Lesser Adjutant Storks

In my days as a couch potato, I’d read an unlikely book by Douglas Adams, who, in collaboration with Mark Carwardine, went round the world looking for species on the verge of extinction. Not only do I still have Last Chance to See on my bookshelf, I go around the country now with a mental list of endangered species which I want to see. The Lesser Adjutant Stork is one of these, and Bhitarkanika is its only known nesting site outside north-eastern India.

The IUCN Red List classifies it as vulnerable (to extinction) because it is “rapidly declining as a result of a variety of threats including hunting pressure, loss of nesting trees, conversion and degradation of wetlands and agricultural changes”. It is thought that the disappearance of this species from the Sunderbans is due to degradation of mangrove diversity in the region.

It is one of the most spectacularly ugly birds I’ve ever had the opportunity to see. It is also huge. As we crossed the Brahmani river, The Family spotted some huge birds in a field far away. We stopped to look. They were these ugly storks. The Lesser Adjutant (and its cousin, the Greater Adjutant) is called হাড়গিলে in Assamese and in Odiya (meaning bone eater). When I consulted older people in my family, they remembered the name and the bird. At one time it was probably common in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. It can now be seen only in protected forests and wetlands, where it eats small animals and crustaceans. Its local name probably comes by association with the Greater Adjutant, which often scavenges around human habitation.

We saw these birds several times in the protected forest. They were wary of our boat, and tended to fly whenever we came within camera range. Eventually I caught a juvenile sitting on top of a tree. The juvenile has much more down on its bare neck and head than the adult. Apparently these birds have extremely sharp vision, and this one could have been sitting there to scan the area for food.

One never knows which sighting of this bird could be the last.

The mangrove forest of Bhitarkanika

When India joined the Ramsar convention for protection of wetlands in 1982, Bhitarkanika National Park was not the among the first places listed. The 65,000 hectares of this park was listed under the treaty twenty years later. The mangrove forests of the Sunderbans are larger in area, but Bhitarkanika has more species diversity: only three of India’s 58 species of mangroves have not been seen here.

Mangrove forests stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides. The intricate root system of mangroves also makes these forests attractive to fish and other organisms seeking food and shelter from predators.
NOAA website

When you pass through the tidal creeks which thread the wetlands, the mangroves appear as a dense forest wall surrounding you. There are designated trails through the forest. If you take these, you find that the forest is thin, and hides open wetlands. Interestingly, there is freshwater very close to the sea here. The sparse villages around the region have a tradition of creating ponds around each home, so recharging the groundwater that they draw. Unfortunately, this traditional conservation measure has been undone recently by the increased shrimp farming in this area.

Boat in Khola creek in Bhitarkanika national park, Odisha

The mangroves are drowned by the tide surging up and down the creek twice a day. Most trees which stand with roots in water would die. Mangroves have solved this problem in two ways. First, they have evolved unique physiologies which allow it to filter out salt from the water and excrete it. Second, some of them stand in an interlocking mass of prop roots to hold them out of the water while others have snorkels called pneumatophores (photo below: the spikes amongst which the whimbrel is foraging). This area is the delta of a complex of muddy rivers. The mangrove roots hold back the soil and slowly build up the land. Bangladesh is said to have created 120,000 hectares of new land in the Bay of Bengal by planting new mangrove forests.

Whinbrel among mangrove roots in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

As temporary refugees from a city, we breathed in the clear air of the forest. The Family was reading a study which claimed that mangroves lock up more than a 100 kilograms of atmospheric carbon per hectare per day, and is one of the most efficient ecologies for soaking up greenhouse gases. The three decades-long conservation effort in Bhitarkanika started before the Indian Ocean tsunami taught coastal countries the wisdom of replanting mangroves. Now this may serve as an ark which repopulates the disappearing mangrove forests along the coast of India.

A restful beach

One of the most restful beaches I found in Andaman was the beach in Neil Kendra. I was biased of course; a cut on my leg prevented me from entering the water, so I was a beach comber during my vacation. The Neil Kendra beach had no people at all. It is not a swimming beach, because it is fronted by corals and mangroves.

I did not pay much attention to mangroves before 2004. Then when extensive reports came in of how mangrove ecosystems saved villages from the tsunami, I began to find more information on these swampy backwaters of Mumbai. Today it seems to be an integral part of coast management, given that it not only protects the shore, but actually builds new area. Also, the coastal ecosystem around mangroves is extremely productive, since it harbours many kinds of fish.

Mangroves in Neil Kendra, Andaman

None of this was on my mind as I walked on the beach. My indoors job leaves me little time to walk in the sun. So I was making the best use of my vacation to soak in the vitamin D as I tried to work up an appetite for lunch. The Family thought I was mad to walk in the heat; she sat in the restaurant and sipped a lime and soda. The roots of these trees formed beautiful traps which reflected in the pools of water below them. They gave me some nice photos even in the noonday sun.

Mangroves are like the kindergarten, seagrasses are the secondary schools, and coral reefs are the high schools and colleges for fishes! And, once [the fishes] graduate from university, they return to kindergarten to spawn! -Khun Pisit, cofounder of Thailand’s Yad Fon mangrove preservation project

I’m used to the mangroves of Mumbai. I’ve seen fisherfolk walk among them at low tide laying pots to trap shrimps, or harvesting previously laid traps. I’ve spent weekends near these mangrove swamps birdwatching. These are very popular with birdwatchers around Mumbai. The very fact that so many wading birds can be seen in such places means that there are fish and crustaceans here. In Mumbai one cannot be oblivious of the fact that builders constantly try to have laws and regulations changed so that they can build over these swamps.

Still, with India’s huge coastline, I’d expected that India would be among the top ten nations harbouring mangroves. It was a shock that it isn’t. Even more shocking is the fact that the Indian Forest Service reports that Kerala had 6 sq Km of mangroves in 2013! Only Odisha, West Bengal and Andaman have dense mangrove forests. Indonesia has more than twenty times as much of mangrove forests as India does. I guess if we bring up our children to eat fish, we should do a little more for mangroves.