Amidst a symphony of bird calls, the venerable Periyar flows mightily alongside ebullient tourists on a forest walk at the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary (TBS) in Kerala.
It is known as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India. But last year, it presented a depressing picture with plastic waste and slush choking the sanctuary.
Thanks to people such Dr Sugathan, a veteran ornithologist and scientist, the sanctuary has since limped back to its former glory.
Throwing light on the disaster that struck TBS, Dr Sugathan says, “Over 2 sq.m of the entire area on the sanctuary’s fringes alongside the Periyar and the Kootanpuzha rivers was devastated."
"Vulnerable shrubs and native grasses were washed off entirely, the 14 water bodies within the sanctuary area filled up with sandy loose soil to a height of 6 inches to 2 ft leading to a total change of microorganisms, water chemistry and soil texture,” he adds.
The floods affected marine life as well. Of the earlier 55 native species of fish, only 38 could be seen and of the former 32 waterbird species, only 24.
Since the flood waters came in the middle of the night, precious storage systems and 63 critical research studies recorded since 1992 on census data and habitat studies were lost.
Stephen, TBS’s man Friday for 29 years now, informs that many bird trails were disturbed.
“Almost 1,000-kg of plastic had to be removed along the fringes and the dense undergrowth.
"For over a month, 26 staff from the forest department with fibreglass boats moved up and down the river cleaning. But even now, we continue to chance on that odd missed piece of rubbish, as a grim reminder of what was,” says Stephen.
But a natural calamity can be an event that forces us to critically examine our own behaviour too.
“It is important that each tourist treat the sanctuary always as a revered sanctum sanctorum, with deep respect. From 700 tourists visiting in the early years to 1 lakh last year, there has been an enormous influx at the TBS,” rues Dr Sugathan.
Dr TV Sajeev, an expert on alien invasive species from the Kerala Forest Research Institute, says, “For a fragile natural ecosystem of this kind, the TBS suffered an unprecedented and major disturbance."
A sustained removal of all exotic entrants, both flora and fauna, is crucial along with crucial scientific monitoring.
And in nature, we can only speak of ‘a moving forward’ and not ‘a moving back’ to the original status.” In the distance, the faint klock-klock-klock-klock-klock call of a restless male maakachi kaadanpakshi (the famed nocturnal Sri Lankan frogmouth) can be heard.
It appears as if the forest and its inhabitants have settled into a quieter healing mode.