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The road to paradise

The Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is a true slice of ornithological heaven

Tejas Abraham

A boat ride snakes through waterways in a mangrove. On the marshy land, the earth heaves as crocodiles struggle to find a good resting position. Trees form a low canopy adding an emerald glow to the surroundings. Birds soar in the sky, adding a splash of colour, their twitters piercing the silence.

This sense of idyll is spread over a mere 1.8 square kilometres on Chorao Island, along the Mandovi River.

The Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is the only protected estuarine habitat in Goa and boasts an incredible diversity of migratory and marsh birds, and animals. It is home to the white-collared kingfisher (one of seven species found here), the Lesser Adjutant (a large stork), purple herons, white egrets, drongos, mynahs and eagles. In addition, there are reptiles and crustaceans like crocodiles, otters, flying foxes, mudskippers, ducks and crabs.

This patch of land is now the only recognized bird sanctuary in Goa and one the most significant ones in India. A commendable feat for a sanctuary that did not exist 50 years ago.

From grain to mangrove

Once upon a time, Chorao Island was full of privately-owned paddy fields. Land reforms and subsequent neglect led to the collapse of embankments, allowing saltwater from the Mandovi River to enter the fields, rendering them uncultivable. Birds that frequented the island helped in dispersing mangrove seeds and trees took root in the soft sediment. Aquatic life flourished. The Goa Forest Department planted different mangrove species. In 1988, the area got declared a bird sanctuary by the Government of India and named after India’s most eminent ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali.

The sanctuary is located between two rivers, Mapusa and Mandovi. The ecosystem is characterized by mudflats - coastal wetlands where sediments are deposited by tides and rivers, and is home to diverse flora and fauna. From the smallest of crabs to large storks, the mudflats bustle with activity. Kingfishers can be spotted perched on wooden poles, their eyes actively seeking out their next catch. Herons tip-toe in shallow waters, extending their long necks, vigilant and inquisitive. Ibises fly above in magnificent formations.

A kingfisher surveying his surroundings. Credit: KanikaJSR/CC BY-SA

A section of the sanctuary has a narrow pathway shaded by the mangrove canopy. Although fewer birds are visible from the pathway, other critters take the spotlight. Funnel-web spiders scamper back into crevices, ants march over moss covered rocks, crabs forage amidst the pencil-like roots of the mangrove, picking up debris in their claws. In a matter of minutes, as the tide turns, the mucky mudflats submerge and allow a plethora of fish to take over the mangrove.

As part of the conservation efforts, there is a nursery with four species of mangrove trees. A well-equipped Nature Research Centre offers aid and information to those seeking it.

The best time to visit the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is early mornings between the months of November and February, when migratory birds pay a visit to the island. Visitors can explore on their own, hire a guide, or opt for a boat ride through canals. An early morning boat ride through the still waters offers beautiful vistas of still speckled with the reflection of the mangroves.

Insider's Tip: There's a three-storied watchtower offering an aerial view of the surroundings, and birds. Carry your binoculars.

The need for conservation

The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is the perfect example of sustained conservation efforts from the local people and the state government in tandem. The state government organizes an annual Bird Festival in raise awareness about the diversity of Goan avifauna. The sanctuary teaches us a good lesson about the protection of nature. Suitable habitats can be created for wildlife in barren and unused lands. A haven for biodiversity can be built from scratch. With a gentle nudge, nature can find ways to thrive in small pockets and create a refuge a refuge not just for other flora and fauna, but even for us humans.

But, there’s a need to protect this biodiversity. Over the past few years, Goa has seen a consistent increase in the number of domestic and international tourists. The uncontrolled and unplanned development of this sector has had an adverse effect on its ecological environment. Greater generation and subsequent mismanagement of waste, exploitation of natural resources to meet growing demands, and rapid clearing of natural habitats for development are some major concerns. The irony lies in the fact that rapid development is carried out to accommodate more tourists - the very people who arrive here to enjoy Goa’s natural beauty.

The Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, thus, is a good glimpse into a lesser known side of Goa, a reminder of the natural beauty the state has to offer and the need to conserve it.

Details: Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is located 30km from Dabolim airport. It is a short ferry ride from Ribandar Ferry Terminal, which is a short drive from the capital Panjim. Entry Fee: INR 10 (Indian visitors), INR 100 (foreign visitors). A boat ride is INR 1,000 (group).

Mangrove mudskipper, and crab credit: Forestowlet/ CC BY-SA

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