SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Warning bells in Kole

Safe haven?: Egrets in a paddy field.

Safe haven?: Egrets in a paddy field.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Venus Vinod UpadhyayA

VENUS VINOD UPADHAYAYA

Changing agricultural practices, rapid urbanisation and rampant poaching may sound the deathknell of the wetlands.

In 2002 Kole was declared protected under the RAMSAR Convention. But this didn’t end the problems, s Kole is owned by people and is still not a protected reserve.

A decade ago, the Kole wetlands had everything the 85,000 avian residents needed. Now a long battle with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, changing agricultural practices, poaching and proliferating real estate has left it shattered. Today this beautiful reserve in Kerala is left with only 35,000 birds, including seven endangered species.

Ecological wealth

With an area of 13,632 hectares, the Kole wetlands is spread over Thrissur and Malappuram districts and extend from the northern bank of the Chalakudy in the South to the southern bank of the Bharathapuzha in the North. The name, Kole, refers to the peculiar cultivation method from December to May. ‘Kole’, a Malayalam word, indicates a bumper yield when floods do not damage the crop.

According to ecologists, the Kole wetlands is the third largest in India, after Chilika Lake (Orissa) and Amipur Tank (Gujarat), in terms of the number of birds. Ornithologists say that 241 species of birds, including passerines, have been recorded in these wetlands, of which 30 per cent are migrants; 70 species of water birds and four migratory raptors have so far been recorded.

Of the 241 species, 21 are not included in the ‘Birds of Kerala’, among which seven are first reports from Kerala. The wetlands also shelters one per cent of the world population of Egretta garzetta garzetta, Mesophyx intermedia intermedia and Anas querquedula.

According to Birdlife International, it also houses globally threatened species such as Spot-billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster), Black-headed Ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala), Black-bellied Tern (Sterna acuticauda), Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) and Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga).

The wetlands has been recognised as one of India’s ‘Important Bird Areas’, which are identified on the basis of a set of internationally accepted criteria laid down by the BirdLife International. This is an additional recognition for these wetlands and thus further warrants its protection.

Till 1992, Kole’s ecological importance and rich bird wealth was hidden. P.O. Nameer, Kerala State Coordinator of Asian Waterbird Census and Indian Bird Conservation Network, presented the first paper on Kole. In 2002 Kole was declared protected under the RAMSAR Convention. But this didn’t end the problems, as Kole is owned by people and is still not a protected reserve under India’s Wildlife Protection Act.

Threatened

Nameer says, “The Kole Wetlands is one of the most threatened wetlands in Kerala. Reclamation of land and change in land use pattern are the most serious problems. The paddy fields are being converted into high cash yielding plantations. At many places the wetland has been converted into brick kilns.”

Adding to the problems is its proximity to fast urbanising towns in the area. Poaching has become common. “Not only resident birds but even the migratory birds, which visit the State between September and April, are being ruthlessly killed. This is against the spirit of at least four international agreements, including the RAMSAR convention.”

All this leads to a disturbing situation in the state richly endowed with natural reserves. Further, all the 19 protected areas of Kerala are located on the Western Ghats and it is ecologically even more important for this wetland reserve to be protected. If action is not taken soon, the state will face acute floods during the monsoon and drought during the summer. The current monsoon floods are a warning sign.

The significance of Kole doesn’t stop with this. Its socio-economic and cultural value makes protection even more crucial. According to one of Nameer’s studies conducted in 1998, “Kole is regarded as the ‘ricebowl’ of Central Kerala and meets about 40 per cent of the region’s rice requirement. Apart from this it also generates 12,00,000 man-days of work and a yearly income of more than Rs. 17 crore.”

New hope

For Nameer and others who have been fighting for Kole, there is a ray of hope. The amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) in 2003 has opened new doors. Kole can now be declared a Community Reserve, whereby the wetlands will have all the privileges of a Wildlife Sanctuary or a National Park and also the additional advantage of local community participation as it will be obligatory/statutory for the Government to set up a ‘participatory management’ involving the local community. This has already stirred few villages into action. The panchayat in one of Kole’s villages has already passed a unanimous resolution asking the Government to declare 100 acres of Aloor village in Thrissur district as a community reserve.

Declaring Kole a Community Reserve will not only protect the birds, but also save the wetland from further encroachment. If other villages follow suit. If declared a Community Reserve, it will be the first in south India and the third in the country.

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