“Theirs is a new kind of friendship,” says Dhanushkodi fisherman C R Senthil Vel. The State secretary of Tamil Nadu AITUC Fishermen Trade Union, he is talking about the friendship between the greater flamingoes that visit the brackish waters of Dhanushkodi and fishermen there. “The birds cover the 15 kilometre stretch from Irattai thalai village in Rameswaram to Arichal Munai in Dhanushkodi,” he adds. “They go about their business and the fishermen go about theirs. They have gotten used to each other’s presence.”
There are hundreds of flamingoes — the Forest Department’s count was 5,000 last year — that have come on their yearly three-month sojourn. Senthil says that he has been witness to the phenomenon for years. “This has been happening for several generations,” he notes.
According to G Venkatesh, forest range officer at Mandapam. “The flamingoes come from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat in December and leave towards the end of March.” He adds that the birds come mainly to feed. “They like the algae that grows in the shallow brackish waters here,” he explains, adding, “They do not breed here though.”
Venkatesh estimates the count to be around 8,000. “But we will know the exact number after our survey that has been scheduled for February 27 and 28.” The phenomenon attracts bird-lovers from across South India. Among them is birder and researcher S Chandrasekar from Chennai. “I’ve been coming here for the past four years to participate in the survey,” says the 64-year-old.
Chandrasekar says that the greater flamingoes come all the way for the tiny organisms the shallow waters nurture.
“They are drawn to crustaceans and small snails,” he adds. The birds are known for their unique style of ‘filter feeding’. Its beak is designed such that it can filter out mud and silt from the mouthful of food it grabs hold of. “It feeds with its beak upside down,” points out Chandrasekar.
The people of Rameswaram hold their yearly visitors close to their hearts. N Jayakanthan, the NSS programme coordinator at the Government Higher Secondary School in the city takes his students every year to see the birds. “We’ve been going there for ten years now,” he explains. “The boys look forward to the trip. They are thrilled at the sight of the multitude of flamingoes.”
The birds can be seen from the Sri Kothandaramar temple in Rameswaram. Dull pink with deep pink highlights in their rear feathers and long stick-like feet that carry them in graceful strides, a flock of greater flamingoes is a photographer’s delight. “Words fail me...” says Chandrasekar, when he begins to describe the vision. “It is an unearthly glow of pink. Dramatic when seen at sunrise,” he adds. “I often feel like I’m in some kind of a dream land amidst them.”
- Over the years, a symbiotic relationship has formed between the fisherfolk who work on the same waters the flamingoes feed at. “We know that they are important for the ocean’s food cycle,” says Senthil, who feels that the birds seem to recognise fishermen they encounter regularly. “Their visit to Rameswaram is a ritual passed down generations,” he says. “Mothers come here and so do their children, who bring theirs, and so on.” The fishing community observes them closely, attaching a certain “sacred” quality to the flamingoes. “But their numbers have gone down,” observes Senthil. “Vehicle activity is only going up over the years resulting in rising decibel levels,” he says, adding that incidents of hunting by anti-social elements exist too.