On 26 July, three more sites in Tamil Nadu joined Kodiakkarai (Point Calimere) as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. They were the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai, the Karikili bird sanctuary in Chengalpattu and Kanchipuram districts, and the Pichavaram mangrove forests near Chidambaram — often wrongly described as the second-largest mangroves in the world, Asia, or India.
With Pallikaranai Marsh, Pichavaram mangroves & Karikili bird sanctuary now being recognised as new Ramsar sites – the most prestigious International recognition for wetlands – TN now has four Ramsar sites including Kodiakkarai. I congratulate TN Forest Dept on this milestone. https://t.co/1HR5HEmTV5
— M.K.Stalin (@mkstalin) July 26, 2022
The three sites from Tamil Nadu, along with the Pala wetland in Mizoram and Sakhya Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, were the five places from India that received the coveted Ramsar tag.
Pallikaranai in Chennai used as dumping yard
Pallikaranai is one of the few surviving wetland ecosystems in and around Chennai.
Located in the southern part of the metropolitan city near Velachery and Perungudi, Pallikaranai has shrunk to nearly 10 percent of its original size.
Around 690 hectares were declared a reserve forest and are now under the state forest department, according to the Tamil Nadu State Wetland Authority.
The Pallikaranai freshwater marsh, which is not far from the Bay of Bengal, supports more than 100 species of birds, including the glossy ibis, grey-headed lapwing, pheasant-tailed jacana, black-winged stilt, and purple moorhen.
Surrounded by the Old Mahabalipuram Road and the Buckingham Canal, Pallikaranai is also home to around 20 reptile species, including the venomous Russell’s viper.
While the marsh protects the city of Chennai from floods and acts as a sponge, it has long been used as a dumping yard.
In 2021, around 2,000 tonnes of waste were dumped in Pallikaranai on a daily basis.
Karikili not far from Vedanthangal
Karikili, declared a bird sanctuary in 1972 and located near the town of Madurantakam, supports avian species such as the spot-billed pelican, pintail duck, grey heron, garganey teal, and black bittern.
The Tamil Nadu site, which also has received the Ramsar tag, is just 8 km away from the famous Vedanthangal bird sanctuary.
The Karikili bird sanctuary — spread over 58 hectares, around twice the size of Vedanthangal — is made up of two rain-fed irrigation tanks.
The sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural fields where paddy and groundnut are cultivated.
Excess water from the tanks, enriched by bird droppings, is let out into the fields.
“The Karikili Bird Sanctuary like Vedanthangal has a history of villager’s initiative in protecting water birds and in turn is benefitted by the guano enriched water from the tank to Karikili’s agricultural fields. The silt scraped from the dried-up tank bed is also highly valued as manure for the crops,” the government mentioned in its application to Ramsar, now part of the body’s information sheet.
Pichavaram, second-largest mangrove in Tamil Nadu, not in the world, Asia, or India
The Pichavaram mangrove forest, which was also awarded the Ramsar tag, is in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu.
It is located between the estuaries of two rivers — Vellar and Kollidam (Coleroon), a major distributary of the Kaveri.
Pichavaram is a popular one-day trip from Chennai. More than 1 lakh tourists visit it every year.
Travellers often combine a visit to the mangrove forest with a pilgrimage to the nearby temple town of Chidambaram.
Chidambaram is a more recent name and the town has been referred to in the Thevaram Tamil Saivite songs (sixth-eighth centuries CE) as Thillai and Puliyur.
Many towns in Tamil Nadu have been named after the trees found in abundance there and the name Thillai is no exception.
Thillai is the name of the mangrove tree Excoecaria agallocha, which must have been found in abundance in the town of Chidambaram back then.
Even now, the sthala vriksham (sacred tree) of the famous Chidambaram Nataraja temple is the Thillai mangrove tree.
The Pichavaram mangrove forest supports more than 15 species of mammals, 200 species of fishes, and 115 species of birds, including critically endangered species such as the great white-bellied heron, spoon-billed sandpiper, and spotted greenshank.
Pichavaram, more than 1,400 hectares in size, is the second-largest mangrove forest in the state of Tamil Nadu, after Muthupet.
Sivanesan, a forest guard who hails from the village of Thambikottai Maravakadu near Kodiakkarai, has worked in both Pichavaram and Muthupet.
The Pichavaram mangroves are more famous, Muthupet is much more extensive, Sivanesan told South First.
Indeed, the Muthupet mangroves are around eight times the size of Pichavaram.
The Muthupet mangroves are part of the Kodiakkarai (Point Calimere) Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, which was till now the only Ramsar site in the state of Tamil Nadu.
What is a Ramsar site?
A Ramsar site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
The convention, which is also known as the Convention on Wetlands, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty that was established in 1971 by UNESCO, and came into force in 1975.
It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran.
According to the official Ramsar website, the mission of the convention is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.