Kokare Bellure Village

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Mysore, Karnataka Mixed  Species Protection  Not Available Important Bird Area

Case Study (2009)


Kokkare Bellur village is situated in Mandya District, 80 kilometers from the state capital, Bangalore. Its landscape resembles that of a typical dry land with the perennial Shimsha flowing to its south. Cultivated and fallow fields, cactus hedges and old and new trees of tamarind, banyan, pipal, babul, gular or atthi, neem, mother-in-law’s tongue tree, mango, rain tree, portia, mark the landscape.

For six months of the year, Kokkare Bellur looks like any other village in South Karnataka. But from December to June hundreds of spot billed pelicans and painted storks move into and occupy the tamarind and banyan tree tops, to nest and breed in the heart of the village. The pelicans arrive first and settle on the crown of mature large canopied trees, while the lighter and more agile storks come in a few weeks later and settle on the outer branches of the same trees. Some trees are so populated that the nests touch one another. Over the following six months birds and humans by and large co-exist peacefully as they have done for generations. It is as if the entire village gets a two-tiered structure with the humans living downstairs and the birds living upstairs.

Besides these birds, this tiny village plays host to at least 139 other bird species, including little grebe, grey heron, night heron, white ibis, purple moorhen, whitespotted fantail flycatcher and many others.

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.

In 2006, the bird nest count stood at an all time high of 400, and Kokkare Bellur was identified as one of the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in India by Birdlife International3. The village has also been assessed as the seventh important hotspot in Karnataka with regards to biodiversity.

Roles of the government agencies

The role of the forest department in protecting this amazing pelicanry has been sporadic, largely failing to support the initiative. The primary reason for this has been the lack of recognition of the role played by the local community in the existence of this bird heaven. As per S.G. Neginhal (DCF retd.), who was a wildlife officer in Mysore from 1972 to 1976 the FD had no knowledge of the existence of Kokkare Bellur. In 1976, when the FD became aware of the village, they appointed a local man as a forest guard to step up the protection. In 1982, when the Bannerghatta National Park was being set up in Bangalore, the FD tried to transfer some pelican chicks from the village without consulting the panchyat. The vehicle carrying the chicks was ghearoed (surrounded) by the vilagers, but on realizing that the chicks could not be put back in the nest, the FD employee was allowed to take the birds to the national park.

In the 1980s, the department issued a protection order, under the Karnataka Tree Protection Act (KTPA), regarding the trees used for nesting. The order stated that such trees could not be felled even by their owners unless they were diseased or dead. However in 1987, when a powerful local farmer felled a huge, perfectly healthy banyan tree used for nesting in his compound, no punishment was forthcoming. Such inconsistencies in the behaviour of the FD, led to a disregard for the order passed under the KTPA. The FD then proposed to buy out every tree used for nesting, which was not acceptable to the tree owners. Finally a compromise was reached, whereby the villagers were to be given an annual allowance for the trees on their property that the birds used for nesting. The amount offered was and continues to be much lower than the income that might have accrued to the owners had they harvested and sold the tamarind from the trees, but it does provide some incentive to keep the trees in the face of increased dependence on a cash economy.

In 1996-97, the FD needed to spend two lakh (200,000) rupees and unilaterally decided to spend the sum on building a watchtower very near to the nesting trees so that the visitors could see the birds up close. The local community opposed this wasteful expenditure on the ground that this would frighten the birds away; they also felt that the money could be better utilised in planting more trees and providing for tree guards for the young plants. The opposition led to a nasty altercation between the villagers and the officials of the FD and while the construction of the viewing tower was stopped the money was not made available for the trees and tree guards either. Recently however the FD has been involved in plantation of trees in the area. However it has yet to win the trust of the locals, who feel that the plantations are yet again an outcome of the need to spend a certain amount of money before the end of a fiscal year rather than any genuine concern for the birds.

The distrust created by such ill-conceived interventions from the FD has led to the loss of an opportunity where both FD and local people could have worked together for the betterment of the birds and the village. The internal split of jurisdiction within the FD has led to further confusion. The split is between the territorial division in charge of the welfare of the trees and the wildlife division in charge of the welfare of the birds and often these two divisions work at cross-purposes.

Among the significant threats to the bird are ill conceived development plans that might put the birds at risk. Among these are a road widening project (which has been stopped for the time being), and the grandiose plans of the Tourism Department to set up a holiday resort close to Kokkare Bellur. As far as is known, there has been no research done to assess the viability or desirability of such a project, let alone the effect that such development will have on the birds. 

