Celebrating the Ennore-Pulicat wetland system.

A nature trail organised by the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha demonstrates how this region knits livelihoods and biodiversity

Before stepping out for birding, I always utter a silent prayer that snakes don’t cross my path. So, last Sunday, while heading out with a group to explore the biodiversity of the Ennore-Kattupalli-Pulicat region, I make the usual supplication. Per contra, those with me pray for the opposite — and that is squirmingly disconcerting.


The denouement of the sixth-edition of the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, an annual cultural-socio-environmental experiment, includes a nature trail and that has brought me to these parts on a muggy day. At Kadalkanniyur, Nityanand Jayaraman, social activist and volunteer-organiser of the Vizha, asks the group to break into three, spread across two sections that present wildly contrasting features, and return with a bio check-list.

On one side, within sniffing distance of the sea, the land undulates like a roller-coaster ride. Wind and allied forces have crowned it with sand dunes. Further away, where the undulations are a little less pronounced, there is a scatter of scrub vegetation, and naturalist T Murugavel, a volunteer-guide on the trail, fervently hopes a snake will slither out of any of the burrows hidden by thorny bushes. I realise he means business when he points to a spot in his hand that had been kissed by a rescued saw-scaled viper while he was releasing it in the wild.

Back to the sand dunes, naturalist M Yuvan, also a volunteer-guide, demystifies aspects of this natural-miracle. “Various types of grass and other vegetation trap the sand and also stabilise the dunes. The troughs of water between the dunes are actually natural springs. Dunes serve as a natural filter, preventing sea-water intrusion and protecting aquifers, and as a bulwark against flooding and storm surges. Sand dunes are often loosely labelled as barren land, but when we factor in their uses, we are forced to revisit the definition of barrenness,” explains Yuvan.

Usually, bio-diversity is concentrated in and around these springs. The check-list from the sand-dunes with its springs, at Kadalkanniyur, prepared in just 20 minutes, includes skittering frog, whipped scorpion, fan-throated lizard, common toad, common ghost crab, social spider, scat of black-naped hare, a shell of a mole crab and a dead female Olive Ridley. “The carcass of the female Olive Ridley suggests nesting activity in these parts,” says Yuvan.

Through the rest of the tour, we hear from the guides, which also includes botanist Devanathan Krishnamoorthy, how the defining feature of the region is that it defies quick and pat definitions, being a meeting point of a variety of natural systems that differ widely, yet make a fascinating and functional whole.

Land of synergy

Going inland, away from the sand-dunes, there is what our guides call inter-tidal zone, where the topography is marked by a form of flatness. Regulated by tidal action, the waters often recede sufficiently enough to expose soil that teems with creatures, which are meal for a diversity of birds. This zone is pockmarked with mudflats, which during winter, draw birds like Eurasian curlews that probe for crabs by half-burying their beaks in this slightly gooey soil.

“The Ennore-Pulicat wetland system can’t be slotted into our usual divisional categories of ecosystems. There are coastal dunes, backwaters, salt pans, mudflats, mangrove forests, tropical dry evergreen forest and scrub jungle. The salinity in the Pulicat lagoon created by barrier islands is known to hit an incredibly low number during the monsoon due to freshwater inflows. And the diverse elements come together in a rare mix of land, water and vegetation,” says Yuvan.

He adds, “Kosasthalaiyar river breaks into various distributory streams, meeting the backwaters, and the gradient from freshwater to brackish water is gradual. Therefore, there is a continuum of ecologies and livelihoods based on them. Fishing is a broad term encompassing many local economies.”

“Beyond the fishing in the Pulicat lagoon or in the sea, there are many others to be considered. There are people who catch only lugworms in mudflats. These are bought by fishermen to be used as bait. During low tide, there are ‘fishermen’ who walk under the tide line, and catch mole crabs, feeling their stir under their feet. In the backwaters and shallow tidal flats, some groups catch only oysters and clams,” he continues.

While heading to the Fish Auction house in Lighthouse-Pulicat, the focal point of the fishing trade, small mounds of shells gathered together heave into view now and then. Yuvan explains that they are meant for lime-making, and signify another local economy.

Naturalist Vikas Madhav, another volunteer-guide, states that this would be the first time he would assess the region extensively. “I am impressed with the diversity of avian life.” — that is Vikas’ report card.

The check-list of birds spotted here includes Oriental skylark, common snipe, pintail snipe, common redshank, common greenshank, marsh sandpiper, wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, little ringed plover, Caspian tern, lesser sand plover, Pacific golden plover, whimbrel, Eurasian curlew, Caspian tern, little stint, temminck’s stint, rosy starling, common kestrel, Brahminy kite and brown-headed gull. The final bird species count is much larger. Lists have also been made for butterflies, dragon-flies and other insects.

“The Pulicat lagoon is protected and it forms the heart of the eco-system, but to protect it more meaningfully is to also protect what lies before it, as it forms a buffer between the industrial section and the lagoon,” says Vikas.

Our trail ends at the Fish Auction house, with gaggles of air-borne brown-headed gulls — in their non-breeding plumage, their ‘brown skullcap’ is reduced to an ear spot — drawn to shoals of fish.

Though it is around noon, trading hasn’t slackened. And one can’t help thinking how this land has been feeding all creatures, big and small. (Source: The Hindu)

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