Flamingos give a miss to TN's Perungulam tank, birdwatchers blame illegal sand mining

Perungulam is the last of the 15 tanks fed by the Maruthur East canal (Keezhakal) and is one of the largest tanks in the Thamirabarani system, spread over 883 acres
High tension towers erected at Perungulam tank also pose a threat to winged visitors, say birdwatchers (Photo | Express)
High tension towers erected at Perungulam tank also pose a threat to winged visitors, say birdwatchers (Photo | Express)

THOOTHUKUDI: Rampant illegal mining at Perungulam tank has forced flamingos to move away, say birdwatchers, who counted none during this year's bird survey. The activists also objected to TANGEDCO's high tension towers coming up in the middle of the tank stating that it poses a threat to winged visitors.

Perungulam is the last of the 15 tanks fed by the Maruthur East canal (Keezhakal) and is one of the largest tanks in the Thamirabarani system, spread over 883 acres. The tank is surrounded by Sivagalai village panchayat and Perungulam town panchayat of Eral taluk.

Birdwatchers say that several thousand birds of different species including migratory species visit the Perungulam, Arumugamangalam, Kadamba and Vellur tanks in Thoothukudi district from August.

Pearl City Nature Society Secretary J Thomas Mathibalan said, "Between August and October, the irrigation tanks in the lower riparian of the Thamirabarani river witness low waters which are suitable for the birds to find food."

The birdwatchers counted 6310 birds of 47 species at Perungulam tank during the mid-September survey in 2020. The 47 species include six migratory species -- black-tailed godwit, redshank, wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, little stint and blue-tailed bee eater -- of which there were 399 this year. However, flamingos, another major migratory species, gave it a miss this year anguishing birdwatchers.

Mathibalan added that flamingos prefer Perungulam tank every year as they are able to find food here. They comes down from Africa and (Gujarat) North India during August and move away after the tank gets water in the northeast monsoon, by the end of September. The long-legged bird mainly feeds in shallow waters, he said.

"I did not see any flamingos this year. In the last two years, the flamingos stopped coming in August itself as the tank had turned dry much earlier because of the drought and were not recorded in the mid-September surveys. However, the tank had a small quantity of water till now, but still flamingos had not arrived," he said.

Another birdwatcher Sakthi Manickam also said he did not sight any flamingo at Perungulam this year.

The birdwatchers suspected illegal sand mining, which has left the tank with a number of pits more than 10 feet deep, made it unsuitable for birds. "The miners had dug deep where river sand and red soil are available," said activist Manickam of Sivagalai.

Objection to HT towers

In addition, TANGEDCO had been planting HT towers carrying power lines across the tank as part of the power corridor connecting Udangudi super critical thermal power project, posing another threat for the winged visitors.

A Sivagalai farmer M Mathivanan said that TANGEDCO had lined up four HT towers at the Perungulam tank off Sivagalai panchayat and had dug pits towards the Perungulam town panchayat for installing many such towers.

"Many birds are large bodied and they would be pulled by the electric field surrounding the powerlines," said Mathibalan.

Manickam, who is also an archaeological enthusiast, expressed concerns on HT towers being planted close to the Sivagalai archaeological site where the Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology carried out excavation for the past three months and unearthed a number of urns. It would affect both the migratory birds and the nearby archaeological sites, he said.

Writer Muthalankurichi Kamarasu said that the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, while hearing his PIL petition on March 11, 2019, prohibited the state government from issuing any licence for mining activities in and around the Sivagalai archaeological site, as unauthorised mining would deface the relics and antiquities.

The public in Sivagalai and Perungulam resented TANGEDCO for installing HT towers even in patta lands without any permission from the landholder. Thus, the state government should intervene immediately and stop such violations, they said in a petition submitted to the district collector.

When asked, a top Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO) (Transmission) official said the tower lines project has been approved taking into account the environment impact assessments. The project took off following a government order and publication of it intimating the public around.

"Since the project has been funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the stipulations concerning the safety standards are very stringent," she said. On the possible fatalities of migratory birds visiting the tank, the officer said it is "false propaganda" and the HT towers would not cause any trouble to the birds visiting the tank. The aggrieved patta land holders can contact the concerned department  (TANGEDCO Transmissions) for compensation, the officer said.

Contradicting the official view, Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC) research associate Dr M Mathivanan, who conducts a wetland bird survey biannually, pointed out that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had adopted a resolution on "Powerline and Migratory Birds" during a convention on migratory species in order to protect them from electrocution and striking other towers.

Stating that HT towers are a linear infrastructure intrusion, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) scientist P Jeganathan said that electrocution of migratory birds due to HT power lines are documented and proven, and the concerned department is responsible to mitigate mortality of winged visitors. The department could prefer underground transmission lines instead of  HT towers along sensitive areas, he added.

Birdwatchers said that since the transmission towers are essential for the public, the authorities must conduct an environment impact assessment on the tanks frequented by migratory birds and ensure safety measures for them.

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