Even as the Forest Department reasserted on Saturday that it would ensure punishment for those responsible for the killing of dozens of cormorant nestlings at V.K. Padi near Tirurangadi in the district, environmentalists have called for further and sterner action by booking government officials involved in the highway expansion.
Dozens of cormorant nestlings and eggs were destroyed when a big tamarind tree was cut down as part of the National Highway 66 expansion at V.K. Padi on Friday. The visual footages of the gruesome death of the hatchlings had evoked an uproar and widespread condemnation.
Although Forest Minister A.K. Saseendran and Public Works Minister P.A. Mohamed Riyas expressed concern and demanded action against those responsible, environmentalists said here on Saturday that they could not absolve themselves of responsibility.
“Being heads of their respective departments, the Ministers have moral responsibility,” said Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society executive S. Guruvayurappan, and Paristhithi Aikya Vedi district chairman Boban Mattumantha.
Mr. Guruvayurappan and Mr. Mattumantha expressed concern that the brouhaha raised over the destruction of cormorant nestlings, nests, and eggs would die down soon, resulting in the people responsible walking away scot-free in due course of time. “We have had several such incidents before, and very few have been punished,” they said.
The Forest Department arrested three persons in connection with the destruction of the cormorant nestlings. They were the wood cutter, the driver of an earth mover, and the person who took contract for tree felling.
Nilambur North Divisional Forest Officer T. Aswin Kumar told The Hindu that they were looking for the supervisor of the contracting company involved. KNR Constructions Ltd. (KNRCL) is in charge of the expansion work. “The supervisor for that region is absconding. We are looking into the matter seriously. Once he is nabbed, we will be able to give more details,” said Mr. Aswin Kumar.
They were booked under Section 9 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act for hunting wild animals specified in Schedule IV. A court here on Saturday remanded them for 14 days in judicial custody.
Forest officials said they had recovered 23 dead nestlings from the site. But many other dead nestlings had been reportedly removed and buried elsewhere before the forest authorities reached the site. Forest officials said they were yet to find the person who buried the birds and the site of burial.
Mr. Mattumantha, meanwhile, demanded that the officials of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the State Public Works department too be made accountable for destroying the cormorant habitat. “It is not an accident. It is callous destruction of a habitat. Everyone knows that thousands of birds are nesting in such huge trees in the region,” said Mr. Mattumantha.
He also demanded that the police initiate action against the NHAI officials and the contracting company for destroying public property. Social forestry officials said that the tamarind tree that was felled had not been part of the 2,000-odd trees permitted to be felled. “Then it is a crime. It is destruction of public property, and the police should act,” he said.
Mr. Guruvayurappan said that the tree felling and the death of nestlings were caught in a political turmoil as the State government was trying to wash its hands of it by blaming the NHAI. “Both of them are responsible. At least this incident should open our eyes to the future, and any development should only be made by protecting the habitat of animals and birds,” he said.
The region is not far away from water bodies like the Kadalundipuzha and the Chaliyar. Kadalundi, one of the prime wintering destinations along the west coast of India for migrant birds from colder regions, is only a few miles away.
K.M. Aarif, an expert in shorebirds, said that thousands of little cormorants and large cormorants were nesting in colonies on large trees in the region. Dozens of bowl-shaped nests made of twigs and grasses were destroyed when the tamarind tree was felled. Local people said they had seen dozens of parent birds flying away as the canopy of the tree came down.
According to Dr. Aarif, cormorant chicks will take six to seven weeks to fly. Cormorants lay two to four eggs at a time, and the eggs are incubated by both male and female parents for about a month. Experts say that each parent feeds the chick once a day with regurgitated fish, and the chicks take this by pushing their heads down their parent’s gullet.
Dr. Aarif said that the cormorants, though not an endangered bird species, were functioning as solid ecological indicators.