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Green Warrior

Come June, we eagerly wait for monsoon to banish the sweltering summer heat. Far from the hubbub of urban life, a family in Kendua, a nondescript hamlet in Midnapore district, awaits seasonal guests of a different kind.

With the advent of the rains, the tops of the tamarind trees in Jatin Mahato’s courtyard begin to flutter with life, heralding the arrival of open billed storks.

Every year, in June, Mahato’s trees become a refuge for the storks. His love for them is well known, and has attracted several distinguished urban visitors.

Supriya Sen, a talented young filmmaker, is one of them. Two years ago, Sen heard the story of Mahato’s attachment to the storks. “Reading the thought-provoking news, I made up my mind to make a film on this uncanny relationship between birds and a human being,” says Sen.

As he embarked on the venture, the camera’s roving eye captured the exciting moments of Mahato’s bucolic life with storks, and preserved them in the 38-minute-long documentary film The Nest, last year. Sen’s efforts won him the Silver Lotus for the year 2000. It is a national award given to the best film on the environment. It was premiered recently at Nandan.

Sen is no stranger to serious filmmaking. “I prefer real-life stories to fiction as my subject,” says he. He has two other films to his credit. Wait Until Death shows the suffering caused by a stone crushing factory. The Dream of Hanif portrays the painful survival of a tenacious scroll painter. “Making films on struggling and impoverished people is my passion,” says Sen with a grin on his face.

This is why Mahato was an obvious choice for him. Tall, lean and strongly built, he looks like any other farmer of a village. But his indomitable spirit reveals itself when he talks about storks. “I grew up seeing my grandfather and father caring for these storks,” says he. He is just carrying on the legacy of his family.

Open-billed storks are gregarious semiaquatic birds. Their habitats are scattered all over the Indian subcontinent. In West Bengal, they are found in Birbhum and Raigang and the Sunderbans.

Storks breed and nest in Mahato’s courtyard. He does not know where they come from, but his only concern is to safeguard the colony. To breed successfully, storks need a peaceful environment, which they find in Mahato’s tamarind trees. Their dense canopy provides a refuge for eggs and nestlings.

To honour Mahato’s uncompromising battle against indiscriminate poaching, the Ganatantrik Nagarik Samiti of Howrah has conferred on him the title ‘Green Warrior’.

The storks need an abundance of food for themselves and their young, which they procure from a nearby water body. The paddy fields of Kendua village also serve as a foraging ground. The ankle-deep water in paddy fields becomes home to various species of moluscs, which constitute nearly 80 per cent of the storks’ diet. The flesh of the apple snail is their favourite food. It can be easily consumed by the growing hatchlings. When snails are in short supply, adult storks feed on frogs and insects.

“Unscrupulous villagers hunt storks mainly for meat,” accuses Mahato. But the villagers tell a different tale. They say that the storks damage their corps. “This is a flimsy excuse. Foraging storks cause little damage to paddy,” says Col. Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, state director of World Wide Fund for Nature.

Parental care in storks’ colony is equally shared by a couple. Among storks, pair-bonding is very strong. This is the key to the survival rate of hatchlings and flourishing stork population.

Jatin has paid the price for his devotion to storks. He is ostracized in his village. But his family has stood by him. “The death of a bird brings tears to my eyes,” mourns Sushila, Mahato’s wife. According to ornithologists, storks can sense this emotional attachment of human beings and prefer to stay close to it. Time and again, guided by this instinct, the storks come to roost in Mahato’s tress.

When breeding is over, it is time to lay eggs and hatch them and nurse the fledglings. Poachers, predators and lack of food claim one-third of the hatchlings before they evolve into fledglings. Natural calamities like storms can increase the death toll.

Every year, from June to November, Mahato sits up at night with a rifle to ensure that nothing but nature threatens the storks. “I feel sad for him. Except a handful of villagers, nobody stands by him,” says his son.

“The film does not convey any message deliberately. But it has been interspersed with scenes of cockfights, which demonstrate the violence amidst much-vaunted peace of village,” says Sen. The film highlights the experiences of a man who feels the woes of the defenceless open billed storks.

“Man cannot live alone. He needs to live in harmony with nature,” says Mahato. He does not know the implications of ecology, but the film of his life unequivocally declares that man’s participation is needed in the conservation of wildlife.

This is a true story of a man living in West Bengal, India, ostracized for protecting open billed storks and this story was originally published in ‘The Telegraph’.

Biplab Das

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