Published: 31st July 2019
These men are hell-bent on saving Odisha's wetlands and all the birds that depend on it
Subrat Debata and the Aranya Foundation intend to make people sit up and understand the importance of wetlands and the species who call it their home
Did you know that the Black-bellied Tern is an endangered species, like many other species on the brink of extinction? This small bird, whose belly turns black during the breeding season, is quite a rare sight in India. "There has not been any work around this particular species of bird in India," Subrat Debata tells us definitively.
Which is why he, Himanshu Shekhar Palei and Sadasiva Parthsarathi Sahukar are dedicating their time and resources to finding out more about this bird so that conservation practices can be put in place. They started the Bhubaneswar-based Aranya Foundation in 2014 with one mission: research extensively and generate more data and information on these and other species who call the river Mahanadi river and its tributaries their home. "The biodiversity in Odisha, in general, and around Mahanadi, in particular, is rich yet, it is a lesser-known area and there are several lesser-known species here," shares Subrat.
The biggest threat to the environment is habitat degradation and reclamation and development activities that people often carry out
The wetlands are calling
So through Aranya Foundation, their efforts are directed towards three causes, conducting research on wetlands and their species, on protected areas and beyond and understanding the relationship between people and wildlife in these areas. "The majority of our work is in the wetlands, whichever species breed there and is threatened, we want to concentrate on. Like the Indian Skimmer, River Tern and River Lapwing along with Black-bellied Terns," says the 33-year-old.
During the summer, when the river starts drying up, a few small and temporary sand islands are formed. And it is these islands which serve as breeding grounds for most of these birds, especially the Black-bellied Tern. The foundation has identified a few such islands and they constantly monitor their breeding patterns, success rate, mortality rate and so on. This, of course, is a long-term project and they intend to start full-fledged conservation activities soon.
Amidst it all: Subrat has been working in this field for over ten years now | (Pic: Subrat Debata)
Networking for nature's sake
For now, they are already in talks with the local villagers and inform them about the nesting patterns and areas of these birds and request them not to disturb these feathered creatures. "The local communities are fishermen and they tend to disturb these islands when they are out fishing. We make them aware of the presence of the birds and request them to not go near these islands and most of them do listen," says Subrat, who pursued his PhD in Biodiversity and Conservation of Natural Resources from Central University of Orissa, Koraput.
The li'l guy matters, too
To all those thinking about the contribution of such small species to the overall ecosystem, this is what Subrat has to say, "If we lose them, not only is their gene pool lost forever, there is no one else to carry out their particular ecological role. River birds control the population of insects and other small fishes they feed on and their droppings serve as nutrition to the water body and land. This is one more reason why we are studying them — the role of some species is very apparent and obvious, but it is the role of such smaller species that needs a lot of work," he points out.
Follow the rules set by the Forest Department, help them and foundations like them with funds and volunteer more and more, says Subrat as advice to what we can do to help him in his cause
The wetlands and mangroves are important because they don't just control cyclones, but also provide livelihood by encouraging a unique aquatic habitat, he reveals. Speaking of cyclones, what has been the recent Cyclone Fani's effect on these birds and their habitat, we ask. "It was a major challenge for us because the cyclone occurred during the breeding period and not a single nest survived. As of now, we are monitoring the number of birds and hoping that next year, they will be back for the breeding season," he says.
Aranya Foundation, apart from implementing conservation techniques with the help of all their research, also intends to publish their work in journals.