Wildlife & Biodiversity

Is there a future for wetland birds of Sippighat?

Despite ecological disturbances such as high noise levels and presence of debris, wetlands birds are a sight to behold here

By Zoya Tyabji
Published: Wednesday 08 June 2016

 Before the 2004 tsunami, Sippighat was dominated by paddy fields. 
Credit:Sameer Ghodke

Sippighat, before the 2004 Tsunami was dominated by paddy fields. Photo: Sameer Ghodke

Mixed flocks of birds glide contently through the wetland waters of Sippighat, their feathers glinting in the sunlight. Some fluffing, basking under the warm sun; whereas others camouflage within the weeds, diligently foraging. On one side, a fisherman casts his net, hoping to take home some baitfish; while on the other side, a truck carelessly unloads gravel into the water, reclaiming more wetland. A fleet of cars pass by the road adjacent to the wetlands. Despite the surrounding disturbance, the birds here persist.

Troubled waters

Sippighat, situated four kilometres from Port Blair, the main city of Andamans, was different 12 years back from what it is today. Paddy fields, a few wetland pockets and a roadside village constituted the area. Around these villages, aromas wafted out as women cooked meals. Elders sat in their backyard, sipping hot tea whilst keeping an eye out on children running around. Dogs barked in a heated frenzy chasing poultry. Paddy field farmers worked in harmony with birds gliding in nearby wetland pockets.

The scene changed on the morning of December 26, 2004 when the tsunami hit the islands. According to its residents, many houses were destroyed and paddy fields were inundated. Post- tsunami, the authorities assessed the damage and provided shelter and land compensation to the people affected. Over the years, residents moved on with their new way of life, inundated paddy fields transformed into wetlands and benthic fauna and flora slithered over the thin layer of soil, adding humus whilst indirectly attracting a variety of water birds.

However, in the last three to four years, the tide has turned, so to speak. Due to a boom in development of the islands and an increase in tourism, the residents of Sippighat have realised the value of their lost land. The ecosystem has stabilized and amidst the cacophony of birds, land reclamation activities are underway. Eight sites are lost to land reclamation, and every so often, more sites are reclaimed. There is trash littered all over, debris from construction sites lines the borders of the wetland pockets. Eutrophication stems here, slowly seeping off the oxygen used by the life forms of this aquatic habitat. Being adjacent tothe road, the noise levels are high.

Despite these ongoing disturbances, the birds here persevere. A recent bird count established the presence of 24 species. The most abundant water birds are the Common Moorhen and the Lesser Whistling Ducks. The Cotton Pygmy Goose frolics with them. Purple Moorhens and Swamp Hens are seen around the edge. Amongst other commonly sighted birds are variety of shore birds—the Wagtails, Plovers, Snipers, Common and Wood Sandpipers,Yellow and Chinese Bitterns, and Kingfishers and Egrets. The White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon soar and hover in the sky.The celebrity birds found here are the Andaman teal and the Andaman Serpent Eagle—bird species that are endemic to the Andaman Islands.

After the tsunami, Sippighat is dominated by wetlands birds 
Credit:Vardhan Patankar

Sippighat after the tsunami is dominated by wetlands inhabited by a mix flock of birds. Photo: Vardhan Patankar

Research in other areas has determined the impacts of habitat degradation on birds. Birds are known to tolerate some level of disturbance, but once it reaches a threshold, they can go through physiological and morphological adaptation that may lead to a fatal loss in population. Considering the high biodiversity of birds in the wetlands of Sippighat, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of land reclamation on them.

Many of the wetlands stand on revenue and private land holdings. According to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, any construction needs clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Interestingly, when the Government provided compensatory land, the residents willingly accepted the offer of alternate land. However, now the residents are returning to reclaim their lost land.

Finding balance

What we need is a win-win-situation, where residents benefit and the birds live in harmony. In areas where the value of wetlands is recognised, as a water filtration and or as a protector against floods and storms that are so prevalent in the islands; physical buffers are set to minimize edge effects and to mitigate water quality impacts. Walking lanes and birding viewpoints are built for tourists. Locals are encouraged to serve in the tourism industry. Such activities should be encouraged even in Sippighat. This will help the residents generate sustainable revenue without losing the wetland beauty to the concrete jungle.

 Posters of wetland birds put up by the forest department in Sippighat 
Credit: Zoya Tyabji

Posters of Wetland Birds put up by the Forest Department line the road of Sippighat. Photo: Zoya Tyabji

The reclamation of this wetland could sound a death knell for the birds of Sippighat. It is not too late yet, as the danger can be averted. Habitat encroachment may change the landscape from one of a scenic to a grey concrete one. The good news is that theForest Department (FD) has issued a notice to put on hold the reclamation of land. Though the residents do not have particular liking towards birds, they do not hunt birds either. The FD has put-up three large posters to showcase the biodiversity of the area. Conserving Sippighat would require political leaders to act in favor of the environment and its residents; and the FD to abide by their publicized responsibility of environment protection. Ecologically sound practices, underpinning legal frameworks, and finally implementation of the law from the government authorities are essential. Otherwise, the birds, when they live the next year or the year after, might as well be swimming into a drastically altered, even devastated reality.

Let’s leave some space for a flight of birds.

The blog's co-author is Vardhan Patankar.

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