Ganjam, Odisha: All through 2012, Sagar Patro would hit the village roads around his Gunthabandha village in coastal Ganjam district, Odisha, on his motorbike, reliving his childhood days. With neighbour Bijendra Majhi riding pillion, Patro would leave at dawn and travel several kilometres a day to villages in nearby blocks, searching for house sparrows.

"Have you seen a gharachatei [house sparrow] here?" Patro would ask the villagers he encountered. Many were baffled by the query and most were dismissive of his quest, but Patro was undeterred, he told IndiaSpend. Soon enough, he and Majhi managed to spot at least five sparrows each in the villages of Baghajhari and Biribadi.

House sparrows are in the category of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List, which classifies species according to their risk of extinction. But their presence had diminished enough in some parts of India by 2012 to prompt actions by people hundreds of kilometres apart. That year, former Delhi chief minister, the late Sheila Dikshit noted the dwindling numbers of sparrows in the nation's capital, declared the species Delhi's state bird and launched a sparrow conservation programme.

When Patro in faraway Ganjam read news reports of the Delhi project at the time, it dawned on him that he had not spotted any house sparrows, ubiquitous in his village when he was growing up, for a long while. The sparrows had begun to disappear as the thatched houses in his village were replaced by pucca ones, he realised. Patro, then 28, decided that he too would start a conservation initiative for sparrows in his district, which had a rich legacy of community conservation of local species.

Patro was already engaged in social work, such as organising blood donation camps and plantation drives, through the non-governmental organisation Anchalika Vikas Parishad (literally, 'Regional Development Committee') he had founded in Gunthabandha. In 2012, he shifted its focus from social work to conservation, starting off with his search for sparrows in Ganjam's villages.

A decade later, Patro's efforts at conserving the sparrow population, now supplemented by several colleagues and volunteers, are yielding results. Once disappearing from rural Ganjam, house sparrows have made a comeback in these villages.

In another instance of local community conservation efforts in Ganjam district, close to 70 villages are engaged in protecting blackbucks, a type of antelope also listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, local activists told us.

Odisha has witnessed several such instances of local communities, particularly women, stepping up to protect biodiversity. Kalpavriksha, a non-profit working on environmental and social issues across India, is a partner in an effort that has documented at least 236 community conservation areas in India, of which at least 32 are in Odisha. Several such community-based conservation efforts have struggled for want of official support, according to Kalpavriksha.

In Ganjam too, activists and village volunteers told IndiaSpend that despite working to conserve sparrows for a decade now, they receive little or no help from the state government, and continue to use their own resources. State forest department officials told us that many community conservation initiatives in the state are voluntary in nature and that government support is provided to such initiatives in specific situations, per rules.

Setting up 'sparrow houses'

In 2012, Patro used design references he researched on the internet to get small mud nests made by a local potter, then convinced a few households in Baghajhari and Biribadi villages to hang the nests at the entrance of their homes. He also supplied them with rice and wheat grains to feed the birds. Soon, the sparrows left their usual perches on house railings and started using the nests, Patro told IndiaSpend. Within just a few months, the number of sparrows in the villages doubled, and Patro's group, which had also expanded, began replicating the initiative in other villages.

An estimate has revealed the sparrow population in the rural areas of Ganjam has increased after community conservation efforts. Pictured, sparrows in Purunabandha village, Ganjam, June 19, 2022

The mud nests were later replaced by more durable wooden structures, said Patro. A feeder unit made out of plastic bottles along with a water pan were added to the 'sparrow house' kit given to villagers. Special attention was also given to the placement of the kit.

"The sparrow house would be placed slightly away from the main road to avoid any disturbance. It had to be hung at a height of approximately seven metres to avoid stray cats and dogs from hunting them. Keeping a minimum distance between two nests was also important, as sparrows may sometimes become aggressive while defending their nests," said Patro.

Just like in Delhi, the number of sparrows has grown manifold in most villages, said Patro. Patro's group, which by now has 20 core members and over 50 volunteers, conduct the sparrow 'census' themselves, based on approximation.

"To estimate the numbers in a place, we place food outside and calculate the number of sparrows that flock to it," Sanjay Kumar, who is in charge of the project in Anantei village, which neighbours Gunthabandha in Kukudakhandi block, told IndiaSpend. "In 2019, only two sparrows were regularly spotted in my village. Now, one can spot close to 100 sparrows," said Kumar. There are no official data available as yet on the numbers of sparrows in Ganjam.

