Pulicat Lagoon, Flamingos’ haven

S Balakrishnan

Pulicat Lagoon is the preferred sojourn for the beautiful flamingos that flock there in thousands during winter months. The sanctuary is a refuge for 83 varieties of birds that gather there to a total count of 80,000. What a colourful sight would it be! The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) declared the Pulicat Lagoon wetland system a Ramsar site of international importance and the World Wide Fund for Nature has declared it a protected area for the cause of migrant birds, particularly flamingos. It is classified in India as a coastal wetland of national importance. However, I could sight only the crows as it was off-season in August. So, the credit for the wonderful photos of flamingos that accompany this article goes to the TN Tourism Department. Every year approximately 15,000 greater flamingos visit the lagoon along with pelicans, kingfishers, herons, painted storks, spoonbills, ducks and other birds. Pulicat Lagoon is a safe resting place for inter-continental winged visitors.
Pulicat Lake is a brackish water lagoon, the second largest in India after Chilika Lake in Odisha. It is my bad luck that though I lived for 3 years in Orissa, I could never make it to Chilika. So, I can only claim to have seen India’s 2nd largest lagoon and not the first one.  Pulicat Lagoon occupies 450 sq. km., shrunk from its original 720 sq.km., with 96% of it falling in Andhra and 4% in Tamil Nadu. During low tide, the area shrinks to 250 sq. km. It stretches to 60 km on the Coromandel Coast along the Bay of Bengal to its East, with a maximum width of 16 km. It encompasses many islands, the most prominent being the Sriharikota Island where ISRO’s rocket launching centre is located. Because the road link to this island has divided the Lagoon, the northern part of Pulicat Lagoon has become a marshy, flat muddy area where agriculture is taken up. This is what you call collateral damage of development/progress.  Its average depth has also shrunk from 3 meters to a mere 1 meter. Three rivers and some streams feed it with fresh water along with the monsoon rains/cyclones.  
Pulicat Lake is believed to have existed since 5000 BC (as established by radio carbon dating of sediments) as a marshy area and later turned into a lagoon. Podouke (Pulicat) is mentioned as one of the three ports on India’s east coast in the 1st century itself in “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, written by an anonymous mariner. It was a coveted sea trading centre for which European merchants like the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English vied with each other until Madras firmly became the first English settlement in India for the East India Company.
Pulicat Lagoon is 60 kms north of Chennai City and is called by its original Tamil name Pazhaverkadu. With migratory birds flocking to it, two bird sanctuaries have been created, one each in Andhra and Tamil Nadu. But despite being protected, Pulicat Lake is facing serious threats due to silting (both natural and human-made), pollution due to fish/shrimp/crab farming & processing industries,  petrochemical industries, agriculture chemicals/pesticides, habitations, sewage, unethical fishing, etc.  Fishing and salt production are two important commercial activities carried out here. Thousands of fishermen depend on Pulicat for their livelihood.
My visit was essentially a conducted trip to see Pulicat’s historical and archaeological sites, and not an environmental one. So there was not much time left for exploring the lagoon; just a few minutes to enjoy the vast beauty of the vast lake as the sun was about to set and to click a few shots. The main street of this remote coastal town thrived with fish stalls. Being a vegetarian I clicked the bazaar scene covering my nostrils. But, oh, yes, I do enjoy fried fish and fish curry, especially when offered free! I do hope to make an exclusive visit to Pulicat to greet the flamingos. Call of the flamingos!  
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