Point Calimere

22 Jan, 2020

Wetlands, Biodiversity and People

The sky was a clear bright blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds as we drove along the slightly bumpy, road that was broad enough to admit two vehicles. Electric towers ran through the fields, almost diagonal to the boundaries set by the existing scenery, while cattle grazed contentedly in the fields which varied from dry, to just ploughed, to bright green. Many small canals ran beside the fields appearing alternatively along the road. Small, brightly coloured, slightly washed out temples merged with the open landscape where the only interruptions were the spiky Palmyra trees. Very few people appeared on the flat dry countryside.

Coconut and palmyra trees are spread across the landscape ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

Every time we crossed a village, we’d come upon brightly coloured varieties of bananas, fruits and fresh fish. Sometimes the fish were so fresh that you could see them swimming in the shallow pits as prospective customers watched them! Meanwhile, goats ran freely along the brightly coloured walls of the houses. Every village we crossed had its own pond, used and maintained by the community.

Shops selling colourful fruits, vegetables and daily use items ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

The Brahminy kite is common to Point Calimere ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

Soon we started coming across multiple small rectangular ponds filled with water, the same size as small agricultural fields. These were aquaculture farms for breeding shrimps. Some of these “fields” were covered with a dark green net to protect the “crop” from hungry birds, while others remained open. They all had bright yellow and light blue aerators to churn in oxygen for the shrimps. Their movement would bring in new life and sound to the serene waters, which would be soon be full of ripples, while the stately Brahminy kites flew over the farms, closely inspecting this exercise.

The aerators at the aquaculture farms are turned on periodically during the day ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

This Kite is quite common to Point Calimere, in addition to variety of birds that appear in the wetland complex, especially near the pumping stations and Muthupet mangroves. Apart from Palmyra trees, which were popular among the locals for their fruits and leaves, the landscape was widely covered by the silent invader- Prospois juliflora - and of course, coconut trees. Earlier the coconut cultivations were in plenty and served as a source of livelihood for the local communities. But the cyclones that hit the eastern coast had damaged most of these cultivations. The locals were now turning to aquaculture as an alternative means of livelihood.

On our way to the Chemplast pumping station in Vedaranyam we travelled on a narrow, elevated and very dry kachcha road. The area on both sides was a mix of land, water and shrubs. The pumping stations brought in the water from the sea which would flow towards the salt pans and the road we were travelling on would eventually be completely inundated. This explained why, on closer inspection, the "road" was completely covered in sea shells and sand.

Artisanal fishermen near the shallow waters of the Chemplast pumping station ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

The water from the pumping station flooded this area bringing in fish. And with the fish came the birds. When we stepped out of our vehicle to gaze at the multitude of life in front of us, we heard the crunching of the shells under our feet and tasted the sea in the air. It was extremely sunny and windy. An array of birds of varying sizes skilfully swooped in and out of these stretches of land and water. Assemblies of storks sifted through the waters while smaller fleets of sandpipers skimmed the surface for smaller prey. But the birds were not the only ones fishing. In the distance we could see the head of a lone fisherman wading through the shallow waters with a large aluminium pot. He was literally fishing with his hands. There were two more fishermen close by who were also making their way to the water.

Our guide enthusiastically pointed our beautiful seashells and variety of flora on the beach ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

One of our guides was an avid birder who had been with the department for nearly a decade. His interest and enthusiasm for wildlife and plants was quite contagious. Sporting a blue 'Point Calimere' t-shirt, he pointed out a range of birds to us, most of which we were unable to spot or differentiate. Novice that I was I could barely appreciate what I saw, but I have to admit that the variety of birds in such a small area was impressive.

Apart from the artisanal fishermen, a lone man on a tractor and a curious old woman with an empty plastic jar crossed us. She paused hesitantly looking at our strange group: three uniformed men and three women in jeans, covered from head to toe to avoid a tan, all looking out at the horizon with enormous binoculars. As she walked away, we resumed our drive to the pumping station. It stood beside a stream of water leading to the inundation areas. A gang of lean dogs of varying ages were wandering around the waters. I learnt that they too were waiting for their catch of the day. They would simply wait for the water levels to fall and get the first pick of fresh fish from the sea!

