Every winter, the thousands of wetlands that dot India transform from muddy slips of water to raucous bird parties. Ducks and geese from Ladakh and Tibet swim through aquatic vegetation, waders on stilt-like legs forage for grubs on squelchy, half-submerged banks, and sinuous Oriental darters spear the water for fish.
The two-week Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) that surveys sites across 25 countries in Asia and Australasia, including India, began last month.
While the data is still pouring in from this huge citizen science initiative, the census over the years has pointed to some clear trends. India has the biggest species diversity among the regions sampled by AWC. The survey tallied a mean figure of 1.8 million waterbirds over 300 sites in the country between 2008 and 2015.
Odisha’s lagoon, Chilika Lake, they found, supports a staggering half-a-million waterbirds. Many of the waterbirds that winter in India’s wetlands are of course migratory: like the bar-headed goose, which breeds in Mongolia, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan and crosses the Himalayas and Hindu Kush to reach India.
Decline in species
But the picture isn’t all rosy. There has been a notable decline in several species: the Oriental darter, better known as the snakebird for its long neck, which was once a common sight in many wetlands, numbered just 4,000 in the sites surveyed. The Indian skimmer, with a bright orange bill — the lower mandible longer than the upper one so it can ‘skim’ over water to snap up fish — were just 300. As for the sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird, often found in pairs or small groups near wetlands, only 100 birds were found in several years.
But wetlands, cherished equally by local residents, birdwatchers — and real estate developers — are in peril. The National Wetland Atlas, prepared by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2011, found that India has over 2,00,000 wetlands. But a vast majority had not been notified as wetlands thus running the risk of being destroyed.
The many cases being heard right now in courts across the country reflect the wetland’s precarious existence.
In Delhi-NCR, birdwatchers have filed a case to protect the Basai wetland, which is fed by sewage but continues to harbour almost 300 bird species. A similar case was recently filed to conserve Najafgarh jheel, a riverine wetland in Haryana. Kolkata’s iconic East Kolkata Wetlands, designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance, is being steadily eaten up by construction, and a case has been filed with the National Green Tribunal. This wetland, like many in and around cities, plays an important civic role: it acts like a giant sieve for the city’s sewage, thanks to the fish and aquatic vegetation.
What’s not a wetland
Committees are also examining the condition of Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, Deepor Beel in Guwahati, and the lakes in Nainital, all choked by sewage, garbage and encroachment. To make matters worse, the new legislation for wetlands, the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules 2017, unlike the Wetland Rules of 2010, implies that manmade waterbodies (such as tanks) and salt pans are not wetlands. In reality though, salt pans and tanks not only support birds both in coastal and peri-urban areas, they are also an essential part of the local cultural fabric.
“A simple assessment of (bird) count information indicates that several waterbird populations in the Central Asian flyway (comprising migratory routes) are declining. Urgent national and regional action is needed to reverse this trend,” says Taej Mundkur, Regional Coordinator of the AWC with Wetlands International.
While hundreds of wetlands in India are in need of identification and notification, at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals last year, the Central government offered to consult with other countries to operationalise the Central Asian Flyway Action Plan to Conserve Migratory Waterbirds and their Habitats.
The action plan hopes to reduce threats to waterfowl and conserve wetlands while also tackling threats such as power lines and windmills. This plan is now being created with civil society and other experts. “It should be recognised that better management of our productive wetlands for waterbirds also provides a wide range of benefits to people. So it is a win-win situation,” says Mundkur.
Yet, one thing is clear. While wetlands are clearly in legislative, administrative and physical peril, the citizens of India are standing up for them. The AWC, a simultaneous and widespread count over two continents, would not be possible without the active involvement of citizens. This effort — coming from nature lovers, forest departments, and networks like the Indian Bird Conservation Network — harnesses the spirit of volunteerism. And the observations of these intrepid citizen scientists, who count birds year after year, sometimes in places that are dismissed as nothing more than a sewage line, give hope to the world’s waterfowl that today must cross both geographical and metaphorical mountains.
All images: The Hindu.
This piece first appeared here.