It was a hot morning in April as we rode towards Koonthankulam, the bird sanctuary near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. We saw painted storks collecting materials for nesting and some feeding their chicks perched on top of the stunted shrubs of Prosopis juliflora (vilayati babul or seemai karuvelam in Tamil) that fringe Koonthankulam village. As we moved into the village, we could see the birds higher up, nesting on neem, marutham, puli, and banyan trees right next to the houses. Before entering the sanctuary, we stopped at a corner shop to have tea.
The conversation over tea with local people obviously centred on birds and the sanctuary. While underlining the importance of birds in their lives, they expressed disappointment over the amenities promised by the state but not delivered in spite of Koonthankulam’s status as a sanctuary (since 1994) and tourist destination. Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, spread over 129.33 ha, became a Ramsar site in 2021. This year, to celebrate India’s 75th year of Independence, 11 more wetlands (four of them in Tamil Nadu) were added to the list of Ramsar sites to take the tally to 75. Taken together, they cover an area of 13,26,677 ha.
In October 1982, India signed the Ramsar Convention for the conservation of wetlands and designated Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan and Chilika Lake in Odisha as Ramsar sites. The number has gone up exponentially over the last 40 years. But what has changed for the sites in terms of conservation after they got the label?
Unfortunately, most of the Ramsar sites are in no better condition than before. The reasons could be region-specific but the fact remains that in India, wetlands continue to be viewed in isolation, without a proper plan or regulatory framework in place to conserve them. And this in spite of India being a signatory not only to the Ramsar Convention but also to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Convention of Biological Diversity. Often, when Ramsar sites are also designated Protected Areas (PAs), management plans associated with PAs are given precedence, which does not go well with the mandate of Ramsar sites or the Wetlands (Conservation and Management Rules), 2017. We can observe all these forces at play in the case of Koonthankulam.
Koonthankulam is mentioned as early as in 1906 in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society by C.E. Rhenius, who was based in Tuticorin. But the place was associated with birds even before that, as Magalraj Johnson, former IFS officer from Tirunelveli, writes in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers. He says that Koonthankulam was dominated by “Telugu-talking vegetarian Pannaiyars, who are said to have migrated from Andhra some 300 years back during a famine. They had been, all along, anxious caretakers and cautious custodians of the breeding birds and had prevented other meat-eating communities from molesting nests and nestlings. Anyone found to have harmed or killed a fledgling was taken in procession around the village, with the dead bird tied around his neck. Such punishments effectively provided protection.”
The birds felt so protected in this village of over 950 families that they used to make their nests on the roofs of houses. This is getting rarer now as the general attitude of the villagers has changed, largely due to the new rules imposed by the government that tend to keep the people at one remove from the birds and wetlands. The Pannaiyars have also started leaving the village. Now the birds seem to feel more secure on trees, even if they are the short Prosopis.
Koonthankulam has been a bird sanctuary since 1994. The sanctuary has two irrigation tanks, the Koonthankulam tank (71.02 ha) and the Kadankulam tank (58.31.0 ha). At least 100 species of birds closely connected with water can be seen in the sanctuary itself and more than 250 species can be found if we take Koonthankulam to mean the surrounding grasslands as well. The Koonthankulam tank has centuries-old colonies of the globally threatened spot-billed pelican. In the early 1990s, about 1,000 spot-billed pelicans were recorded, and last year, about 676 nests were reported by a local bird-watcher, Balpandi. Painted storks also breed in large numbers on the village trees, sometimes on trees inside the tanks. Nest mounds of greater flamingos have been spotted though breeding has not been confirmed.
Birds are supposed to have started nesting inside the wetland only after Acacia nilotica (gum Arabic) trees were planted in the shallow areas of the Koonthankulam tank by the Tirunelveli Social Forestry Division of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in 1980. As the birds shifted, availability of water became a critical issue. The tank gets water from the Manimuthar river located almost 50 km away through an 80-foot-wide canal. Drought can severely affect breeding. It happened in the past and more recently in 2016 when both the south-west and north-east monsoons failed, and the canal dried up.
Changing cultivation patterns have added to the problem. While the area has always had paddy cultivation, rainfed long-duration varieties were cultivated in the past as opposed to the hybrid varieties that are planted now. The latter consume more water as they come up more quickly, enabling the harvest of two crops in a short period.