Internal issues

As cheap and easy to acquire urea, insecticides and pesticides replace guano and natural methods of pest control, the lakes are increasingly at the receiving end of agricultural waste and sewage. The excessive use of chemicals has increased the level of nitrogenous nutrients which have led to the uncontrolled growth of weeds and reeds in the water bodies, reducing the expanse of water available to the birds to catch fish. Also pelicans being at the top of the aquatic food chain, are susceptible to pesticide poisoning.

The urban tourists that come in also display the huge difference in the material prosperity between the villagers and their urban counterparts.

Local inequities play a large role as most villagers see the powerful get away with tree cutting and other violations. Additionally, there is no stable institution for grievance redressal and to resolve internal disputes.

To make matters worse the local panchyat has been merged with the village panchyats of four other villages. This has eroded the traditional leadership of the village which had proactively protected the birds.

Aspirations of the local people are changing in keeping with the general consumerism that prevails in the country. This coupled with lack of creative and sustainable ways to earn a livelihood within the village has created a situation of dissatisfaction. Such a situation can easily create apathy for the birds as well as can put humans in competition with resources that were earlier allotted graciously to the birds but now are seen as cash-generating.

Favourable opportunities

On the positive side, Kokkare Bellur has a rich tradition of living with the birds and the wide interest generated by visitors and ample newspaper, radio and TV and film coverage have made the locals aware of their rich heritage, one which they had earlier taken for granted and begun to lose interest in. 

The continuous work by committed MAN members and the growing up of a generation of Hejjarle Balaga youth provides available, well-trained individuals, who under the right conditions can lead the conservation effort as and when needed.

Obtaining additional land and trees and the starting up of work towards getting a local bird interpretation centre will provide some livelihoods and further impetus to carry on the work of conservation.

The many small victories that the locals have had in protecting the birds and the fact that they have single-handedly put back 300 injured birds back into the wild cannot but give encouragement and strength to the conservation process.

Kokkare Bellur has a lot going for it, but requires the will of all concerned to ensure that the birds return in larger numbers every year. 

While the threats cannot be wished away and one must deal with these bottlenecks to bird and human prosperity, one cannot but feel hopeful of the future when one sees the strong link between the children and the birds in the village. According to Erica Taraporewala, Kalpavriksh member who witnessed a Sunday morning following a stormy night in the village in 2006, “Children all over the village on their own accord had started looking for birds under various nesting trees, chasing away dogs and bringing in the chicks that had fallen from their nests in the storm. Some spent the day in the pen, laughing, playing with each other even as they looked after the birds, while other children were seen showing birds to a camera crew that had come to the village. And all this was done with such joyous spontaniety, clearly showing that the intrinsic connection between the children and the birds that has been strengthened by the quiet and consistent efforts of MAN and Hejjarle Balaga.” Will this endure in the face of the threats which are as true as this connection? Only time will tell.

 This information has been extracted from: Manu, K. and Sara Jolly (2000). Pelicans and People: The Two-Tier Village of Kokkare Bellur, Karnataka, India. Kalpavriksh and International Institute of Environment and Development, Pune. The information was further updated by Erica Taraporewala based on a visit to Kokkare Bellur in 2007. 

K. Manu
Mysore Amateur Naturalists
571, 9th Cross, Anikethana Road, Kuvempunagar
Mysore 570 023
Ph: 09886383793
Email: [email protected]


Apt. No. 5, Shri Dutta Krupa
908 Deccan Gymkhana
Pune 411004
Ph: 020-25675450
Website: www.kalpavriksh.org

1 Asian Wetland Bureau Mid-winter Waterfowl Census, 1993

2 Personal communication with K.Manu in March 2007.

3 Organisation based in England and working for conservation and protection of bird species across the world.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

Recent Updates

A village where farmers adopt and nurture rare birds even if they harm the crops!

An article on Vikalp Sangam website about the village of Kokre Bellur and how the villagers have happily adopted the birds. That is why, gradually, this place has become a hub of rare migratory birds.

Revamped facility at Kokkare Bellur tells story of symbiotic bond between birds and villagers

Recognizing the unique contribution of the villagers in caring for the birds, the WWF – India, in collaboration with HSBC’s Water Programme, has launched the revamped Kokkare Bellur Interpretation Centre to highlight the symbiotic relationship between the birds and the villagers.

Conservation of Spotbilled pelican at Kokkare Bellur Village

Project Pelican Conservation of Spotbilled pelican at Kokkare Bellur Village with people's participation.

Kokkare Bellur: Nest in peace

Kokkare Bellur stands testimonial not only to the amazing symbiotic relationship between humans and birds, but also the incredible power of conservation through collaboration.

Related Information

Kokkare Bellur village of water birds, Mandya

From December to June hundreds of spot billed pelicans and painted storks move into the village and occupy the tree tops, to nest and breed in the heart of the village.

Kokkare Bellur: The village of storks

An NDTV story on the protection of storks in Kokkare Bellur.

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