By Abinaya Kalyanasundaram
Winter visits to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary are a favourite memory for many Chennai dwellers; it being one of the handful of natural getaways just a few hours from the city. During school holidays, we would drive up at dawn, first past other vehicles on the highway, and then later, past expansive paddy fields, a sea of the lushest green. White egrets would dot the landscape, barely visible through the mist. Parking outside the entrance gate embossed with birds, we’d race up to the watchtowers, competing over the binoculars to see who could spot the most birds as they swooped in and out of the waters, islands and trees. We didn’t know their names then, only distinguishing them by their size, plumage colours and beak shapes.
This sanctuary sparked a curiosity about wildlife in me, and surely in the many others who’ve visited here decade after decade. Vedanthangal is one of the oldest bird sanctuaries in India, with documented records of its existence as early as 1798. A magnificent 30 ha. lake with small mud islands and a five-kilometre radius of land from the boundary of the lake comes under its core zone. Within this area, only agricultural activities are permitted. This wetland ecosystem is now threatened by commercialisation as the Tamil Nadu state government has cleared a proposal to reduce the five-kilometre radius core zone around the lake to three kilometre, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction of the sanctuary area.
The denotification of a significant proportion of core area could spell doom for the region’s fragile ecosystem, and the several thousand resident and migratory birds dependent on it. The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) is yet to give final clearance in the matter.
Painted Storks are among the 190 species of birds recorded in Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. Photo: Hermis Haridas.
Vedanthangal is a vast wetland ecosystem complex, fed by several small lakes and groundwater from the surrounding region. Thick groves of Barringtonia dot the main lake, their umbrella canopies a perfect shelter for nesting birds. Natives such as cormorants, darters, little egrets can be seen here throughout the year, while around 190 species of migratory birds fly down every winter. Often first to arrive are the Open-billed Storks, followed by Painted Storks, Purple Herons, Black-headed Ibis and more. Around 40,000 birds visit this wetland annually. A thriving avian population supports an entire ecosystem; fruit bats can be seen hanging from bamboo groves, and occasionally, one can spot snakes, wild boars and monitor lizards.
With every monsoon, the land around the lake acts as a vital water catchment zone, absorbing water into the ground which eventually drains into the lake. Opening up 40 per cent of this catchment zone to commercial activities such as construction will undoubtedly reduce the ground water-retention capacity and water flow. If groundwater-intensive industries are established here, they will further exacerbate water woes in the region, which is already perilous due to frequent droughts and monsoon failures.
Egrets forage for food -- frogs or insects -- in the agriculture fields surrounding the lake. Photo: Abinaya Kalyanasundaram.
Vedanthangal is a historic and long-standing example of community conservation; farming communities surrounding the sanctuary have protected it for centuries, knowing that an active bird population helps irrigate and fertilise their fields with guano-rich water. These villages abstain from all detrimental activities that may affect bird life, including a self-imposed ban on the use of firecrackers during Diwali.
Justifying the clearance, the Chief Wildlife Warden, in his letter to the NBWL, claims that the outer 3 km.-5km. area is ‘barren with no bird activity’. Environmentalists, however, say otherwise. “Vedanthangal is a large lake with several small water bodies and paddy fields around it. Birds use these lands for nesting and foraging. Moreover, this five-kilometre region is a very important water catchment area for the lake proper. If construction activities arise here, it will severely affect the hydrology of the lake,” says M. Yuvan, a writer and naturalist based in Chennai.
The decision to denotify the core zone appears to be in favour of ‘legalising’ a pharmaceutical plant owned by Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Limited that is currently illegally located a mere 3.72 km. from the lake, right inside the current core zone. Two other ‘red category’ industries -- AMCO Batteries and Ordain Pharmaceuticals -- are also located within the core zone; a gross violation of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).
News reports claimed that Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd. is looking to expand its existing plant inside the sanctuary area. The company later denied this with a statement on Twitter on June 8, 2020. Though the statement adds that they are ‘committed to the preservation of biodiversity in the sanctuary’, their track record of environmental and consumer violations is not encouraging. Local communities have been protesting the Sun Pharma factory since its inception in 2000; particularly after they began to dump toxic effluents into nearby smaller lakes, endangering the birds and the people who rely on these water sources for their livelihood.
“Two of the smaller water bodies into which they discharge untreated waste tend to overflow and leak into the main lake during monsoons. Community members living close to the factory informed us of groundwater contamination which has led to severe health issues, including skin diseases,” says M. Yuvan, who visited and spoke with members of these communities on June 9, 2020. “As it is summer, the water bodies are not full, and a concentrated chemical smell lingers in the air and in the very soil. It smells like being inside a chemistry lab,” he adds.
Once fertile agriculture fields close to the factory now lay fallow. Crops are failing, and trees dying due to water poisoning. This could also potentially be the cause of unexplained bird deaths in the region.
As the NBWL is yet to deliver final approval, an enthusiastic digital campaign is raging on social media. On June 7, a voracious Twitter storm had the hashtag #SaveVedanthangal trending in India, which prompted Sun Pharma to release a statement the next day (quoted above). Evocative artwork has also brought much public attention to the issue.
Artwork by: Arth Art for Humanity.
On June 10, 21 wildlife conservationists submitted a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister of India, the Minister of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, and the Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife) urging them to save Vedanthangal. They stated:
“If the government is really keen to help local people, it should strive to give local communities an active, decision-making role in the management of the Protected Area. The government should build support for long-term water, biodiversity and livelihood conservation centred around this unique landscape rather than encourage a few profit seeking industries to wipe it out of existence. The government’s move to shrink the sanctuary is against the principles of ecological protection and local development.”
Amongst the signatories to the letter are Padma Shri Awardee Romulus Whitaker, and several former members of the National Board for Wildlife and its Standing Committee including Bittu Sahgal, Prerna Singh Bindra and Kishor Rithe.
The sanctuary is one of the few Important Birding Areas near Chennai, and along with the Karikili Bird Sanctuary located 10 km. away, it holds a special place in many hearts.
“Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary has a deep personal connection for many, as it is a ‘playschool’ for bird watchers. It also serves as a refuge to 11 species evaluated as strongly declining in the recently published State of India's Birds report, and is the nesting ground of several near-threatened species such as the Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Spot-billed Pelican and Painted Stork,” says Vikas Madhav, a young birder and former Sanctuary Young Naturalist Award winner (2014).
Veteran birdwatcher and wildlife photographer Ramki Sreenivasan, of Conservation India, remembers his nascent bird watching days here as well. “Vedanthangal and the neighbouring wetlands were one of the initial places we ever went to watch birds! This was even before nature clubs existed. We had to change buses to get to the village. I have very fond memories of seeing thousands of birds along the bund. This [denotification of core zone] could prove disastrous to the resident (breeding) and the migrating population of birds in the heronry.”
Broods of Indian spot-billed ducks spotted in Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary. Photo: M. Yuvan.
Over the past few years, monsoons have arrived later and later, their clouds bringing lesser water. The number of birds too have dwindled, preferring to bypass this sanctuary that was their winter home. If the outer boundaries of the sanctuary are reduced, it is inevitable that this will only worsen.
It breaks my heart to think that the children of tomorrow may never experience the excitement of watching juvenile Grey Pelicans screeching for their mother’s attention, or tracking the sketchy movements of an Oriental Darter as it darts in and out of the waters, or, as the skies tint a deep pink-purple at dusk, as they do only in winters, witness the many silhouettes of ibises gliding in the horizon, their spectacularly wide wings flapping in rhythmic unison.