Mangroves are not widely understood as an ecosystem. They are often likened to terrestrial forests when they are, in fact, a completely different habitat with distinct flora, fauna, and ecological values. Mangroves protect the coastline, provide livelihood to locals, and function as carbon sinks capable of absorbing four times the amount of carbon a regular forest can process. And yet, they are being mindlessly degraded in current times, largely due to developments in aquaculture and industry. The saving grace? The efforts of people like Anant Shankar, shining like beacons of hope in the Godavari mangroves.
Nearly two years ago, Anant Shankar, fresh from training, joined the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department as the Rajamahendravaram Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife). He arrived in the Godavari delta from the landlocked — albeit forest-rich — state of Uttarakhand, with barely any exposure to mangroves. Coastal ecology was novel to him, and it piqued his interest and curiosity. As his learning grew, Shankar’s understanding of the dangers posed to the mangrove forests became increasingly clear, and he began a slew of measures to remedy the situation.
A friend in need
The most ambitious of these is the Mangrove Mitra (Friend of the Mangrove) initiative, which encourages field research on various aspects of the mangrove ecosystem. This project, which is currently underway, relies on involvement from local communities and mangrove residents, local or from anywhere else in the country or world. It seeks to get students involved in spreading awareness and conserving mangroves. “So little is known about the mangroves, so the idea is to survey and document as much as possible about them,” explains Shankar. “Be it trees, wildlife, birds, marine creatures, livelihoods, soil, water quality, conservation, hospitality, training of locals…The idea is to collate all the data and store it on a digital platform, which can be accessed by anyone.”
Shankar understands the value of community support, and believes that “unless local stakeholders are involved, such measures are not effective.” To this end, anybody, from student to senior citizen, can volunteer to be part of Mangrove Mitra. Each member is assigned a group, headed by a subject expert that overlooks a specific area of research, such as mangrove health, bird diversity, or water quality. Volunteers are then assigned tasks. Birding volunteers for instance, might be allocated blocks where they count bird diversity and numbers, and submit their data to the expert who then collates the information. “At last count, over 300 people have signed up,” says Shankar.
In addition to community involvement, Mangrove Mitra’s approach to data collection also helps with budgeting. “There are a lot of challenges and constraints for the department in terms of monitoring, skills, and funding. So we thought of reaching out to people from all backgrounds, to assist us in any way they can.” This initiative, which began in October 2019, is an ongoing and long-term one, but there are other projects that Shankar has spearheaded with definitive success.
Among his other projects is the fishing cat census. The fishing cat is the most enigmatic animal in the mangrove ecosystem. Classified as vulnerable by IUCN, this rare wetland feline inhabits the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary (CWLS), a predominantly mangrove area that lies 20 km south of the busy port city of Kakinada. The species has been a mystery, largely due to rarity of sightings. Our knowledge is so scarce, we don’t know how many fishing cats live in India’s mangroves. In 2018, Shankar sought to remedy this situation, as the 235 sq km of Coringa Sanctuary was under his jurisdiction.
By adopting the same approved method used in tiger censuses, experts, researchers, and local fishing communities were roped in to fan out and set up camera traps in nearly one hundred locations in Coringa. The camera-trapping exercise began in June and lasted two months, followed by several months of data analysis that yielded an astounding result: There were 115 fishing cats in the entire area, considered to be the largest viable population in the country. Heartened by the exercise and its results, the DFO is pressing to take it one step further with a radio telemetry project.
Less headline-grabbing but more tedious, has been the effort to regenerate mangroves outside Coringa’s protected area, especially near the delta of the River Krishna. While the Godavari delta is relatively healthy, the same cannot be said further south where the Krishna empties into the sea. The mangroves in this region are a pale shadow of those in Godavari, owing to dams upstream that block the flow of nutrient-rich soil essential for mangroves. “Several acres of regeneration are underway but it is a slow process,” Shankar says.
A Mangrove Genetic Resource Conservation Centre is also being set up at Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary, with the help of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. The resource centre will showcase the mangrove species of the area, as well as those from the rest of the country, making it a valuable resource for scientists as well as laypeople.
Other efforts by Anant Shankar are more unconventional. Last year, when a central government beautification project for public spaces was being discussed, he floated the idea of turning Kakinada’s railway station into an open-air museum and interpretation centre for mangroves and its creatures. “With the approval of the railways, I asked CSR funds from local government entity ONGC and got Rs 10 lakh,” he explains.
Today, all the benches, a few ceiling spaces, and some walls of Kakinada station are vividly painted with birds and animals of the mangroves. The stars of the sanctuary, the fishing cat and smooth-coated otter, are painted in a gigantic size on the two main staircases. Soon to come: Massive display jars with marine creatures found in the mangroves, preserved in formalin, and accompanied with information boards telling visitors about the species and their habitat. “We hope it will create enough awareness and interest, and encourage people to visit Coringa,” says Shankar. “This in turn will hopefully lead to awareness and help in protecting and preserving the mangroves.”
Anant Shankar was transferred from Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary in early June, 2020, and is currently the District Forest Officer, Visakhapatnam.