Extending Ganjam's conservation legacy

Patro's conservation efforts are not unique in Ganjam district. Over two decades ago, villagers of coastal Purunabandha village, 30 km from Gunthabandha near the Rushikulya river mouth, had begun protecting the endangered Olive Ridley turtles, local activists told IndiaSpend. Purunabandha is one of three mass nesting sites for Olive Ridley turtles in Odisha. The turtles are listed as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List, i.e. they are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

The turtles flock to the Rushikulya river mouth area annually, between February and March, to nest. In 1994, local resident Rabindranath Sahu was walking on the beach with two visiting scientists, who told him about the importance of the turtles globally, and explained why their conservation was important. The conversation changed Sahu's mindset, he told IndiaSpend. Aware that villagers would collect turtle eggs for their own consumption, or to sell in the market, Sahu along with a few other villagers would keep vigil overnight when the turtles arrived, and stop villagers from taking the eggs away. The villagers' initiative, later taken over by the state forest department, is considered one of the world's most successful examples of community conservation. In 2022, a record 550,000 Olive Ridley turtles reportedly flocked to the Rushikulya rookery.

Community conservation efforts in Ganjam were often met with stern resistance by the villagers in the initial stages, said Patro. He banked on mythological connections with sparrows to make the need for their preservation resonate with other villagers. Several birds are sacred to Hinduism and Buddhism. Turtles too are believed to be an incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu, and the part-human, part-eagle Garuda his mount. Ancient Indian literature such as the Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables dating back several millennia, has several references to and tales of sparrows and other birds.

"The mythological connections made it easier for people to understand the need for conservation, as when you worship someone, you will not harm them. Instead, you will look for ways to protect them," said Sahu. He too had used such references to convince his fellow villagers to help conserve the turtles in the 1990s.

Hatchlings of Olive Ridley turtles return to the sea in Rushikulya in Odisha, 2013

Blackbucks too are considered sacred by several communities across India. The species are believed to be harbingers of good luck in Ganjam, Amulya Upadhyay in Betnoi village in the north of the district, one of around 70 villages here that are engaged in the conservation of blackbucks, told IndiaSpend.

Upadhyay, who is president of the Blackbuck Conservation Society, an NGO based in Betnoi, said his forefathers were witness to a time when a long drought spell in the Ganjam region was broken after blackbucks were sighted in the area. He said that thanks to this legendary story, passed down through the generations, locals don't kill blackbucks even if they enter their fields. The villagers have grown grass for the bovines' feed on their own farmlands and constructed ponds to ensure a drinking water supply for them, he added.

Challenges of community-based initiatives

Though the community's conservation efforts in Ganjam have reaped results, they are beset with limitations. Inadequate support for livelihoods coupled with a lack of funding have become major challenges, said Patro. He alleges that there is little or no help from government officials, forcing him to sometimes utilise money from his family business for the sparrow conservation initiative.

Despite many community conservation areas in India pre-dating state conservation efforts in their areas, they do not receive adequate legal, political, financial or technical support or recognition from the respective governments, Kalpavriksha had noted. A 2018 study based in Southern Africa which tracked some of the reasons behind the limited success of local conservation efforts, cited inability to sustain livelihoods as a major factor.

When we asked Amlan Nayak, Divisional Forest Officer, Berhampur Forest Division, Ganjam district what the government was doing to support these community initiatives, and whether it was providing monetary support to villagers actively involved in conservation, he told IndiaSpend that many of these were voluntary initiatives and that the government could provide support only to specific initiatives per rules and regulations.

"The locals are motivated to conserve biodiversity, setting an example for other communities," said Nayak. "Sahu and Patro are self-motivated individuals who have taken the lead. At the official level, we have several government initiatives in which we involve the locals in blackbuck and Olive Ridley conservation. They are paid according to the rules," said Nayak.

In Purunabandha too, the turtle conservation initiative was led by the community. The state forest department had little role to play till the early 2000s, villagers said. "Once our area started gaining prominence in the media, the government and the forest department chipped in," Magath Behera, village head of Purunabandha, told IndiaSpend. "They started engaging their own officials for the vigil and protection of the Olive Ridley turtles. There was a time when the entire village was engaged in the initiative, but now they only hire 10-20 youth (numbers depend on nesting) during the season. The conservation had started because of the efforts of the people, and we should be given due credit."

Sagar Patro initiated sparrow conservation efforts in Ganjan, Odisha, with his acquaintance Bijendra Majhi. These community-led efforts receive little government support, activists say.

Both Patro and Sahu have extended their conservation initiatives to all blocks in Ganjam district and also in neighbouring Gajapati district. The turtle protectors of Purunabandha village have also taken up sparrow conservation now. Plans are in the offing to introduce similar initiatives in the cities soon, said Behera.

"For the administration, conservation of species becomes a part of their duty. But for the people who have been engaging with these creatures for years now, there is a sentiment associated with them. The turtles and sparrows have become a part of our family. We don't think of it as our job. Instead, it is a matter of pride and honour for us that the species chose our village as their home," said Behera.

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