Is there a future for the wetland birds of Sippighat in South Andamans?

Zoya Tyabji & Vardhan Patankar

An edited version of this story first appeared in Down to Earth

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Mixed flocks of birds glide contently through the wetland waters of Sippighat, their feathers glinting in the sunlight. Some fluffing, basking under the warm sun; whereas others camouflage within the weeds, diligently foraging. On one side, a fisherman casts his net, hoping to take home some baitfish; while on the other side, a truck carelessly unloads gravel into the water, reclaiming more wetland. A fleet of cars passes by the road adjacent to the wetlands. Despite the surrounding disturbance, the birds here persist.

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Wetland birds gliding in water of Sipphighat.

Troubled waters

Sippighat, situated 4 kilometres from Port Blair, the main city of Andamans, was different 12 years back from what it is today. Paddy fields, a few wetland pockets and a roadside village constituted the area. Around these villages, aromas wafted out as women cooked meals. Elders sat in their backyard, sipping hot tea whilst keeping an eye out on children running around. Dogs barked in a heated frenzy chasing poultry. Paddy field farmers worked in harmony with birds gliding in nearby wetland pockets.

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Sippighat before the 2004 tsunami was dominated by Paddy fields. Photo: Sameer Ghodke.

The scene changed on the morning of 26th December 2004 when the tsunami hit the islands. According to its residents, many houses were destroyed and paddy fields were inundated. Post- tsunami, the authorities assessed the damage and provided shelter and land compensation to the people affected. Over the years, residents moved on with their new way of life, inundated paddy fields transformed into wetlands and benthic fauna and flora slithered over the thin layer of soil, adding humus whilst indirectly attracting a variety of water birds.

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Fishermen casting their nets in wetland waters of Sippighat.

However, in the last 3-4 years, the tide has turned, so to speak. Due to a boom in development of the islands and an increase in tourism, the residents of Sippighat have realised the value of their lost land. The ecosystem has stabilised and amidst the cacophony of birds, land reclamation activities are underway. Eight sites are lost to land reclamation, and every so often, more sites are reclaimed. There is trash littered all over, debris from construction sites lines the borders of the wetland pockets. Eutrophication stems here, slowly seeping off the oxygen used by the life forms of this aquatic habitat. Being adjacent to the road, the noise levels are high.

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A view of Sippighat after tsunami

Despite these ongoing disturbances, the birds here persevere. A recent bird count established the presence of 34 species. The most abundant water birds are the Common Moorhen and the Lesser Whistling Ducks. The Cotton Pygmy Goose frolics with them. Purple Moorhens and Swamp Hens are seen around the edge. Amongst other commonly sighted birds are a variety of shorebirds—the Wagtails, Plovers, Snipers, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Yellow and Chinese Bitterns, and Kingfishers and Egrets. The White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon soar and hover in the sky. The celebrity birds found here are the Andaman teal and the Andaman Serpent Eagle—bird species that are endemic to the Andaman Islands.

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Purple moorhens foraging in waters of Sippighat.

Research in other areas has determined the impacts of habitat degradation on birds. Birds are known to tolerate some level of disturbance, but once it reaches a threshold, they can go through physiological and morphological adaptation that may lead to a fatal loss in population. Considering the high biodiversity of birds in the wetlands of Sippighat, it is not difficult to imagine the impact of land reclamation on them.

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Land reclamation activities and shabby garages next to wetland of Sippighat.

Many of the wetlands stand on revenue & private land holdings. According to the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, any construction needs clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Interestingly, when the Government provided compensatory land, the residents willingly accepted the offer of alternate land. However, now the residents are returning to reclaim their lost land.

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Posters of Wetland birds put up by the Forest Department line the road of Sipphighat. Photo: Zoya Tyabji

Finding balance

What we need is a win-win situation, where residents benefit and the birds live in harmony. In areas where the value of wetlands is recognised, as a water filtration and or as a protector against floods and storms that are so prevalent in the islands; physical buffers are set to minimise edge effects and to mitigate water quality impacts. Walking lanes and birding viewpoints are built for tourists. Locals are encouraged to serve in the tourism industry. Such activities should be encouraged even in Sippighat. This will help the residents generate sustainable revenue without losing the wetland beauty to the concrete jungle.

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About Vardhan Patankar

I pursue reef and marine mammal related research with a critical eye and a fine-tuned appreciation for weirdness. I am particularly fascinated by marine life that exists within coral reefs, but observes life outside the reefs with just as much wonder and amazement.
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