From The Elephant Whisperer to Bird Friends: A Testament to India's Enduring Passion for Wildlife Conservation

Greater Flamingos at Menar in Udaipur
Greater Flamingos at Menar in UdaipurPhoto courtesy: Sharad Kumar Vyas (the photographer is a senior judicial officer)

The 5-minute film featuring the Birds & their human Friends in a Rajasthan village, produced by Round Glass Sustain was the only Indian entry screened at the United Nations' World Wildlife Day event in Washington, DC.

Rajasthan— The esteemed Indian documentary "The Elephant Whisperer" recently won the prestigious Oscar award, and now, there is another delightful piece of news. A captivating short documentary titled "Wings of Hope: A Bustling Village and the Bird Friends" shedding light on the compassionate villagers of Menar in Udaipur (Rajasthan) has gained international appreciation for the participatory efforts of the locals in preserving avian fauna. Menar is an Important Bird Area and renowned for its rich avian biodiversity. The talented documentary filmmaker Gunjan Menon has beautifully captured the picturesque scenery of Menar and the activities of the birds in the water bodies.

'Wings of Hope: A Bustling Village and the Bird Friends' is a unique tale of a Rajasthan Village
'Wings of Hope: A Bustling Village and the Bird Friends' is a unique tale of a Rajasthan Village

This five-minute film was showcased at the United Nations film screening in Washington DC on World Wildlife Day, March 3, where it was the only entry from India, selected from among 200 entries from 77 countries. The film festival's theme was Partnership & Wild Life Conservation. The movie has been released in Rajasthani, Hindi, and English languages across various social media platforms.

A Unique Tale of Love & Hope

The movie encapsulates the heartwarming tale of how the alien creatures, i.e., birds, co-exist harmoniously with the human residents of Menar. The villagers are fondly referred to as "Pakshi Mitra," meaning 'Friends of Birds', and it has been their age-old tradition to protect birds in the area. They have prohibited fishing and hunting completely in the area and do not use the water from the water bodies for irrigation, which helps maintain the water level in the ponds throughout the year. By avoiding fishing, the villages have ensured that the thousands of migratory and resident birds residing and nesting in the water bodies near the area have enough to eat and do not have to fly to far off places in search of food.

The villagers have been trained by the forest department to comprehend bird behavior and observe them carefully. The volunteers here, conduct night patrols to save the birds from poaching. The film is a moving narration of how the villagers' compassion has helped in the protection of the birds.

This is the only entry from India to be screened at the UN event on March 3.
This is the only entry from India to be screened at the UN event on March 3.

Umesh Menaria, a wild life enthusiast who features in the documentary told The Mooknayak that the entire village is thrilled after knowing about the screening of the Menar movie at the UN event. "Our people take great pride in the role as protectors of these birds and have shown an incredible level of dedication towards their cause. This love and compassion of the villagers towards birds have been ingrained in our culture for centuries" he claims.

Darshan Menaria, a senior teacher says, "As kids, we used to dive and bathe in the ponds, but then all the birds appeared as 'black ducks' for us. As I grew up and started observing them, I started recognising them for their beaks, feathers and bodies. Then I knew, they were all not ducks, but shovelers, geese, flamingos, cranes. One day if I miss to watch their activities, I feel I have lost something significant in my life".

Greater Flamingos at Menar in Udaipur
Winged guests flocking in Rajasthan water bodies

Love for Birds Outweighs King's Sanction

The story of the villagers' love and compassion for birds is not new, and a foreigner traveller, John Tillotson, has even documented an incident that occurred during one of his visits to India which has been published in his book, "Picturesque Scenery in India" available with The British Library. In the book, Tillotson mentions an incident on 6th March 1832, when he and his caravan camped at Menar with the prior permission of the Rana, the ruler of the area. He narrates how he shot a bird, and in the aftermath, the villagers asked him to evacuate the place. They refused to provide any food to the English camp of 50 people. Despite showing the Maharana's sanction to stay as a guest, the villages refused to listen to the ruler and expressed their displeasure, making it clear that they were against hunting in the area. Finally the villagers melted and only agreed to offer food supplies when Tillotson and his crew agreed to leave Menar and moved 15 miles towards Mangalwad, the very next day.

United Villagers Filled Pond to Save Fishes

In June of 2018, the inhabitants of Menar, were filled with anxiety as the major Dhand talaab that was home to fishes began to dry up, leading to the unfortunate demise of these aquatic creatures. Fearing that the birds who depended on these fishes as a source of sustenance would be deprived of their vital nourishment and leave the village, the locals, who call themselves 'pakshi mitras', took it upon themselves to raise funds to purchase water tankers to replenish the pond and safeguard the fish.

Given their meagre financial means, this was no easy feat, but through the power of social media, word of their noble efforts spread far and wide, and nature enthusiasts from across the state came forward to offer their support.

Greater Flamingos at Menar in Udaipur
Menar: Deathtrap for the Winged Beauties?

The 'Pakshi Mitras' were motivated by their profound love for the birds, as Dharmendra Menariya, a village youth and leading proponent of the cause, attested, "If the fish die, the birds will have nothing to eat in winters and they will leave our village, which we cannot think of."

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the forest department, for the first time, embarked on a relocation mission by transferring some of the fish to a nearby pond with a comparatively higher water level. "We relocated the fish to the nearby Brahma Sagar pond. Carp weighing around 3 quintals were shifted," Rahul Bhatnagar, a retired IFS who had been the- then Chief Conservator of Forests, relived the memories with The Mooknayak.

Director Gunjan Menon with her crew at Menar in 2020
Director Gunjan Menon with her crew at Menar in 2020

About the Film Maker: Gunjan Menon

Gunjan Menon is a wild life film director , camerawoman and National Geographic explorer. She specialises in human-wildlife co-existence stories. She has won multiple accolades with 30+ awards and nominations across 15 countries so far. Her work has been seen on Animal Planet, Discovery, BBC Earth, along with other local Indian platforms. In her critically acclaimed and student BAFTA-nominated film, ‘The Firefox Guardian’, she captured the unique bond shared between a community in Nepal and wild red pandas. The film now travels to various film festivals, schools and colleges across the world and has successfully started a dialogue on ecofeminism and continues to raise funds for red panda conservation.

Mahaout couple Bomman & Bellie with Baby Elephants Raghu & Ammu
Mahaout couple Bomman & Bellie with Baby Elephants Raghu & Ammu

The Elephant Whisperer & India's First Oscar

India emerged victorious at the 95th Academy Awards, clinching its first-ever Oscar accolade for the Netflix production, "The Elephant Whisperer," helmed by the accomplished Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga. This exceptional documentary featuring a rescue camp for elephants in Tamil Nadu, with a runtime of 41 minutes, delves into the tenuous yet valuable bond between Raghu, a motherless baby elephant, and his caretakers, a mahout couple named Bomman and Bellie, who pledge their existence to safeguard the animal from poachers and rear him with utmost care. The narrative also chronicles the arrival of Ammu, a female baby elephant, under their care, and poignantly depicts the unconditional love shared between animals and humans. The movie marks the maiden directorial venture of the virtuoso Gonsalves, who had a thriving career as a wildlife and social documentary photographer, photojournalist, and cinematographer but chose to forsake her comfortable profession for this groundbreaking project.

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