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Birds back in revamped Dankuni wetlands

It was late last year that a group of bird-watching enthusiasts found a yellow monitor lizard (Varanus flavescens) crushed in the wetlands of Dankuni. The sight of this pathetic, rather Jurassic-looking creature shocked them not only for the mauled condition it was in but also because it is supposed to have the same level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 as the tiger.

Yet, the animal lay dead in its own habitat — about 1,000 acres of wetland in Dankuni, just about an hour north of Calcutta. It had been crushed because these wetlands were being ravaged and filled up by developers. One of the 100-plus trucks dumping fly ash everyday had apparently crushed it.

Wood sandpipers (top) and a citrine wagtail(middle) at the Dankuni wetlands in November. Migratory birds have started flocking to the wetlands again following court-ordered restoration

And it was not just one such species. Birdwatchers say the area has been a haven for birds, including a number of species that are rarely seen in the area, such as purple heron and yellow-breasted bunting. This is also the habitat of the fishing cat, the state animal of West Bengal. And, hydrologically, such a vast wetland would be of significant value in holding and recharging ground water for the region. The birds and the waterbodies, too, were rapidly disappearing in Dankuni.

It seemed that some private developers had seen the colour of the money that lay in converting these wetlands to commercial use — and they appeared not to have any worries about violating central and state laws, nor about mundane requirements such as environmental impact assessments.

Fortunately, a group of NGOs — PUBLIC, WWF, and DISHA — started drawing the attention of the state government to the brazen destruction. In May this year, PUBLIC, with the support of the other NGOs, filed a writ petition in the high court seeking a cease and desist order on the district and state authorities.

Not only did the high court issue such an order, it went further and directed that restoration of the destruction caused to the wetlands should be initiated. Such an order, according to PUBLIC, was a first — despite the extent of the damage done, restoration of these wetlands would be an exciting challenge.

After some prodding by the court, the district authorities of Hooghly started the restoration work by excavating tonnes of fly ash that had been dumped.

Today, almost a year after the yellow monitor lizard’s crushed body was discovered, the birds are back! This past weekend saw the yellow-breasted bunting and the little bunting appearing once again after their long flight from Africa.

It may be a while before the damage to the entire area is undone but at least a start has been made.

And perhaps the community of yellow monitor lizards will also return.

The carcass of a yellow monitor lizard found near the wetlands last year, an evidence
of attempts at mauling the birdwatchers’ paradise