Spoon-billed storks near Chemplast pumping station ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

Ramar Padam

By afternoon we reached Ramar Padam, “Ram’s feet” in Tamil, a Hindu shrine associated with epic Ramayana - and the first beings we saw were a group of relaxing monkeys and were cautioned not get too close to them. As we ascended the white, stone steps, we saw the vast expanse of dry evergreen forest and Vedaranyam salt pans around us. Somewhere in the undergrowth lay an abandoned railway line while salt pans on the other side stretched as far as the eye could see. As we tried to take some unsuccessful panorama shots, we saw oncoming train of tourists and devotees making their way up to see the stone slab said to bear the impressions the feet of Rama, understood to be the place where he stood and scouted Ravana’s kingdom in Sri Lanka.

Salt pans at Ramar Padam ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy


Stretching across Vedaranyam, the salt pans are a unique feature of the area. Here, the practice of salt farming goes back several generations.

The salt pans shone brightly in the sun as we walked into one where an old man and woman were working. The pans were bordered with coloured pieces of cotton cloth to secure them. The workers stood in the salt with bare feet, not pausing for a minute, answering our questions while they worked their way from pan to pan. The salt worker had recently moved to this village with his family, but he had been practising this profession for several years now, just like his parents. But he wanted for a different life for his children. He hoped that they would study abroad. The old lady working with him turned out to be his mother who told us that neighbouring villages didn’t marry off their daughters to men in this town because they’d have to work in salt farms as well.

Salt production is an old and widely practised profession in the Point Calimere area ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

On our way to the salt factory we crossed several pits filled with red brine and small hillocks of salt. In the air-conditioned office of the manager we learnt that this particular company manufactured edible salt and employed a number of salt workers locally for this purpose. Goats roamed freely, scratching against the walls of the office while we tried to break apart a crystal of salt from the hill in front of us. Recent rains had washed away the salt that had been collected on the periphery of the pans.

Salt from the manufacturing unit ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary

We left for Kodiakkarai or Point Calimere wildlife sanctuary and the Chola lighthouse early next morning. Open grasslands of the sanctuary allowed us to quickly spot blackbucks, spotted deer, peacocks, Asian Openbill and an extremely photogenic wild boar. From the watch tower at the beach we could see the extent of the sanctuary, widespread grassland and the sea on the other side. The beach was completely devoid of people and the sea of ships. On closer inspection the Chola lighthouse seemed to be nearly at the end of its life while mudskippers thrived all around it.

Clockwise: Chola lighthouse, Point Calimere Boundary Stone, Asian Openbill, Blackbuck, Wild boar at the Wildlife Sanctuary ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy


We took a boat to the Muthupet mangroves from a small village located on the periphery of the mangroves. All the fishing boats here had their own license numbers without which fishing in this area was illegal and were neatly parked in a row on the narrow beach.

Fisherfolk at the Muthupet Mangroves ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

What we witnessed in an hour in the mangrove forest was so much life that it was overwhelming. Tiny silver fishes periodically jumped out of water shining in the sun. Birds flew parallel to the boat, swooping in and out of the water. Some flew faster and higher than the boat, sometimes flitting in and out of sight. Finally, we reached an clearing where the wind was strong, and the birds flew around us while fishermen cast nets in the distance.

Cormorants and Asian Openbill fishing at the Muthupet Mangroves ©GIZ/Neha Owaisy

By the time we reached the shore, we realised that we’d witnessed only a fraction of the mangroves, the salt pans, the wildlife and met only very few people who lived in and around the Kodaikarai or Point Calimere area. One could only wonder at the interconnections between all the different actors, animate and inanimate, to truly capture the essence of what makes it a complex wetland and how influence on one area would affect the activities, livelihoods, plants and wildlife on the other end. By considering the various stakeholders and integrating the management of the different areas will we be able to preserve the natural beauty and appreciate the benefits we derive from this wetland.

When we left, we realised that we were going miss the quiet clear skies of Kodiakarai where one could still see the stars without being interrupted by a passing flight.

The cyclones had affected one side of the mangroves while the other end thrived with colour and life ©GIZ/Neha

Photos and write-up by

Neha Owaisy

The views expressed in this blog post are purely those of the author.


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