Protecting birds, with the sounds of silence

Residents of a TN village emulate Bishnois

Birds arriving at Vettangudi Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Courtesy Jayaraj

The Bishnois of Rajasthan, religiously protecting animals and birds for over five centuries now, may be delighted that a fragment of their ecological faith has wafted across the Vindhyas to a remote village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district.

Step into the lush green canopy of two proximate villages- Vettangudi Patti and Kollukudi Patti in Tirupathur taluk that encompass three “Kanmaai’s” (large irrigation tanks), the “mantra” in everyone’s lips is not any esoteric or sacred chants, but a speech-act that delivers “silence”.

If the Vettangudi Bird Sanctuary that nestles on two of these tank beds spread over 38.4 hectares, is still pleasant to thousands of migratory birds from around the globe for over four decades now, it is thanks to a golden rule the people of these two villages have passionately upheld, a la the Bishnoi community’s creed to preserve all life forms.

Good or bad times, it is scarcely believable that in these days of high-decibels excitements, about 800-odd people of these two village Panchayats, namely
Vettangudi Patti and Kollukudi Patti, closest to the sanctuary, have given a permanent holiday to fire-crackers. Even beating a small drum badgering native pride is a taboo for a profoundly environmental cause.

While Vettangudi was officially declared a bird sanctuary in June 1977 by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, for long years before that an amazing variety of migratory birds have been gravitating to the “Kanmaais” of these two villages to make it a nature’s receptacle for nesting and breeding.

The Vettangudi Bird Sanctuary, located about 51 km from the temple city of Madurai, tucked away a wee bit inside as you drive down the Madurai-Melur-Tirupathur Highway in Sivaganga district, is not just an ornithologist’s delight for its rich miscellaneous croons. It also mirrors how humans live in harmony with nature setting aside cultural compulsions.
It is not that the villagers do not celebrate a universal festival like “Deepavali”. Little bright lamps dot the homes in these two villages for the occasion. But “for the last 43 years, as I know, nobody has burst a single cracker here to celebrate the festival as we don’t want the loud noise to disturb or unsettle the birds that flock here,” says Chinnaih of Vettangudi.

Typically, the birds from distant lands reach the sanctuary by September-end every year and stay on till March, said Mr Palanichamy, Forest Ranger, Tirupathur. By that time, the birds would have hatched and the young ones eager to take wings. This year, 5000 birds have already homed in so far.

As rest of India  celebrated “Deepavali” with a variety of deafening crackers, from the sturdy “Red Fort double”, ‘thousand wallahas’ to ‘atom bombs’, the locals play host to these birds observed as usual, a quiet, self-imposed moratorium on all crackers in a noble quest to protect the sanctuary.

“The people here do not use even fire crackers at a funeral procession or beat the traditional drum as it can scare away the birds,” says Sivaganga District Forest
Officer Sampath Lal Gupta. The migratory birds come for “nesting and breeding”, mostly from the Trans-Himalayan region, including some of the erstwhile Soviet  Republics like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, Tibet, besides from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives.

Giving birth to new life is so sacred in the Eastern traditions that nobody wants to inconvenience these birds with even a sharp rustle, adds Gupta, explaining how the villagers of Vettangudi Patti and  Kollukudi Patti are, “somewhat like the Bishnois practicing this self-restraint to protect wildlife.”

The people in these two villages may not be total vegetarians like the Bishnois, but when it came to ensuring a comfortable, noise-free ambience for the birds to nest and breed, the people caringly bond with them.

“It’s a concern we show for the birds as we would do for our children by ensuring all is silent here,” says, Ms Karunambikai, a resident. “To give up a custom may seem no big deal, but people do it for the birds,” she adds, explaining the importance of being earnest in saying ‘no’ to crackers.

From the “open bill stork”, “tarter”,  “Indian cormorant”, “night heron”, “grey heron’, ‘pond heron’, ‘cattle egret’, ‘great egret”, “Asian open bill”, “glossy ibis”,  “common coot”, “green peafowl”, to the “white-breasted water hen”, the veteran bird watcher of the village, K R Veeriah lists 25 such exotic winged ones who come calling to Sivaganga District every year.

The Forest Department also reinforces the keep-silence people’s creed, routinely sensitizing people right from school children upwards. “Even a kid here will tell you why not to burst crackers,” chuckles Veeriah, adding, the birds can be viewed in a close natural setting without need for binoculars.

As a reciprocal gesture to the villagers, “we pass on the proceeds of the sale of bushes-like growth as firewood to the Village Forest Committee” to encourage their conservation efforts, said Gupta, adding, the funds so transferred averaged Rs.75,000 per year in the last three years. One small step by the people has meant a leap for wildlife protection at Vettangudi.

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