Flamingo deaths in Navi Mumbai: A wake up call

Death of 39 flamingos after colliding with an aeroplane has brought attention to shrinking habitats and consequent risks to migratory birds.

On May 20, 2024, an Emirates airplane, descending to land at Mumbai’s Santacruz airport, collided with a flock of flamingos, causing significant damage to the aircraft and killing 39 flamingos. This incident underscores a critical and often overlooked aspect of aviation safety: the risk of bird strikes.

News reports and investigations into the bird strike have revealed two primary causes: The high power lines running through the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary could have been responsible. These power lines, built at great heights, may have forced the flamingos to fly higher than usual, putting them in the path of the descending airplane.

The second is the construction activities along water bodies in Navi Mumbai, sanctioned by the zoning and regulatory authority CIDCO. These developments cause disturbance to the habitat. There are indications that efforts to clear these areas, for construction and development, might have prompted the flamingos to flee, increasing the likelihood of such accidents.

Shrinking wetlands and bird habitats in Navi Mumbai’s once watery landscape are a cause of grave concern. It is worth noting that, in the past 20 years, there have been no such incidents such as these flamingo deaths, caused by a change in path.

Read more: When Navi Mumbai residents came together to protect their wetlands…

How are power lines connected to flamingo deaths? 

In a report by The Hindustan Times, D Stalin, an environmentalist with the NGO Vanashakti, theorised that new power lines through the Thane Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, where the flamingos had flown from, were causing disorientation to the birds. He mentions that power lines were earlier not permitted within bird sanctuaries, but while giving permissions for power lines the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) had surrendered to the power company. As a result, the sanctuary was bulldozed, and towers erected.

Interestingly, out of 47 transmission towers that were constructed by Adani Transmission’s special purpose vehicle, at least 34 of them have been installed in CRZ areas in and around the flamingo sanctuary.

Flamingos were avoiding an area in front of 9 PBR (a project of 9 multi-storied towers near NRI wetlands) because of harsh lights & construction noise recently. Pic: Sunil Aggarwal

Stalin further details that in the last month or so, there have been efforts to disturb the birds that populate the NRI and TS Chanakya wetland areas. “If someone or some people gave chase to the birds out at night, the flocks might have attempted to fly towards Thane Creek and, in the process, met with the accident,” Stalin continues.

Read more: Chanakya Wetlands: In the pink or on the brink?

Given the plans to build on these lands by private developers, this is quite a plausible reason. Incidents of people trying to drive away flamingos from these wetlands are well documented, becoming a common occurrence. In May last year, a video started circulating among birders, of a few people trying to drive away flamingos from a lake next to Seawoods Estate in NRI and Talawe wetlands. 

Patterns of flamingos and other migratory birds in Navi Mumbai 

Flamingos arrive, roost, rest and feed along the creeks at Thane, Airoli, Vashi during their migratory season (November to mid June) after which they fly back to Kutch.

There are 3 large sized roosting sites in the eastern coast of Thane creek, two are in the north-west (along Thane Creek) (TS Chanakya and NRI colony) and one to the south-west (near Panje Funde). When the banks of the creek are inundated during high tide, they fly in droves to these water bodies for rest and fly back during low tide.

These enlisted water bodies are their resting, courtship, feeding places. Due to rapid shrinking of their habitat, disturbances by building, construction, human interference flamingos are getting driven away. 

Every year over a lakh of flamingos and other migratory birds like pacific golden plovers, painted storks, black tailed godwits, Eurasian curlews, northern shovellers, northern pintails, lesser whistling ducks, garganey, spot billed ducks, ruddy shelducks arrive and make these creeks and water bodies their home.

We have seen their numbers and variety dwindling over the years.

picture of flamingos in Navi Mumbai
Flamingos arrive, roost, rest and feed along the creeks at Thane, Airoli, Vashi during their migratory season. Pic: Dhirendra Tripathi

However, the migratory birds including the flamingos will keep arriving as they have been doing for years to feed along the creek banks. This cannot be eliminated, howsoever one may try. And because of that, the banks have been rightly been declared as a Ramsar site and protection granted as flamingo sanctuary. 

