A people's initiative has begun in earnest with the objective of carving out a bird sanctuary along with the process of eco-restoration of one of the biggest water spreads in Salem city.

Mookaneri, in the heart of Salem, is being cleaned up and desilted using donations from public to improve the groundwater table. Nearly 50 islands are being created for planting 25,000 saplings, which, when fully grown, will provide nesting ground for birds, both migratory and resident.

The lowest rainfall recorded last year in over 100 years and rising temperatures sounded warning bells among the members of the Salem Citizens Forum, a non-profit organisation. To facilitate eco-restoration and creation of bird sanctuary, the Public Works Department handed over Mookaneri and Ismail Khan tank to the forum for maintenance.

As the tank has gone dry after many years, the forum has utilised the opportunity to desilt the water body and create 25 mounds where saplings are being planted. As rapid urbanisation and resultant reckless tree felling had eroded the green space of the city, the forum used the silted soil to create islands measuring 500 sq. m each.

“The lake has not been desilted for 60 years,” says S. Saravanan, a member of INTACH, Thanjavur Chapter, in-charge of Salem. With Ficus species of trees at the core, the islands will have trees like barringtonia to provide safe nesting for the birds and bamboo thickets at the edges to prevent soil erosion. The forum has spent about Rs.4 lakh till now purely from donations, mostly by individuals, as there is no financial support from the government, he says.

The forum has formed a finance committee, comprising five professionals, representing education, health, government, business and agriculture. “After viewing the progress at the site, people are forthcoming with donations. The donors can verify vouchers and accounts any time of the day,” says Piyush Sethia, a green activist involved in the project.

There are plans to turn the refurbished tank with its islands for birds as a nature school by organising eco-camps for school and college students. “A walker's path will be connecting a string of islands by ropeway to take the children on tour to explain the need to have clean water and air and how community could make a difference,” says Meena Sethu, correspondent, Golden Gates School.

“With six lakes, Salem used to be a heronry. I have taken photographs of the nesting of night herons, a shy bird, a decade ago. There are still a few nesting sites in the city,” says MS. Mayilvahnan, physician and wildlife photographer.