Every winter, flamingos flock to small islands in the Rann of Kutch. The story of a near-endangered species and how it has made the seasonal salt marsh in the Thar Desert home.
In a small island in Gujarat’s Great Rann of Kutch, a low-lying stretch of land that alternates between desert and lagoon, hordes of Greater and Lesser Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor) fly in from central Asia after each monsoon to build their nests, breeding in shifts through the winter and dispersing, as summer approaches, to wetlands near and far, sometimes even to the opposite ends of the Indian landmass.
The Lesser Flamingos are a near-endangered species, but here, in the Rann, flocks of pink dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. The aggressive tourism industry has been promoting the Gujarat state bird enthusiastically, offering sites that host large populations of the birds, including Nalsarovar and Thol wetlands closer to Ahmedabad. Winters are a great draw, because the birds can be easily spotted before they migrate to the eastern part of the country, to lakes in Chilika and Bharatpur. This year, the 45-day Rann Utsav (from December 15-January 31) was fully pre-booked as early as November, with registrations thrown open for the next year. Over two crore foreign and domestic tourists had come to Gujarat as of March 2012, according to the state government, with most of them making a beeline for Kutch. The third edition of the Global Birdwatcher’s Conference, being hosted at Dhordho in the last three days of January, just west of the Rann, has seen a gathering of ornithologists and bird watchers from across the US, Europe and Asia.
The story of what was christened by the late Dr Salim Ali, India’s pioneer ornithologist, as ‘Flamingo city’ after he visited the region in 1945, is believed to have begun with a massive earthquake in 1819, whose magnitude on the Richter scale was estimated at 7.9, and by some accounts, was felt as far as Calcutta (now Kolkata). The earthquake created what is known as the Allah Bund in the north of the Great Rann, a ridge that rises up to six metres in some places and stretches for more than 80 km from west to east, blocking the flow of northern rivers and buckling, like a table cloth, the Rann’s western terrain, causing the inundation, by a mix of salt and fresh water, of almost the whole region during the cold months that follow the monsoon.
Flamingo city, like the Rann, was sculpted by a natural force — an earthquake. Locals say it was created by Allah. “That’s how Allah Bund got its name,” said Vijay Kumar of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology in Bhuj, who has studied the Rann’s corrosive personality for more than a decade, particularly the way it degrades what little vegetation is left in patches. The bunding helped create a vast seasonal lagoon which turns into a salt desert that shimmers white once the water evaporates. In the middle of this are several islands known as bets, and one particularly isolated island called Sindal Bet (also called Anda Bet by Border Security Force personnel due to its tilted egg-shape).
It’s here that hordes of flamingos turn up after the monsoons. On this small island, which is about 250 m long and 35-40 m wide, and which stands just about six feet taller than the surrounding Rann, flamingos build their plateau-like nests, lay an egg in each of them and feed themselves and their young on the various organisms found in the fertile lagoon waters, making the tiny island India’s largest and, until 15 years ago, the only breeding ground for the country’s two flamingo species.
This massive breeding exercise was first recorded in 1883 by the late Maharao Khengarji of Kutch, according to Dr HS Singh, the former chairman of the Gujarat Biodiversity Board. Six decades later, the birdman of India, Dr Ali, made the arduous trip to the bet, documenting about five lakh flamingos and stating that these birds, when they don’t breed, fly cross-country to wetlands such as Point Calimere in southern Tamil Nadu and Chilika Lake in Orissa. Ali made several trips to the place in the following years, and it was in 1975 that a young scientist called PS Thakker met him in Hindolgadh in Rajkot’s Jasdan region. Thakker, who joined ISRO’s Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad that year, had already begun peeking at images beamed to earth by the Bhaskara satellite, observing the phenomenon through an eye in the sky. “In 1980, the water on the Rann rose quite high. Flamingos did not breed that year. Sindal Bet itself was almost covered by water,” he says, pulling up old images on a computer screen, recalling a site visit with fellow scientists in February 2004, where the six-member team counted 8,678 nests and 3,750 eggs. An estimated 67,000 flamingos fluttered shyly away and waited, en masse, in shallow waters nearby as the scientists surveyed their un-hatched young. It’s a sight that Thakker hasn’t forgotten.
In 1998, a cyclone struck the Gulf of Kutch. “Bhagashra near Navlakhi was completely red with the corpses of the birds. Flamingos abandoned the place and went elsewhere that year,” Thakker recalls. But all was not lost — that year, a young forest officer called Uday Vora discovered that the flamingos had found a new breeding site in the Little Rann of Kutch, a smaller salt desert further inland from the Great Rann. They have hung on to that new site ever since, and are reportedly also breeding, albeit in smaller numbers, at several other locations in between as well, although experts say none are as large as flamingo city.
But the threats to the avian metropolis remain — the National Board for Wildlife has been discussing the possibility of building a road that will run across the Great Rann, mostly to boost border security in this rough terrain. While the armed forces say the road can be built without disturbing the wildlife, including flamingos, the scientific community remains opposed to the idea. Their contention is that the road would effectively block the routes by which fresh and salt water mix up, devastating the ecosystem. As the debate goes on, the birds keep returning, responding to nature’s vagaries by altering their own patterns ever so slightly.