Point Calimere wildlife sanctuary is a medium sized patch of forest comprising of the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest type of South India, Mangroves and the mudflats. These forests are quite unique in very many ways. The evergreen forests will come as a surprise to anyone who does not know of such forests and are familiar with the hot, arid landscape of the Coramandel coast.
|The Tropical Dry Evergreen forest|
Kodikkarai or Cape Calimere as it is also called, is located in a unique position in the Bay of Bengal and forms a part of the Kaveri river delta. It is, by sea, very close to the Palk Strait and beyond to Sri Lanka. Thus a myth that Lord Rama stood there before fighting with Ravana.
The forest is home to some unique species, most of which are in danger of losing their foothold or are found in small patches separated by the vast sea of humanity. They include the Black buck found nowhere else but in India this once common antelope was associated with the Asiatic cheetah and open grassland plains once aplenty on the Deccan plateau. In spite of their only true predator the cheetah being wiped out from the phase of the earth, the black buck populations have shrunk to small patches spread over the Deccan largely due to human pressures.
|The open plains|
The last remaining patches of grasslands are facing a major challenge. Due to the ever increasing human population on the outside, increasing degradation of forest from the inside and due to ill thought out management plans of planting trees in grasslands and making them woodlands. I would say that about close to 80% of the original grasslands are now gone but none the less, ambitious plans are afoot to re-introduce cheetah in the wild areas of northern India.
Point Calimere is also famous to the mind boggling number of birds it used to attract, I say used to because, off late, the number of birds which once used to cover the wintering grounds like the vast plains, mudflats and slat pans have more than just reduced. The reasons range from a salt manufacturing industry altering the habitat and to un-controlled shrimp farming coupled with irresponsible use of pesticides like the DDT and Endosulphan in agriculture fields. The birds which do come find their origins as far as Siberia and the distant Northern European countries and include some of the rarest birds.
|Flock of terns|
One must, however visit the place to get the sheer magnitude of the birds that flock there and before that, must see the wonderful award winning documentary by the renowned wildlife film maker Shekar Dattatri titled “Point Calimere - Little Kingdom by the Coast”
|Sand dune ecosystem|
The people who live at Kodikkarai are some of the most nature dependent people, in the sense that most of their economy, being a coastal town comes in the form of fishes. Their lives are almost entirely dependent on the sea and many claim that the Tsunami has had a harsh negative effect on their livelihood.
Dr S. Balachandran, Assistant Director of The Bombay Natural History Society, has spent more than a decade studying birds in Pt Calimere. He is one of the most down to earth persons I have ever met. He has made many contributions in terms of scientific publications, training enthusiasts in Bird banding, inculcating the passion for birds in children. His long term and unstinting work with all the sections of the society has now led to the establishment of the BNHS Bird migration Study Centre which he currently manages.
Being a bird watcher myself, Point Calimere was on my “to do list” for quite some time. In fact, it was the first thing I wanted to do when I migrated to Pondicherry for a master’s degree. So when Dr Priya Davidar, announced that as part of her Conservation Biology Course we need to go on a field trip and asked for suggestions, I could not but help in bringing up Pt Calimere. So the deal was fixed and I was to take the responsibility and co ordinate the trip, something which I had only done in a small scale during the past. None the less took it up.
With almost a month to prepare, announcements made and Indemnity bonds getting signed we were finally good to go. Dr Bala, more than happily helped in making the trip happen and even planned out an itinerary for us which included the most exciting part- Bird banding! As part of the course, we had some studies to do ourselves and it would keep us busy for quite some time during the trip. Our main intention was to assess the dependency of the locals on biodiversity for their livelihood. This did not including the indirect benefits that we all get like pollination or rainfall etc, which are dubbed as ecosystem services. Before we set off to the place, we had to make questionnaires to suit specific respondent groups like fishermen, fish market, households etc and this was made easy by Dr Priya by making us into groups with one leader who knows the local language.
The trip happened and we all were at the Pondicherry bus stand at 5 am sharp to catch hold of the first bus going to Nagapattinam. With 2 heads which woke up late missing, we reached Nagapattinam after a normal, un-eventful trip. We were able to grab something to eat and were good to go for the second leg of the journey to Vedaraniyam. This trip was pretty bad as it was a local bus and stopped at every village! He took a good 3 hours or so to cover 60 km! Vedaraniyam reached and the third leg of the trip began! We had to take yet another bus to reach Kodikkarai.
