As A teenager, 53 year-old Arvind Mishra liked to think of himself as the chaser of the Big Cat. While his classmates played cricket, Mishra read Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson and loved to conjure wild adventures in his daydreams.
The “trivial” creatures of the forests — the birds and butterflies — irritated Mishra, who is a pharmacist by profession. Had someone told the Bhagalpur resident then that he would grow up to be the saviour of the Greater Adjutant species in Bihar, as coordinator in Bihar and Jharkhand for the Indian Birds Conservation Network, he says he would have smirked.
The Greater Adjutant enjoys a respectable place in Indian mythology, but not in its own habitats. The bird, also called the Garuda, is revered as the carrier of Lord Vishnu in Indian mythology. However, until 2005, the bird itself was a myth in the areas around Bhagalpur, because no one knew about its existence. Today, thanks to Mishra’s efforts with Bihar’s locals, the Greater Adjutant population in Bhagalpur has quadrupled — from 78 to over 300.
Mishra’s annoyance toward birding changed in 1989, when he was 29 years old, at an outing organised by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Tamil Nadu. He was actively involved with the body’s activities. “I was the only person from Bihar and realised that there was no documentation on the birds in the state.”
Mishra took it quite personally. In 1991, he started the Mandar Nature Club to introduce children and adults in Bihar to the fecund biodiversity of the state. Around the same time, he began touring wetlands in Bihar and realised no one had addressed their threats. Mishra started his first avian project at Udhuwa Lake in Sahebgunj in Bihar and turned it to a mass movement with the help of locals.
Thanks to his efforts, Udhuwa Lake was notified as a bird sanctuary in 1992 after he released a status report on the lake. “It was my first experience with conservation,” he says. In 2004, by sheer accident, Mishra came across the first batch of Greater Adjutants ever spotted in Bihar, in Purnea district. “Out of nowhere, I saw colonies of Greater Adjutants near the Ganga — 42 of them. We went deeper into the area and saw two more nests where the birds were incubating their young,” he recalls.
Until then, only two sites in the world were known to be home to about 650-800 Greater Adjutants in the world — Assam and Cambodia. Assam had a mere 20 per cent of Garudas in the world. “We had discovered the world’s third Greater Adjutant breeding site — nothing prepares you for that sort of thing,” says Mishra. Mishra approached the Wildlife Trust of India and got the requisite funds. But saving the Garuda was more than about saving nests.
Soon, Mishra approached the Gulgulava community in the interiors of Bhagalpur. “The villages don’t have electricity and telephones even today. There are no roads, and the crime rate is so terrifying that even cops don’t enter the place. Every maize field there hides arms. Would they care about conserving a bird?” wondered Mishra.
Mishra was right — the community mistook him and his assistants for government officials, even spies, and often chased them away. But they realised that he wasn’t the sort to give up. He began by showing them pictures of the Greater Adjutant in international books and telling them that right outside their homes was a rare, valuable gift, under threat. Mishra appealed to their religious side and told them how the bird is Lord Vishnu’s carrier. “It softened them a bit,” he says. He also told the community that their farms could be free from rodents because Garudas feed on rats, and that their children would be safer around the bird because they fed on snakes, too. “Gradually, pictures of the community’s children tending to the birds and began to appear on local news channels,” says Mishra.
It worked. “The locals began trusting us and conserving the Garuda in any way they could. As they originally believed we were smugglers, too, among other things, we stopped taking injured Garudas to our rescue centres. We began treating them right in front of the locals’ eyes. It meant losing a few Garudas, but it was important for the community to trust us,” says Mishra. A local, after watching Mishra on TV, told him that he believed him because smugglers don’t make it on TV. “Well, that’s not strictly true, but I can understand what he meant,” smiles Mishra.
So, is Mishra’s dream of being the next Jim Corbett close to fruition? “Corbett was a coward! He once fainted at the mere sight of a bear. I have a lot more to do before I can afford to do that,” he laughs.