The story of a Glory Lost – Kolleru Lake
The pristine glory lost of Kolleru Lake – erstwhile largest pelicanry of the world, shocks the author when he reaches the site to conduct the Annual Flamingo Count, by BNHS.
The Annual Flamingo Count, by the BNHS, is an exercise by said organization, where volunteers are requested to carry out a census of the flamingoes at one specific day and time; and the details are collated to arrive at a conclusion. Being members of BNHS, we(my wife Shakti and I) were asked to cover Andhra Pradesh (Kolleru lake). So we, along with our daughter, left for Flamingo census at Kolleru lake. All of us were ecstatic at the chance to see them and I was equally excited to click good photos and make our contribution in bird census, which led to us volunteering for the annual bird census, centrally monitored by BNHS, Mumbai. It was Saturday, the 23rd of February2019,when we started our journey from Visakhapatnam early morning towards Kolleru Lake. Our aim was to cover 300 km and reach well before time to take stock of the situation. We reached and unpacked our luggage at Haritha Resort(which I booked online due to its proximity to Kolleru lake)an erstwhile property belonging to APTDC, currently leased out to local merchant. To our dismay, the property has been converted into liquor shop and dwelling places for goons. Since the resort faces the Kolleru lake, we decided to stay to get a first-hand information of the birds and assess the situation. What we could gather was the information was stark reminder of the fact that humans can go extremes to make their survival a priority, overlooking the existence of other species of the nature.
The Kolleru Lake is the largest freshwater lake located in Andhra Pradesh. Kolleru is located between Krishna and Godavari delta and covers an area of 308 km². The lake serves as a natural flood-balancing reservoir for these two rivers. The lake is fed directly by water from the seasonal Budameru and Tammileru streams. It serves as a habitat for migratory birds, supports the livelihood of fishermen and riparian population in the area. The lake was notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary in November 1999 under India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, and designated a wetland of international importance in November 2002 under the international Ramsar Convention. It was also identified as an “Important Bird Area” of India by the Bombay Natural History Society.
As planned, we wanted to get acquainted with the roads and local habitat before starting our census, therefore, we left for kolleru lake watch tower from our hotel. The local populace speak only Telugu, a language my wife is familiar with, so we were comfortable. We reached watch tower of Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary (KWLS) and wanted to see if flamingos are visible as that was our target. So we trained our binoculars, camera to look for flamingoes. We could not spot, but it took us 30 minutes to reach to the conclusion that they are not here, we need to visit Atapaka, a place around 25 Km from our present location to trace them.
Our binoculars and naked eyes gave us the message that the thousands of fish tanks have been dug up inside the wetland converting the lake into a mere drain. Apart from this, the farmers have converted the land use pattern of the lake. This has resulted in pollution leading to even difficulty in getting drinking water for the local people as we could see young children and women folk carrying steel/earthen pots to fetch water.
As per the statistics, the total area of the lake converted to aquaculture ponds accounts for 110.0km2 (approx) in comparison to 29.95km2 in 1967. The area under agricultural practice in the wetland also increased, sewage inflow from the towns of Eluru, Gudivada and even Vijayawada and industrial effluents, pesticides and fertilizers from the Krishna-Godavari delta region contaminate the lake.
One nascent bird lover(a local youth), looking at our utter disappointment, told us to visit Atapaka, some 25 kms from our present location, to spot flamingoes. With further detailed deliberation with locals, we were made to understand that adequate birds(Pelicans and Painted stork) are there. We are ecstatic and steered our wheels for acquaintance of area and road condition, so that in the morning, it will be easy for us to reach on time to start our census. It was an arduous journey as the roads were pathetic, offering us a view of frequently plying fisheries’ trucks, with local authorities turning the blind eye to them. Finally we reached destination and took the stock of the situation and returned on the same day to our so called “Resort” or “Liquor Mansion”.