Birding enthusiasts arrive every weekend from as far as Nashik, Pune and all parts of India.

Local efforts to conserve the three existing roosting sites have resulted in cancellations of several prestigious development projects in these areas such as the Golf course on TS Chanakya wetland in the north-west of Navi Mumbai. 

Rapid shrinking of habitats for flamingos and other birds 

Since 1971, CIDCO has overseen the development of Navi Mumbai, transforming it into a bustling urban area. However, these developments have drastically altered local habitats, raising concerns about the coexistence of urban infrastructure and wildlife.

The Thane Airoli Vashi creek has buffer mangrove forests and water bodies. During high tides these mangroves and water bodies get flooded with the excess water. These actually act as absorbing buffering zones to prevent the cities from flooding.

However, tidal flows are often blocked via human intervention, to dry up parts of the wetland areas, often making it appear as dry land. Water flow has been recently blocked at NRI Seawoods Complex Talawe wetlands and TS Chanakya wetlands, shrinking them to less than 25% of what they used to be. 

A water body near Navi Mumbai’s Delhi public school suffered similarly. While it was partly restored by the local ex MLA pressure by laying a pipeline, it is still woefully inadequate. Many birds which rest and roost in the water body have not yet returned in the same numbers since last year.

In April, several disoriented and dehydrated flamingos died around the lake on palm beach road.

Migratory birds in Navi Mumbai
Since 1971, CIDCO has overseen the development of Navi Mumbai, transforming it into a bustling urban area. However, these developments have drastically altered bird habitats, migratory patterns, and bird populations. Pic: Dhirendra Tripathi

The Sewri mudflats have also been reduced due to the construction of the Atal Setu bridge. The Panje Funde wetlands are experiencing similar blockage of tidal flow and land reclamation around the JNPT. Birders are not permitted and many of us have stopped going there.

Near the NRI Seawoods Complex, the number of flamingos in Talawe wetlands have reduced, again due to the blockage of tidal flow. The latest development has been the cutting down of mangroves near the TS Chanakya wetlands.

Read more: Will Navi Mumbai residents benefit from the soon-to-be-launched ferry service to Mumbai?

The Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) project, vital for relieving congestion at Mumbai’s existing airport, has also largely been criticised for the threat it could pose to the bird populations, especially flamingos in Navi Mumbai.

In response to these concerns, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) conducted extensive studies on the area’s avifauna, highlighting the critical need to protect bird habitats to mitigate aviation risks. Despite these findings, the reality on the ground remains troubling, with ongoing threats to essential roosting sites due to urban development pressures.

The CIDCO MD has previously denied the existence of any wetlands in Navi Mumbai. Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) has even approved the destruction of these roosting sites of TS Chanakya and NRI wetlands, based on a letter by CIDCO MD. 

A wake up call to save flamingo habitats

The Emirate bird strike and Navi Mumbai’s shrinking wetland area, are stark reminders not to disturb these roosting sites if we want to avoid a big disaster in future.

This incident serves as a powerful wake-up call, illustrating that public safety and environmental stewardship cannot be left solely to authorities. Citizens must remain vigilant and proactive in ensuring compliance with safety norms and environmental regulations. It is absolutely imperative to preserve these resting water bodies, otherwise they will have nowhere to go during high tide. The probability of dangerous bird hits due to disorientation and changed pathways of migration will increase.

It underscores the ongoing risk posed by inadequate environmental planning and unchecked real estate and infrastructure development. Ensuring that all safety measures and recommendations are rigorously implemented is crucial to avoid future disasters.

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  1. Sudhir Dani says:

    Great…Save chanakya lake has proved the voice of citizens.

  2. Pranav Rai says:

    Mr Sunil Agarwal and dr Tripathi your. Relentless effort will not go waste . Entire seawoods community is there as Flamingos are art of. Our living . This article has captured the ethos of society . Keep going .Best wishes

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