Legend has it that the storks and pelicans have been coming to Kokkare Bellur to breed for hundreds of years. A small village about 80 kilometers from Bangalore, ‘Kokkare Bellur’ in Kannada means “the hamlet with white storks” and was situated on the banks of the river  Shimsha until the early 1900s. When a plague in 1916 forced the villagers to abandon their settlement and relocate a few kilometers from the river, they noticed something curious. 

The birds that the villagers had grown accustomed to sharing their old residence by the river with, had followed them. This would have been normal, had the relocation of the village been near a river or large water body – everyone knows that wetlands and birds go together. 

But in this case, the birds had followed the people to a place with no large water tank or river in close proximity. It did not make sense - to anyone outside the village. 

For the villagers themselves, this was extraordinary…but not unusual. 

Just as the 140 species of birds that had already chosen the village along the river as their home, so also had the people of Kokkare Bellur adopted the hundreds of storks, pelicans, grey herons, ibis and other birds, likening them to their own daughters returning to the village to deliver their young.  

These people, mostly dependant on agriculture for their livelihood, used the bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphate, as manure. They would dig huge pits around the trees the birds had chosen to nest in and allow the nutrient-rich bird droppings to accumulate. 

This is supplemented with a layer of silt collected from the lakes nearby, over which more droppings would fall. This dropping-silt mixture would be excellent manure for their fields. 

And so, no one could tell which was true of Kokkare Bellur – a village that had built itself around nests, or one that was itself a cradle for life. 

In 2007, Kokkare Bellur was declared a community reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act – the only community protected sanctuary in Karnataka. This was in large part due to the efforts of Manu K., founder member of the NGO, Mysore Amateur Naturalists (MAN) and the group that came to be called the Hejjarle Balaga (Friends of the Pelican). 

The Hejjarle Balaga was a band of young locals that Manu K was able to inspire and train to care for the winged visitors to Kokkare Bellur, especially pelican and painted stork chicks that had fallen out of their nests.  The Hejjarle Balaga plants tamarind and ficus trees – ideal for pelicans and stork - along the road, cleans the irrigation tanks where the birds forage and teaches locals how to be bird-friendly. In 1998, members of the Hejjarle Balaga successfully prevented a local farmer from cutting down a tamarind tree that was home to nesting birds – they offered to rent the tree for the season instead, so the farmer wouldn’t harvest the tamarind and disturb the birds. The group also conducts camps and workshops for urban schools, using stories, plays and fun activities to speak of the need to protect the birds that the village is named after. 

Kokkare Bellur is now rapidly becoming a knowledge hub – with bird-watchers, researchers and journalists making a beeline for this unusual village. Hejjarle Balaga members help visitors spot and identify birds, explain the history of the place and give visitors an insight into exactly how intrinsic the birds are to life in this village. Most villagers, when they spot birds nesting on one of their trees, forfeit the harvest from the tree so as not to disturb the birds. Children in the village are taught to protect eggs. And having birds nesting in one’s backyard is considered a sign of prosperity – villagers prefer to marry their daughters into such homes! 

In 1994, a member of the Hejjarle Balaga, Bera Lingegowda, voluntarily earmarked around 2500 sqft of  of his own land towards the nurturing of orphaned chicks by  constructing a pen for these birds – here the chicks would be fed, treated for injuries and kept safe from attacks by dogs and other predators. “Our identity has become synonymous with the birds’, but like all relationships, we need to invest time and effort to maintain it. I see the youth moving away from tradition, moving out of the village in response to market forces. We are trying to set an example to maintain our traditional interdependence with nature and hope that following generations will realize the mutually beneficial value of this bond”, he says.

But despite these measures, the number of spot billed pelican nests went from over 400 in 2006 to only about 25 in 2015.  This sharp decline could be attributed to urbanization, cutting of trees and perhaps most significantly, a degradation of wetlands in and around the village.

Profuse growth of Ipomea in Vaddarathimmi Kate wetland before - and now after rejuvenation work

© Lohit Y.T.
© Lohit Y.T.

That very year, in a move to bring back the birds to Kokkare Bellur, WWF-India began working towards the restoration of wetlands in and around the village, including  Dodda katte, Holayana katte, Kangalaarana katte, Vanadasi katte, Vaddarathimmi katte, Kempegowdana katte and Chikkachenni katte. 

If these wetlands were to be revived, so would the fish and other prey in them, which would attract more birds to the village. The wetlands would not only be prime foraging sites for the birds, but would also augment the groundwater in the village. 

After consultation with, and permissions from, the Gram Panchayat and Zilla Panchayat, the rejuvenation work began with Dodda katte in late November 2016. The wetlands were cleared of weeds and shrubs, their bunds strengthened and feeder channels rejuvenated, wherever needed.  A committee comprising of members of the village community and the Gram Panchayat was also formed to monitor and offer suggestions on the work. 

“Kokkare Bellur is one of the last few places where you can still witness the symbiotic link between humans and birds. I began my work here in the hope of nurturing this relationship. It is heartening to see WWF-India continuing conservation efforts in a place so close to my heart. However, we need to develop more such regions to bring back this beautiful symbiotic relationship between humans and  birds.” - Manu K. Founder, MAN

Did you know?

Until 2016, every year would see about 30-40 bird deaths in Kokkare Bellur due to electrocution by power lines. Since May 2016, however, after power lines throughout the entire village were insulated at a cost of 4.5 million rupees by the Karnataka Electricity Board, zero birds have die due to electrocution!

The Gram Panchayat and local community will now focus on the preservation and maintenance of these wetlands by encouraging fisciculture and sustainable agricultural practices. This will not only promote sustainable livelihood options and but also encourage efficient use of water in the village, helping the wetlands flourish. 

As a result of the wetlands restoration work, painted storks and nests have been spotted for the first time ever at Vanadasi katte! 

The rejuvenation of the micro-wetlands taken up by WWF-India will go a long way in securing water security in the village, while providing enhanced foraging opportunities to the birds which are the identity of our village. The Gram Panchayat will make a plan to maintain the rejuvenated micro wetlands so that they continue to serve the intended ecological functions, said Smt. Lakshmi Swamy, President of the Gram Panchayat, Kokkare Bellur

Kokkare Bellur stands testimonial not only to the amazing symbiotic relationship between humans and birds, but also the incredible power of conservation through collaboration.  Through the combined effort of the community, organizations like MAN, Hejjarle Belaga and WWF-India as well as government departments, Kokkare Bellur is now on its way to revival.

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