Saturday, January 17, 2015

Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, TN - When Water Runs Dry

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When Water Runs Dry
Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary

It was July 2013 and I was in Thiruvanathapuram on a short vacation. I was itching to visit a wildlife/bird sanctuary in the monsoon season and spend a day or two improving my photography skills. After some brainstorming my cousin suggested Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

I searched online and found Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary, in Thirunelveli district, to be a good choice. The Sanctuary was around 140 kms away from Thiruvanathapuram. Google Maps indicated a drive of approximately 2.5 hours. The online images of the birds taken at the Sanctuary were very encouraging. The sanctuary attracted a lot of migrant birds incl. Flamingos, Storks, Pelicans, Ducks etc. In peak season, the birds numbered in the lakhs!

So, Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary was finalized as our destination. We decided to make it a day trip instead of an overnight visit. A rental vehicle was booked and we were all set for the trip.

It was difficult to suppress my excitement. The online images of the beautiful birds were floating around in my mind. Sighting these avian beauties, that too in the hundreds, held the promise of an unforgettable treat!

The trip begins

As the D-day dawned, our trip did not start as scheduled. We got up late and were a bit slow in getting ready for the trip. By the time, we set off it was 7.30 a.m. Considering the long journey ahead, we had lost atleast a couple of hours.

Nevertheless, this was a vacation and there was no need to fret and fume over the delayed start. The roads on the Kerala side were good, but we were slowed down by the traffic. We reached the Kerala check-post within an hour. Since we were travelling in a rental vehicle, the driver had to submit some papers for verification. The check-post formalities took about half an hour. I had a sinking feeling that this was going to be a slow and long day.

 Crossing Over to Tamil Nadu 

After entering Tamil Nadu, we stopped for breakfast at a vegetarian restaurant in a small city. The ghee dosa served was finger-licking delicious to say the least. After breakfast we set off again. Hopefully this would be a direct leg that would stop only on reaching the sanctuary.

As we drove on the Tamil Nadu highways, we were impressed by the wide and smooth roads. The Tamil Nadu landscape was distinctive when compared to Kerala.   Even though, not as green as Kerala, the TN landscape had it’s own beauty. Next came the windmills. Row after row of these enormous structures, generating wind energy.  Though they marred the beauty of the landscape, their contribution towards harnessing alternate and cleaner means of energy was undeniable.

 Tamil Nadu landscape - Lush green 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Tamil Nadu landscape 

 Windmills - A part of TN landscape 

 Windmills - A part of TN landscape 

We had to travel through smaller roads that had seen better days. This slowed us down further. We realized that this was not a 2.5 hours drive as indicated by Google Maps but rather a 4 hour drive thanks to the roads and traffic at certain places.

 Vehicular traffic - A part of TN roadscape 

 Animal traffic - A part of Indian roadscape 

Finally, at noon, we approached the village adjoining the sanctuary. I hoped that the birds had not taken cover to escape the mid-day heat.

 Nature's Normal Distribution Curve ? 

 Destination in sight 

 Village adjoining the sanctuary 

As we entered the sanctuary gates, I could not hear any bird sounds which seemed strange.

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

When we reached the core sanctuary area, my heart sank like a stone. Forget lakhs or thousands or hundreds, there was not a single bird in sight!!!

The sanctuary was bone dry with not even a damp patch in view anywhere. My disappointment knew no bounds. I was shell-shocked to say the least. All my dreams of sighting and photographing the birds in their plenty had evaporated into thin air.

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - A dry spell 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Not a drop of water in sight 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Watch Tower: Witness to a glorious past 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary - Dry and Deserted 

Soon we were joined by a gentleman with a pair of binoculars. He introduced himself as Mr. Bal Pandian, an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover. (I would learn later that he was a legend in bird conservation in this region). He informed us that this particular area of Tamil Nadu had not received good rains for two consecutive years. With no other source of water, the sanctuary had dried up.

 Mr. Bal Pandian - A genuine nature-lover and conservationist 

Mr. Pandian and his late wife (until her death a few years ago) had looked after the sanctuary their whole lives. They had planted and nurtured a lot of the trees in the sanctuary. In the past they had rescued abandoned birds and nurtured them to good health. They had dedicated their lives to the well-being of the sanctuary and were genuine nature-lovers in the true sense of the word.

Mr. Pandian went on to show us his collection of bird photographs taken by him as well as other professional photographers, in the past. The photographs were breathtaking. Colourful and varied birds in their plenty, flamingos, pelicans, storks etc. Looking at the current state of the sanctuary, it was hard to believe that these photographs had been taken at this very sanctuary.

After a short while, I took a stroll around the sanctuary. The main purpose of the stroll was to sight atleast one bird, any bird!!! Sure enough, there were a handful of the resident species.  I saw a Common Hoopoe, an Asian Koel, a Rufous Treepie, a pair of Common Mynas and a Rock pigeon from a distance. In times of desperation, Something is better than nothing.

 Common Hoopoe 

 Acrobatic Squirrel 

 Asian Koel 

 Common Myna 

 Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary 

We bid farewell to Mr. Pandian and made alternative plans to spend the afternoon at the Courtallam waterfalls.

 Courtallam waterfalls, here we come. 

Without doubt, this had been a saddening experience. It was not only the sanctuary that was affected. Even the surrounding villages had been adversely affected by the lack of rains. It was a stark reminder that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. In our pursuit of progress and development, it is important that we do not destroy the environment and tilt the fragile ecological balance.

With a heavy heart, it was time to bid adieu to Koonthankulam. Hopefully, things would turn around soon and I would be able to visit Koonthankulam again during happier times!


 Mr. Bal Pandian 
We were fortunate to have met Mr. Bal Pandian at the Bird Sanctuary. Mr. Pandian and his late wife had devoted their entire lives to the sanctuary. In addition to their time and efforts, they had put in their lives’ savings as well, in their endeavour to conserve the flora and fauna at the sanctuary. 

But the lives of Mr. Pandian and other such unsung heroes around the country have a tragic twist. Though Mr. Pandian has been honoured and felicitated on numerous occasions, by various state governments and other organizations, there has not been any significant monetary aid to compensate him for all that he has invested. Mr. Pandian had to stop going to these award functions, as even the to and fro travel to the award functions had to be borne by him!

It was a very sad and sorry state of affairs indeed. We, as a society, have a long way to go in terms of acknowledging our real heroes.


  1. Hi Tobin,
    Very nice post. Enjoyed reading it. Beautiful pictures of the TamilNadu landscape. Mr. Bal Pandian's story was touching. I wish I could help him in some way.
    You captured the birds beautifully. Even the common Myna looked exotic in the photo. :)
    You did not post pictures of the waterfall. Are you saving it for your next post? :)

  2. Nicely written.Wonderful narration. Keep posting....


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