We slept early and got up at 0400 AM to reach the Kolleru lake watch tower by 0530 AM. At the watch tower, we trained our binoculars and cameras to get glimpse of flamingoes and other migratory birds. To our astonishment, our ears heard the first gun shot and the birds flew helter-skelter particularly river terns. The shot was fired by the fishermen who were busy shooting birds, preventing them from feeding on the fish. The aim was to catch the maximum number of fishes from their lake converted to fish tanks. The early morning hour, with an equally rare presence of any tourist or forest officials, gave them liberty to exercise their option, which seemed to be a routine activity. We were questioned several times by inquisitive fisherman (as I was carrying a camera); and when they realized our purpose, stopped shooting and withdrew from the location to another, out of the reach of the watch tower.
From a distance we could hear and see the smoke of country made gun shots. A continuous pumping engine is deployed in the middle of lake and in front of watch tower. These men were not government officials, they changed shifts to pump water, as was evident from clothes hanging near the watch tower. In-fact, the ecosystem has been degraded due to fish tanks, however, the fishermen association claims that the ecosystem of lake has degraded not due to the fish tanks but due to sewage coming out from the industries and the residential areas. When I went into the details, I came to know that in 2006, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), appointed by the Supreme Court, directed the state to remove all sorts of encroachment including the fish tanks. This caused a huge hue and cry among the fishermen community. Even the Kolleru Lake Development Authority took measures to check encroachments, regulate and monitor pollution, clear the lake of weeds and use it as compost and raw material to produce biogas. The court gave preference to the ecology of the lake first. However, today the situation is grim and lake has deteriorated to the extent that recovery is near impossible unless intervention of higher authorities and State government impose serious restrictions.
Traditionally, water was seen as a responsibility of citizens and the community collectively took the responsibility of not only building but also of maintaining the water bodies. Since independence, the government has taken control over the water-bodies and water supply. This, over a time, has led to the neglect of the water bodies and catchments areas. People have become used to getting water at the turn of a tap and are no longer interested in maintaining water bodies. However, there is still hope as concerned citizens across the country have to come together to fight and halt this degradation of urban water bodies. In state after state, citizens and NGOs have filed legal cases for protection of urban lakes. Public interest litigations (PILs) have been filed for the protection of the water bodies in many cities and lakes, to restore to its pristine glory as before, but still the situation is not positive.
The Government issued a notification constituting Kolleru Wild Life Sanctuary and defining boundaries and margins. Because of the enforcement of GO Ms No 120, through which the State government declared the lake a Wildlife Sanctuary, the rights of nearly two lakh people, who are basically fishermen, came to be at stake. By doing this, the government had made it clear that the right of the local fishermen to do fishing by traditional methods is not taken away, but aquaculture in the form of any tank is prohibited. Notice was issued for demolition of all fish tanks in the area, however, they are still existing and growing in leaps and bounds. The state government is putting pressure on the forest department to finalize a proposal to reduce the sanctuary area of famous Kolleru Lake from the present plus five to three contour-levels. Telugu Desam Party (TDP)’s President, N Chandrababu Naidu, said that the Lake would be regularized and the surplus land from the lake will be distributed to the poor farmers. The State Government has taken the decision to protect the lake up to contour-3.
We headed for Atapaka, to complete our bird census in the stipulated time frame (0730-1000AM). But the forest department begins operation at 0930 and opens gate at 1000AM. So we did not wait for them and walked the around the lake looking for mighty Flamingoes. Instead we found pelicans, painted stork, cattle egrets, stilts in abundance and we could capture good photographs. We keenly observed the habitat and various activities going around the lake and have penned down in the form of articles. We completed our bird census at 1130 and headed back to Visakhapatnam on the same day. Our observations is enumerated below:-
Importance of Kolleru
The Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, known for its rich bio-diversity, is under threat from illegal fishing tanks, industrial pollution and a number of other factors.The catchment area of Kolleru is about 6,121sq km with a flow of 65,000 to 1.1 lakh cusecs of water into the lake. The lake drains out into the Bay of Bengal through the Upputeru drain, its only outlet. The lake serves as a foraging ground for resident as well as migratory birds. At present, 6,000 Spot-billed Pelicans, 5,000 Painted Storks and 5,000 Asian Openbills are estimated to be found in Kolleru. The lake also supports 63 species of fish.The Kolleru Lake plays a vital role in absorbing carbon, which in turn, mitigates the effects of global warming. Currently, the emission of carbon into the atmosphere is a major global issue. This freshwater lake acts as a carbon sink similar to any other thick forest area. It also acts as a filter for pollutants released as a result of industrial activity.
