Life and death in Kaliveli’s salt pans

Driving between Chennai and Pondicherry, approximately 30 km before you reach the former French enclave, you cannot but notice a small inlet channel from the sea passing below a narrow bridge and then expanding into a vast lake stretching all the way to the western horizon. This is Kaliveli, the second largest natural lake in southern India (after Pulicat Lake in Andhra Pradesh) and unfortunately among the most neglected wetland ecosystems of the eastern coast.

Kaliveli is connected to the sea by the Yedayanthittu estuary from which there is a considerable intake of sea water. Along its large catchment area are numerous tanks and channels that pump in fresh water especially during the monsoon (October to December) and hence this wetland has a salinity gradient useful for a large array of waterbirds, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs and fishes. Estimates of the exact size of the wetland vary (a substantial portion of the lake is a seasonal wetland) and a documentary film by FERAL puts it as 70 sq km. Kaliveli is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is an important wintering location and stopover point for winter migrants. Wildlife biologist K S Gopi Sundar once counted over 300 White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) at Kaliveli.

A large area of the wetland, especially the eastern edge along the East Coast Road, has been converted to salt pans. Initially, while driving past the pans on my way to Mahabalipuram and beyond, I used to be fascinated by the sculptural beauty of the salt heaps stretching all the way to the horizon, snow-white pyramids neatly placed in a vast chequered landscape of neatly squared salt pans. It was sheer photogenic geometry. Soon I was to become familiar with their more disturbing aspect, ecologically speaking.

A gravid female Fan-throated Lizard
Spider carrying an egg sac
Remains of a dead tortoise
The body of a snake, consumed by the brine
A crab seems very much at home in the salt pans

In July last year, Gopi and Swati were in Pondicherry and we went over to Kaliveli. As we entered the salt pans we noticed the absolute absence of birds. Barring a few Black-winged Stilts before the bund, we saw no no birds amid the rows of salt pans. Except for some Fan Throated Lizards (Sitana ponticeriana) – among them a number of gravid females — and some crabs peering out of their burrows along the water channels, everything we saw was dead. There were dead fish in the water channels (closer to concentrated brine than water) no doubt trapped in the channels during the high tide, a dead tortoise, dead snake, dead dragonflies and thousands of shells of dead mollusks. Almost every form of life which had ventured into the salt pans had been quickly snuffed out by the brine.

As we walked through the pans towards the edge of the lake trying to get a closer view of the Greater Flamingos that we had seen as pink specks from the road, we came across a remnant mangrove patch along the border of the lake, trying to spread outwards towards the pans but brutally kept in check by human intervention. The entire area of the salt pans was once a mangrove forest, and was later chopped down for the salt industry, thus depriving the east coast of a rich mangrove and estuarine ecosystem that would have rivaled those of Pichavaram, nearly 100 km south.

The salt pans have extended the area of the brackish water further into the lake and have thus alerted the salinity gradient of the lake. The ground water is now so brackish that some salt pans are no longer dependent on the intake from the sea; they simply pump the brine up from the ground.
Painted Storks and Openbill Storks forage beyond the salt pans while the brackish shallows beyond the mangroves play host to Greater Flamingos
A last stand of mangroves
Mangrove forests like these once covered the east coast

It has taken remarkable official apathy to destroy a rich natural wetland ecosystem (Kaliveli continues to be without legal protection). Not even “tourist infatuated” bureaucratic machinery has been able to see the potential of a well-protected, incredibly rich birding area so close to a tourist hub.

Text and photographs by Sahastrarashmi

Further reading:
A manual on Kaliveli (PDF) from the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL)
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