Shrinking mudflat ecosystem of Kerala’s Kadalundi keeps shorebirds away

The inter-tidal mudflats are one of the richest foraging grounds for migrant shorebirds along India’s west coast, and now, they are in danger of disappearing, because of both natural and anthropogenic factors 

November 18, 2023 11:45 pm | Updated November 19, 2023 12:45 am IST - MALAPPURAM

Sand sedimentation is causing the mudflats of Kadalundi to vanish.

Sand sedimentation is causing the mudflats of Kadalundi to vanish. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kadalundi, on the south-west coast, had about 8 hectares of nutrient-rich inter-tidal mudflats in the early 2000s. Today, the expanse of mudflats in the estuary of the Kadalundipuzha river has reduced to just about 1 hectare. This too is gradually being covered with sand, depriving prey to thousands of shorebirds that migrate from colder climes in winter to Kadalundi village in Kozhikode district.

Researchers point out that if the mudflats are not protected and restored, Kadalundi will vanish from the global map as a prominent destination of migrant shorebirds in a few years. It is the abundance of prey such as polychaetes and crustaceans in the mudflats that attract a wide variety of migrant shorebirds to Kadalundi from places such as Siberia, Ladakh, Mongolia, and Scotland.

“We have tried to convince the government through memorandums, of the importance of protecting the mudflat ecosystem of Kadalundi from other invasive elements such as sandbanks and mangroves. But the response has been passive,” said T.R. Athira, C.T. Shifa, and K. Jishnu, who have been studying the ecological changes taking place in Kadalundi for the past several years.

However, efforts are on to popularise ecotourism in the Kadalundi-Vallikunnu Community Reserve (KVCR) by widening the expanse of mangroves. The 154-hectare KVCR had less than 50 hectares of mangroves until a few years ago, but these trees that thrive in salt water have proliferated so fast that they currently occupy more than 60 hectares.

“We are planting four more new species of mangroves as part of strengthening eco-tourism in Kadalundi. As many as 40 country boats are currently operating for tourists here,” said P. Sivadasan, KVCR management committee chairperson.

The sedimentation of sand on mudflats not only brings down the amount of prey there, but also helps mangroves easily proliferate. The viviparous mangroves of Kadalundi, according to researchers, have been displaying an aggressively invasive behaviour.

The mangrove lobby has been raising carbon sequestration as the key environmental factor for its promotion. “But people often underestimate the significance of soil and mud in carbon sequestration. Soil contains nearly twice the amount of carbon compared to the combination of the atmosphere, vegetation, and animals,” said Ms. Athira.

Studies show that wetlands and grasslands have the capacity to sequester more carbon than many types of forests. “Haphazard tree planting without proper understanding is never advisable. It is crucial to adopt a holistic approach that prioritises the protection of intact ecosystems and focuses on restoring the functionality of degraded ecosystems,” she said.

The mangroves of Kadalundi never attract shorebirds coming from colder regions. They prefer open mudflats where they are safe from predators. “When I started my research in 2005, we used to see large congregations of migrant species such as the lesser sand plover, greater sand plover, common sandpiper, whimbrel, Eurasian curlew, common redshank, common greenshank, Kentish plover, Terek sandpiper, dunlin, and sanderling foraging voraciously during low tide. But now the prey depletion, because of sandbanks and mangrove proliferation, is forcing them to stay away from the mudflats,” said Mr. Aarif.

He said the devastating floods of 2018 and 2019 hastened the process of degradation in Kadalundi. The migrant birds with great site fidelity are now finding an alternative on the beaches of neighbouring coasts.

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