Mumbai is one of only a few major conurbations in the world to boast urban flamingos. But a new bridge will cut through their habitat and most likely drive them away.
Flamingos might be Mumbai's best kept secret, even though they have been living in India's largest city for more than two decades. For five months every year, up to 40,000 flamingos nest and feed in Mumbai's southern Sewri area. But even Sewri residents don't know that Mumbai, along with Nairobi and Miami, are the only major cities that host flamingos.
Sadly, it looks like the secret will be squelched before it can become a major attraction. That's because a bridge is to be build across Mumbai's harbor, which will cut across the spot where flamingos currently nest and feed.
Watching flamingos before they disappear
The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) regularly organizes flamingo-watching events in Sewri. Shirin Khokhawala is one of about two dozen adults who brought their children, water bottles and binoculars in hand, early one Sunday morning in spring.
When she heard that the proposed bridge, called the Mumbai Trans Harbor Link, has been greenlighted by authorities, she wanted to make sure her son didn't miss the opportunity to see the flamingos. "Watching them is such a pleasure. Your day is made," she said.
The flamingo watching event is organized at the jetty, a concrete overlook onto the Sewri creek. Boats are anchored everywhere, some are skeletons of boats that have fallen apart. In the distance, you can see the mainland, with giant chimneys and smokestacks belching fumes into the air. Volunteers have set up two telescopes and pass around a small book with facts about flamingos for anyone who wants more information.
Mumbai: An inviting habitat
Dr. Deepak Apte, director of BNHS, says Sewri is a "wonderfully inviting habitat for flamingos."
From May to October, they reside in the Great Rann of Kutch, a seasonal salt marsh located in India's Thar Desert close to the Pakistani border. Here the mudflats of the Rann flood up to half a meter during the monsoon, making it an ideal place for flamingos to nest. They lay their eggs on mounds of mud, which no predator can reach.
Then, when it gets really cold, they fly 600 kilometers southeast to Mumbai’s Sewri Bay, which is ringed with mangroves on three sides. Sewri Bay also gets regularly flooded. The sand bed here is flat and so every time the tide comes in it brings an easy food for the flamingos. What's more, the water is nice and warm, which Apte says is because of the power plant on the coast.
Against mangroves and the silhouettes of Mumbai's industry, tens of thousands of flamingos live and breed in large colonies called pats. They're social creatures. Occasionally one flies low, looking like a long speck of pink against the sooty sky. At high tide, they float like petals on the rising water. At low tide, they stalk around, hunting for shrimp, crabs, and blue-green algae.
Even when they're feeding, they’re graceful. Flamingos are “filter feeders.” They bend their necks, turn their heads upside down, open their bills and let everything stream in. Then, they filter it. Like whales with their baleen, their beaks have horny plates that strain the mud, leaving only nutrient-rich food behind.
Wrong place for a bridge
This ecosystem is one of the reasons the construction of the Mumbai Trans Harbor Link has been stalled for thirty years. The bridge will start in Sewri and will run 22 kilometers across the creek to Uran, the site of Mumbai's future airport. Construction is set for December 2016, says Prakash Mamdapure, engineer in chief of the bridge building body, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority.
The Bombay Natural History Society has been closely involved in advocating for the protection of the flamingos since the very start. In fact, the Ministry of Environment and Forests instructed the bridge building body to have BNHS assess the environmental fallout.
According to BNHS's director Apte, the society doesn't oppose the bridge itself, but its location. That's why in 2013 they put forward the suggestion to realign the bridge, shifting it 300 meters south. They've also asked for the bridge not to have any cables as these can clip the birds' wings.
Over the last three years, their proposal for realignment has been rejected, then accepted and then finally rejected again this year. In a telephone interview, Mamdapure said realignment is "impossible." The Bombay Port Trust, he continued, "is not ready to give the land and technically it's also just not possible to shift it." He was quick to point out that although the alignment of the bridge won't be shifted, certain mitigation measures suggested by BNHS will be taken.
Flamingos will leave Mumbai
It looks like a steady stream of traffic will divide the flamingos' habitat almost exactly in half once the bridge is completed four to five years from now. Conservationist Bittu Sahgal is saddened by this. He says it's a very shortsighted move.
"This bridge and all that it delivers, the brand equity of this, is not even a thousandth of the brand equity of a city with 30,000 flamingos. We don't have a sense of history and we don't have a sense of the future."
Surprisingly, the BNHS has a slightly more optimistic view. "Flamingos are more resilient than you'd think," Apte said. "After all, they live and thrive near these power plants."
What's more dangerous, he says, is the level of heavy metals in the effluents that the flamingos will ingest. "It's not that the bridge is going to kill them. The insidious pollution is more harmful. The bridge will displace them. They'll find another feeding ground. But it's an absolute tragedy to lose such a miraculous place."