This we did and the journey was quite superfast, just that some of us went partially deaf due the loud music being played in the bus! Dr Bala was there waiting for us and we were all allocated to rooms in the station itself and some were sent to the forest department rest house. Hot yummy food greeted us at BNHS field station and almost immediately, we hired vans to go into the sanctuary. The trip was a long bumpy one, and we got to see our share of Black bucks, waders, and a White bellied sea eagle with a half eaten sea snake. The feral horses were quite common too. They are the main culprits to the spreading of the Prosopis weed which has taken over much of the area. Unfortunately, the horses have not been allowed to be euthanized due to some opposition by animal rights activists. The bus ride was quite fun and some of us climbed on top of the van to get a better view.
We saw a lone jackal and a couple of cattle on the trip. The blackbuck fawn were joyously playing around and on seeing the jeep would jump up almost up to 3-4m and with the cool sea breeze blowing and the sun glowing behind our backs, it was quite an out of the world experience.
This was followed by Dr Bala showing how the birds are ringed and the prize of the day was a Red winged crested cuckoo, a very rare bird of which nothing much is known.
|Dr Balachandran with the Red Winged Crested Cuckoo|
The next day, he took us to watch birds along the water bodies and mud-fats, giving some of us good opportunity to shoot birds. Most of us later got busy with carrying out our projects of social surveys and the process was quite interesting. The results of which were discussed that night and some suggestions were incorporated in the next day’s survey.
|Lesser sand plover, Curlew sandpipers at the back|
The next day being our last one there, we had to do the social surveys to get a statistically significant sample size and were engrossed in that while Dr Bala was demonstrating bird ringing process to some enthusiasts from all over India. Laura, an intern with Bala had managed to capture close to 50 waders using a “clap trap”. A process where a dummy bird is placed and the other flying wades get fooled and settle on the trap, which can be tripped by tugging a long cable 20m away. The birds get stuck in the net and are extracted, measured, and ringed. After seeing the ringing of almost 40 birds, I finally took the courage to handle one bird and get over the uncomfortable feeling of touching birds. The Lesser sand plover was indeed nice to touch and not as I had imagined and shunned away from all these years.
That evening, we all decided to go on a boat trip, some of them did not come and some came due to the fear of Dr Priya who had generously bestowed her wrath on some of them for being in bed even at 10 am on a field trip. Dr Priya was a true inspiration for me there. More than double my age, she kept pace and was encouraging and adventurous! The two most essential aspects which are, I would say ,almost entirely missing from this generation of youngsters.
Like a cowboy herding cattle, the reluctant people had to be made to move just after a good meal and at the time for an afternoon siesta. We reached the beach and hired a fishing boat. After about a kilometer into the sea, the boat started to rock violently. Many of them on the boat were on a boat for the first time and their fear is not something that can be laughed off. After a point it became so rough that there was no point taking the risk. So we decided to head back and walk our way back along the beach.
Dr Bala took us to a mudflat where we saw the “Bar tailed godwit” the bird only recently known to fly the longest distance non-stop flight. I was rather aghast by the fact that some of the students did not realize the magnitude of this and kept blabbering and instead losing out on what might be once in a life time opportunity to see the bird!
|The rare Bar Tailed Godwit|
The walk in the muck was a pleasant one with the molluscans pricking the feet and squelchy mud going in as soon as we set foot on it.
The day came to an end when we all took to the sea and had some bit of gamboling in the warm extremely salty waters! It was indeed refreshing after a long days work. A large portion of the night was spent in settling accounts and managing the money as we had to leave the next day, quite early in the morning at that.
The next day came and I at-least did not want to go back! But I had no choice, so we headed to Vedaraniyam on a van with couple of guys sitting on top with all luggages to catch the bus which we had managed to book in advance, a non-stop bus in which we could get down right in front of our university!
The bus came many parted their ways in the bus stand to grab some good food while some of us went on to the university directly and crashed to get what was a well deserved sleep after three days of slogging in the hot sun baked paradise, truly a “Kingdom by the Coast”.