The journey of the Tamiraparani Waterbird Count (TWC)

The southern districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu are important areas for wintering waterfowls and migratory bird species. The Tamiraparani River, the most important river in the region, originates in the Western Ghats. It meanders across the rugged landscape of these districts for 120 km before joining the Bay of Bengal at Punnaikayal village. The Tamiraparani and its tributaries are the backbone of economic activity in the region even as they support the rich biodiversity of the area. The river and the centuries old irrigation system associated with it, have made Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts, major ‘rice bowls’ of Tamil Nadu. But the river system also provides a niche habitat for endemic trees, bat roosts and several heronries and it has been identified as an "Important Bird Area" by Birdlife International.

The Tamiraparani basin harbours around 1200 tanks or wetlands, which together support over 90 species of water birds, including 40 migratory species. ATREE has been involved in research and outreach in this landscape since 2008. By monitoring approximately 200 wetlands, ATREE's research has helped document the bird and floral diversity, the extent of wetland utilisation by humans and animals and threats the wetland ecosystem. Unfortunately, today, many of these wetlands are threatened by encroachment, pollution and urbanization. Although Koonthankulam Bird Sanctuary and Thirupudaimaruthur Conservation Reserve were recently granted legal protection status by the Government, many other important bird habitats such as Vagaikulam, Sengulam, Kadambakulam, Perungulam, remain unprotected.

ATREE has conducted several outreach programmes to build awareness to conserve these unique habitats. The Tamiraparani Waterbird Count (TWC) is one such programme that aims to draw the attention of local communities to the wetlands. The Tamiraparani Waterbird Count (TWC) was initiated by ATREE in the year of 2011 with the involvement of just 13 citizens and 14 bird experts from southern India. Since then, the popularity of TWC has increased and it has now become a flagship conservation event in the region. In 2016, about 700 volunteers participated in the Tamiraparani Waterbird Festival. The event has mushroomed to include many side events like an art and photo competition, a photo exhibition and lectures targeted at all age groups and people from all walks of life.

The TWC has inspired the creation of several off-shoot nature societies. Following the TWC in 2011, participants from Thoothukudi district formed a group called Pearl City Nature Society (PCNS). Similarly, after the TWC 2012, Tirunelveli district formed the Nellai Nature Club (NNC). Today, these groups co-organize the TWC and also conduct frequent bird watching trips and trekking trips. Many of the members from these groups have learned to identify the birds and even lead teams during TWC. The groups also conduct environmental education programmes in schools and colleges. Recently, PCNS was invited to conduct a blackbuck census in Vallanadu Blackbuck Sanctuary. NNC adopted the Nainarkulam wetland, an important area for migratory birds in the city of Tirunelveli, for a restoration programme and they are helping keep the wetland clean. While their initial motivation was recreation, the members of PCNS and NNC have now become watchdogs of the natural heritage of Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts. The role of citizen-driven initiatives in conservation cannot be overlooked. With such joint efforts, the future of migratory birds in Tirunelveli and Thoothhukudi districts in Tamil Nadu looks promising.