Monday, September 1, 2014

The Flamingos are back

Although Bundala remains bare these migrant beauties are flying north, says environmentalist Kithsiri Gunawardena who urges the protection of their remaining habitat in Mannar, Jaffna and Chundikulam

Greater Flamingos in Kayts and (inset) in flight in Mannar. Pix by Kithsiri Gunawardena

Slowly and surely the migratory Flamingos are flocking to north Sri Lanka, although they are shunning the south.
There are about 750 Greater Flamingos in Mannar, about 150 in Jaffna and about 100 on Kayts island this season, says the Joint Secretary of the Ceylon Bird Club, Kithsiri Gunawardena, who has made many a trip up north recently.

Greater Flamingos in Kayts and (inset) in flight in Mannar. Pix by Kithsiri Gunawardena
Although not swelling to the 5,000-6,000 Flamingos recorded in 2003-04, he is happy that the numbers which dropped to about 200 in Mannar between 2007 and 2009 are now on the increase.

The south of Sri Lanka particularly Bundala which used to be colourfully adorned by the beauty of 1,500-2,000 Greater Flamingos, however, remains bare with the current migratory season which started in September 2012 seeing only a mere four or five, says Mr. Gunawardena.

Going into the intricacies of the sensitivity of the eco-system, in which the balance may be tilted by even mild changes, this avid bird-watcher explains that seven to eight years ago Bundala saw large flocks of Greater Flamingos as the lure was the tiny insect-larvae they preyed on. These larvae thrived in the brackish water-bodies of Bundala but when fresh water got mixed with the brackish water due to the Lunugamvehera project, the salinity dropped and the insect-larvae were not able to survive.

No food meant there would be no Greater Flamingos, is the obvious conclusion, and if only environmental experts were called in to minimise the effects, Sri Lanka’s south would still attract these beautiful birds, it is understood.

Lamenting that Flamingos which make their way from the Rann of Kutch in Pakistan where they breed and then migrate south during the winter, have one less habitat now with the loss of Bundala, he urges the protection of what is left – Mannar, Jaffna and Chundikulam.
It is a lesson on the exotic birds, both migrant and resident, that Mr. Gunawardena gives when the Sunday Times asks about speculation that the migrants have not come in their usual numbers to Sri Lanka this season.

Sri Lanka has 453 species of birds of which 237 species are resident birds which means that they breed here. The balance 216 bird species are migrants among whom 72 species are considered “vagrants” coming on and off unlike the others which are regulars. Sri Lanka which is at the tip of India shares 89% of all bird species with India but 11% of the resident birds here are endemic.

This has come about due to different climates and elevations within our tiny country, says Mr. Gunawardena, adding that “it is unique”. The endemism is due to montane and low-land forests.

Referring to speculation that migrant-bird numbers have dropped, he points out that climate change and the recent floods which have inundated large tracts of land have scattered the ducks and waders. It will only be the Water Fowl Census which is carried out in February that would indicate whether the numbers have dropped or there are fluctuations.

Climate change, according to him, which has far-reaching effects has also had an impact on the migratory patterns. Usually, the migrant-season in Sri Lanka is from end-September (2012) to end-March 2013, but the severe winter in the Arctic had brought in its wake, the migrants here as early as March 2012.

Unfortunately, March to August is when the resident-birds breed, but due to the migrants coming in early, the residents have had to face food issues. Some of the waders which arrived in June-July instead of September-October are Black-tailed Godwits and Whimbrels.

Getting back to the statistics, Mr. Gunawardena points out that of the 237 resident species, 33 species are endemic and for 90% of these the only home is the low-land forests mainly Sinharaja, Samanala kanda and Knuckles.

This is why there needs to be stringent protection. It is vital to safeguard this endemism by prevention of encroachment into their habitat.

The same solution is relevant with regard to migrants – the challenge is to preserve the pristine environment that flagship species such as Flamingos and rare birds such as the Pintail, the Wigeon, the Shovellers and even the Common Teal have made their second home for six months of the year.

Ecology is such a sensitive thing and many factors are inter-connected, he says, comparing it to a car. If one or two nuts and bolts are removed, the car may run for a short while but would ultimately stall and come to a standstill.

There are only a few spots in the world like Vidathalthiv, between Pooneryn and Mannar where we can see as many as a million birds at the same time, he says, adding that it is our bounden duty to protect such spots.

“This is our green-gold,” says Mr. Gunawardena. This is what draws the tourists. It’s not only birds – where else can you see the biggest mammal in the world, the blue whale off Mirissa and some miles away, the biggest land animal, the elephant, at Yala.