Hunted for game and meat, poisoned by pesticides and deprived of their natural habitat, herons, once a common sight all over Kerala, have undergone a significant decline in numbers over the years.

In a drive aimed at restoring their numbers, the Kerala State Biodiversity Board is launching a state- wide heronry conservation programme with the involvement of local people. Named Kottilla Samrakshana Programme, the participatory project will be launched in 21 heronries in the Kuttanad region spanning the Kottayam and Alappuzha districts, with the support of the Kottayam Nature Society.

The individuals on whose property herons are found to nest in large numbers, will be given financial assistance to take up their conservation. According to a heronry census carried out by KSBB, the 21 heronries in Kuttanad were found to be home to nine water bird species including the Little Cormorant, Indian Pond Heron, Darter, India Shag, Large Cormorant, Large Egret, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret and Great Egret. The Little Cormorant, Pond Heron and Darter were the predominant species.

The Karuvatta heronry on the western side of the Thakazhi- Karuvatta railway line is the largest private heronry in Kerala, home to 50,000 herons. The Pandy island in Karthikapally taluk, Neelamperoor in Kuttanad taluk, Kavanattinkara in Kumarakam panchayat and Vechoor in Vaikom taluk are the other heronry groups included in the programme.

KSBB had initiated the heronry census in 2008 at Pandy. The local people were made aware of the need to conserve herons and protect them from hunters. According to KSBB chairman Dr.R.V.Varma, the Board had invited voluntary organisations and bird watchers to report on the heron population in all the districts. “However, we got reliable data only from Kottayam and Alappuzha districts through the Kottayam Nature Society”.

Mr.Varma said the 21 beneficiaries identified for the conservation programme would be given an incentive of Rs.1500 each for protecting the heronries. “The herons sometimes nest for months on trees before leaving for another location. The sound produced by the birds and their droppings are considered a menace, often forcing people to scare them away”, Mr.Varma said.

Nesting in large numbers, the herons are an easy target for gun- wielding youngsters looking for adventure and employees of toddy shops who make good money out of selling the meat. “By educating the local people, we hope to dissuade hunters from going after these birds. People could also be encouraged to collect the bird droppings and use them as bio fertilizer for various crops”, Mr.Varma said.

Minister for Tourism A.P.Anilkumar is scheduled to inaugurate the heronry conservation programme at a function to be held at the Ayaparambu Government Higher Secondary School, Haripad on August 12.

The incentive for the beneficiaries will be distributed at the function.