Motor launch on Ousteri Lake
10 February 2008
The boat ride was idyllic – the new motor quiet, the winds calm, the lake beautiful. It would have been a perfect day, unless you knew what I now know.
Ousteri (or Oussudu) Lake is the largest lake in Pondicherry, located approximately 12 miles west of the town. For over a decade, environmentalists have tried to get the lake protected as a sanctuary, to no avail. The Bombay Natural History Society, a member of Birdlife International, has designated Ousteri an Important Bird Area (IBA) of India – over 20,000 birds belonging to over 40 species used to reside or winter at Ousteri. The Asian Wetland Bureau declared Ousteri one of 93 significant wetlands in Asia; and many of the birds recorded at Ousteri, including Spot-billed pelicans, Eurasian Spoonbills, Darters, Painted Storks, and Black-headed (or White) Ibis, are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This lake was one of the largest breeding sites for the Common Coot in South India, and many of the resident birds, such as the Purple Moorhen and Little Grebe, nested amidst floating vegetation present in the lake.
Paddle boat on Ousteri Lake
When boating was first contemplated by the Pondicherry Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC – a Government undertaking) about 10 years ago, professors and students at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, NGOs and concerned citizens protested – nesting birds would be disturbed and may not breed. At that time, the Tourism Department compromised to allow only paddle and row boats in a specified area, cordoned off by buoys. At some point, the buoys were taken out, allowing paddle and row boaters complete access to the lake. And a couple of weeks ago, PTDC began its motorized launch and boat service. For Rs. 50 (approximately US$1.28), you could ride either the launch, which seats 35 passengers and a crew of 5 comfortably, or an eight passenger boat.
The launch takes picnicking passengers (who more often than not, throw their plastic and other wastes into the water) around a small island and skirts the opposite shore for 45 minutes before coming back to dock. Sadly, there were very few birds in sight. A few egrets, a handful of individuals of a couple of species of ducks and some pond herons – all of which scattered at the approach of the launch. Certainly not the thousands of ducks that people who have been coming to the lake for 30 years remember. One resident of the lake, who participates in the two annual surveys of birds (the Salim Ali Bird Count held in November and the waterfowl count for Wetlands International in January), reports that 2 species of waterfowl no longer nest in Ousteri. Large birds are poached, and illegal gill nets cause the deaths of diving birds (particularly Little Grebe or Dabchicks) captured in the nets.
Then there is the pollution: raw sewage runs into the lake, untreated; household and industrial wastes are dumped either near the lake or in the dry lake bed in summer. (Local villagers living near the lake have not used the water in the lake for over a year and a half – they say it is not clean.) And the illegal soil and pebble mining: canyons of red soil have been illegally taken out of the area surrounding the lake to feed the construction of institutions, industries and residential colonies springing up in what was recently agricultural land surrounding the town of Pondicherry.
One of the “weed scrapers”
On top of all this, the lake is shrinking due to siltation, being choked with weeds, and losing its feeder channels due to industrial development in the catchment area. (The launch employs two men to scrape the aquatic weeds off the motor with large sticks, and every once in a while, the boat slowed and motor struggled as weeds overpowered the blades.)
Bird watching tower at Ousteri
Two lone towers that were built for bird watching before the change in tourism policy stand unused on the shore. And the huge sign board that listed the types of birds seen at Ousteri has been taken down.