Conservation Status(Duck Rearing)
We observed that the people living in the vicinity of Kolleru lake mainly depend on fishery, agriculture and rearing ducks’ eggs for livelihood. As per the study conducted nearly 30 years ago, these activities were entirely depended on traditional methods which did not disturb the lake’s biodiversity. We interacted with local populace and came to know that previously the locals used to rear ducks, each of them having a flock size ranging from several hundreds to thousands. The duck-rearers traditionally fed their ducks in Kolleru’s marshy lands and in the paddy fields surrounding the lake. During night, they made the ducks roost in harvested paddy fields. The droppings of the birds helped in the growth of plankton, which supported the fish population of Kolleru lake. Now, duck rearing activity has considerably decreased.
The ongoing construction of illegal fish tanks, apart from those already in use situated in the lake, pose a major threat to the lake at present. Post monsoon, the flow of water stops into the sanctuary and the water drains out through Upputeru. Most of the sanctuary dries up early by February and it becomes convenient for the villagers to burn the Phragmyt is karka, an aquatic plant which grows up to 8-10 feet high, and other water weeds for digging illegal fish ponds in the sanctuary area. Weeds are the habitats of birds such as cranes and herons. The diversion of Budameru into the Krishna river and the construction of a project on the Tammileru river at Nagireddy gudem has further affected water flow into the lake, thus reducing the size of the Kolleru lake.
Sewage and industrial pollutants from nearby towns are other threats to the sanctuary. Roads without proper bridges affect the free flow of water in the sanctuary, pose a threat to the lake.
The state government has identified 14,681 acres of land belonging to private people in the sanctuary area. These lands are referred as Zirayathi lands. As compensation is not being paid to the Zirayathi land owners, locals are agitating and preventing the forest department from constructing a boundary around the sanctuary.
Fish farmers and politicians are eager to reduce the sanctuary area from +5 contour (308 sq km) to +3 contour (135 sq km).The Andhra Pradesh assembly also passed a resolution to reduce the sanctuary area and state’s wildlife board also did the same thing. The only concern was that the farmers are not getting adequate income from traditional agricultural methods ;while payment of compensation to displaced land owners is putting a huge burden on the government exchequer. Reduction of the sanctuary area may affect the Pelicans, Painted Storks and other water birds because the foraging ground has already reduced and shall shrink in future with population growth and ever demands of fishes. Locals who were meandering in the lake triggered multiple gun shots at regular intervals when river terns hovered in good number over the little remaining so called lake to quench their hunger. Humans don’t even think twice when they take away the share of birds. Looking at their bodies, it was evident that they had all the fishes which could be part of the struggling birds’ diet. Local populace enjoys self-made laws to exploit the resources of lake which belongs to everyone be it birds and animals.
According to the wetland rules of 2010, the state government has a responsibility to protect wetlands. For several years now, public interest litigations and cases had been filed in the high court and in the Supreme Court by environmentalists to conserve Kolleru. After the Supreme Court’s demolition order, illegal fish tanks were demolished, but sadly, sometime later the tanks were built again.
As the Andhra Pradesh government feels that the compensation to zirayathi land owners is a huge burden, both state and central governments can think about paying the compensation jointly. As part of protection measure, the sanctuary’s water can be controlled up to +5 contour throughout the year or at least for 10 months by a regulator so that fish production will be good. There is severe pressure from the locals to explore livelihood opportunities and there is enormous tourism potential too.
The International Migratory Bird Day shows that a relationship among tourism, conservation and livelihood is possible. Bharathpur’s Keoladeo National park is the best example of tourism and livelihood surviving at the same time.People in this area depend on the sanctuary for earning their livelihood. Not only Bharatpur, some families in Agra and Jaipur also depend on the Bharatpur sanctuary for a living. A sizeable area of Kolleru lake can be maintained just like the Bharathpur National park. Coconuts, mangoes and other trees can be planted in and around the lake area for enhancing scenic beauty and attracting the birds.
