Alwara Taal in Uttar Pradesh’s Kaushambi district is in urgent need for official attention to save it from poaching activities and pollution

It first caught our attention on a Google Earth image as a markedly unusual geographical feature, located along a pronounced meander in the river Yamuna. Later, a reference to the road map of Uttar Pradesh confirmed that it is a major riparian wetland called the Alwara Taal in the district of Kaushambi, some 90 km west of Allahabad.

Impressed by its aquatic expanse, we assumed that it must be a notified bird sanctuary teeming with birds of all kinds. And we were not really disappointed with its bird life when we could find time on December 19 to visit and briefly survey it. More than 1,200 birds of 55 species, including 57 sarus cranes, could be counted during mid-day over a period of some four hours. A number of birds flying in formation and out of counting distance certified to the wetland’s richness.

But we were certainly disappointed by the fact that the wetland, despite its size, had not yet received the kind of official or non-official attention and patronage that it rightly deserves. This is all the more disconcerting in the light of a recent TEEB (The Economics and Ecosystems and Biodiversity) report which states that the world has lost almost half of its wetlands in the last 100 years.

Surrounded by around 10 villages and a rural ring road, the Alwara Taal — named after the bordering village of Alwara — is a natural but shallow depression lying within the meander of the river; it gets filled with rain water each monsoon. With a recorded spread of some 3,000 bighas (700 hectares) and a maximum depth of about five metres, its watery spread fluctuates with season, over the year. We were informed by the locals that the high floods in the Yamuna in 1978 had flooded the entire expense of the natural depression right up till the raised ring road.

As we tried to approach, in a small country boat, the ramshackle bamboo lookout located approximately at the centre of the wetland, we came across not only the wetland’s aquatic richness, but many alarming signs of its possible destruction, if requisite protective steps are not taken with a sense of urgency.

There were signs of rampant poaching of birds, coots in particular, and alarming spread of weeds like water hyacinth (besharam) and acacia (babool) plants. High input (chemical fertiliser and pesticides) farming on its fringe must be in form of run-off adding to the pollution load of the wetland.

But there were many signs of hope as well. We met a number of local people who were not only knowledgeable about the history and richness of the wetland but very keen to see it developed as a protected site for bird watching. Another encouraging fact is that the Alwara Taal lies in a suitable location from a tourist’s point of view with places like Chitrakut, Rajapur, Kaushambi and Allahabad falling in an easy circuit.

We believe that Alwara Taal is a good candidate for consideration and declaration as a Community Reserve (CR) under the amended Wildlife (Protection) Act. But the process of its designation as a protected area must be fully participatory and transparent and based on good science. For example, many birds which are sighted here are because there is a vibrant farming of crops like gram in place on its periphery that provides them their requisite feed. Thus, while traditional farming and fishing practices by local people may not be halted as a result of its declaration as a protected area, they must be encouraged to keep away from intensive and chemical based agriculture and exploitative fishery practices.

But above everything, we believe that the Alwara Taal needs a person or a group to first appreciate its richness as well as its fragility and then to champion its cause with a missionary zeal. After all how many water bodies in central India can claim to host such a large number of sarus cranes, the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, at one place. And with the universities at Allahabad and Kanpur being not far away, it is our hope that a Salim Ali for Alwara should not be too difficult to find.

(The writer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)