The silt from the tank bed, enriched with bird guano, has been traditionally used by local people for their horticultural needs. According to the villagers, this is no longer permitted. Water dries up completely in the sanctuary’s wetlands at least once a year even during normal monsoons. Removal of silt helps hold water during periods of water shortage, enabling fish to survive and so benefiting the birds. Allowing it also generates goodwill in the community. This can be a win-win situation for both farmers and the forest department.
The supervision of several Ramsar sites in India leaves much to be desired—boundaries have not been delineated on the ground, systems to monitor ecological character and management effectiveness are ad hoc, and financing is made on a project-to-project basis. Of the existing Ramsar sites, a majority are designated PAs too. Which means that the management of these sites is largely governed by the needs of the species present there and their habitats, leaving no room for augmenting prevailing systems by taking into account the local hydrology and the ecological character of the landscape.
For instance, a freak storm in 2019 uprooted several trees in Koonthankulam, killing almost 65 painted storks. This had never happened before. As such freak changes in weather pattern become regular, rules will have to be modified. One way out is to build a network of tanks with suitable nesting sites for the birds to choose from. Boundaries of Ramsar sites can be demarcated keeping the ecological landscape in view. This is especially important for far-ranging birds, who choose their roosting and nesting sites depending on the resources available from the land and the security they provide.
Kazhuvur near Koonthankulam is also a good nesting site for pelicans, but the colonies are often disturbed there, deterring the birds. So, adding wetlands from outside the PA network is essential: it also amounts to a judicious application of the “wise use” approach mentioned in the 2017 wetland rules. In the case of Koonthankulam, bringing the much-neglected surrounding grasslands that are home to several migratory and resident species under the ambit of the sanctuary will help protect them.
Ever since Koonthankulam was declared a PA, more species have started nesting in the area surrounding the tank. Will the Ramsar tag bring more advantages? For the community involved, it might amount to just another layer of restrictions unless they are properly informed. Since the birds have lived in close proximity to the human settlement for generations, the people cannot be left out of efforts to conserve them. What is needed here, as in most Ramsar sites in India, is community-based conservation that accommodates the needs of the coexisting birds/animals and human communities.
Since the Ramsar label tends to bring in more tourists, a proper tourism infrastructure has to be in place. Several old houses in the area could be converted to homestays with appropriate consent; local cuisine, art forms can be integrated into the plan so that tourists get a variety of experiences and villagers benefit from the income.
In this, the authorities can enlist the help of local people like Balpandi, who has nursed many injured birds back to health and is a source of knowledge about the place. A network of such individuals can be created for all Ramsar sites.
In 2021, the District Collector of Tirunelveli, Vishnu Venugopal, started Nellai Neervalam, a community engagement and management programme for water security and ecological conservation. It consists of an extensive network of volunteers from the district and brings together departments of the government that otherwise do not talk to each other. There might be a lesson in this for the countrywide Ramsar network.
While the Ramsar tag gives wetlands international recognition, the Ramsar secretariat does not provide extra funding. The tag means the management of the designated site has to meet international standards by leveraging funds from State budgets. Ramsar sites need systematic and continuous monitoring to retain the status, which can be taken away too if they fall short of standards. Thus more important than the initial conferring of the label is the maintenance of a site’s ecological integrity: this requires constant thinking, innovation, and tailor-made plans, which are in short supply at the existing sites.
T. Ganesh is a senior fellow and teacher at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) .M. Mathivanan is a senior research associate and coordinator at ATREE’s Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre, Manimutharu, Tirunelveli district.
- Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, spread over 129.33 ha, became a Ramsar site in 2021.
- This year, to celebrate India’s 75th year of Independence, 11 more wetlands (four of them in Tamil Nadu) were added to the list of Ramsar sites to take the tally to 75.
- Most of the Ramsar sites are in no better condition than before, when they didn’t possess the tag.
- In India, wetlands continue to be viewed in isolation, without a proper plan or regulatory framework in place to conserve them.
- The supervision of several Ramsar sites in India leaves much to be desired—boundaries have not been delineated on the ground, systems to monitor ecological character and management effectiveness are ad hoc, and financing is made on a project-to-project basis.
- In case of Koonthankulam, what is needed is community-based conservation that accommodates the needs of the coexisting birds/animals and human communities. This holds true for most other Ramsar sites.