The local community and zirayath land owners can be roped in to promote tourism. Tourism can also be maintained by eco-development committees and locals under the supervision of the forest department. Proper micro plans should be prepared for developing tourism and strategies of sharing the revenue should be planned for stakeholders involved in conservation of the lake.The importance of Kolleru has been recognised globally. At present, coastal Andhra Pradesh is facing water scarcity and the government is urging people to conserve water by constructing percolator pits. It is ironical that the same government seems to be intent on destroying one of India’s most important lakes.
The Worlds Largest Pelicanry
As part of the improvement of the 270-acre migratory birds’ habitat in the Kolleru Bird Sanctuary,120(approx) iron poles have been installed for breeding and nesting in the absence of tree cover. The efforts to grow various species of plants did not yield result due to the toxic droppings of the birds. The Wildlife Management Division (Eluru) procured the poles with a circle of fencing mesh on the top of it and installed them in the strategic two mounds. We observed that most of the poles have broken down due topoor grade material and not being prepared properly. The need of the hour is more iron poles so that more space for breeding of the grey pelican and the painted stork is catered. The absence of the trees is the reason to explore the option of iron poles.
The Forest Department has appealed to owners of aquaculture ponds not to release contaminated water into the Kolleru Lake, which also houses a bird sanctuary, as it will pose a serious threat to the existing fish species and birds. The authorities should keep a strict vigil at strategic locations surrounding the Atapaka Bird Sanctuary to put an end to the harmful practice. In fact aquaculture farmers should find alternative ways of releasing water contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers instead of letting it into the sanctuary portion and concerned about the habitat of birds. But this can happen if we involve local population into conservation and educate them about birds and their advantages.If farmers minimize the usage of pesticides and – conducting auction for the fish in the lake and diversion of lake water into fishponds, it will help a lot. In fact the exhibition will help visitors and local people realize the need for protection of the birds, including numerous migratory species. Educating farmers on a periodic basis will serve the purpose and forest officials should take proper action.
The lake dried up
Many birds are migrating to the nearby tanks, fields in search of food.Many villages of fisher-folk and more than 50 other villages in West Godavari and Krishna districts are likely to suffer as the lake has dried up at the beginning of the summer season.All that one can see now are parched fields, small pools; and cattle and birds searching for food in the largest freshwater lake in the country. Being a bird lover, I am worried about the drought-like situation, as many species are flying off to the nearby water bodies in search of food.
Fish, bird species under threat
The lake that was formed due to the coalescence of the deltaic deposits of Krishna and Godavari rivers was later cut off from the sea. At its prime the inter-delta lake rose to contour 10+ during the monsoon and shrank to contour 3+ in the summer. The problem arises as the size of the lake changes seasonally. Some hundreds of species of birds are nesting in Atapaka. Birds such as painted storks, grey pelicans, large whistling teals, common teals, black tailed godwits, Northern pintails, Stilts and many water birds roost in the lake and they depend on the fish in Kolleru
No fishing activity
Kolleru was the safest place for the pelicans and other migratory birds. It was world’s largest pelicanry. Painted storks, grey herons, black-tailed godwits, stilts and others are scattered in the lake and in nearby villages now. The government should take measures to maintain the water level and protect them. However, some farmers have shifted their cattle to nearby villages in the delta area due to shortage of water. Boating is not possible and people depend on manual labour.
There is constant pressure from vested interests to encroach and destroy environmental hotspots like the unique Kolleru Lake, primarily for the production of food. But it is wetlands like this large freshwater lake and the flora that it supports, that scrub and cleanse the effects of the Greenhouse gases being produced by encroaching urban development. The Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary is also a second home for thousands of migratory birds that come here in winter. The lake provides them the food required to take the long flight back to the area where they roost. All these birds will become extinct if the lake is destroyed. Reducing the wastage of food will reduce the demand for food production which in turn will reduce the pressure for destruction of such hotspots.
Shakti Bishnoi : A postgraduate from London School of Business Management, Shakti is an experienced ornithologist, bird watcher and child counsellor.