, the reality of earning a livelihood in the village will have to be dealt with else these bright young conservationists will be lost to the city where they will go to earn a living. Currently MAN, through personal donations funds the salary of two Hejjarle Balaga members, who carry the main responsibility of looking after the pen, getting the fish and feeding and looking after the birds with the help of the other younger members.
A personal donation in 2006 has helped Hejjarle Balaga purchase an adjoining piece of land with a few large tamarind trees on it. It is hoped that more birds will come here. There are also plans to set up a local bird interpretation centre on this plot, with local material and local resource people. Other plans to link village prosperity with the pelicans is to set up a small tea shop and a souvenir shop. The idea being that the locals regulate the inflow of visitors so as not to disturb either the nesting birds or the villagers’ way of life.