Flamingos are known to flock in Kenya and Tanzania, where the waters are rich in alkaline. But for some decades, the birds have regularly come to Mumbai, more specifically to the 26-km-long Thane Creek every winter.
This unique seasonal gathering, which in itself gives a contrasting but fascinating view: sea of pink against urban skyscrapers, bridges, and oil refineries, has been quite mysterious.
Therefore, scientists and conservationists have tried to study and preserve them as well as the habitat that the birds have thrived on.
One of the people involved in the study is Prabhu, a scientist with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). It’s now leading a 10-year study to monitor the flamingo phenomenon.
Greater and lesser flamingos began visiting Mumbai in large numbers in the 1990s. In the decades before, the 70s and 80s, more volume of untreated sewage flowed into Thane Creek, following the growth of the city.
Sewage water then provided algae that are the flamingos’ main food, turning the area into a feeding ground for them. Their numbers, which went from 10,000 in 2007, increased to an estimated 130,000 in 2022.
The increase was perplexing to experts, adding complexity of urban ecosystems in India.
BNHS member and veteran local naturalist Sunjoy Monga said, “Human impact results in conditions that seem terrible for nature at a glance, but are actually a gold mine for some species. There is so much organic richness amid the gloom [of the city].”
Wildlife in urban wetlands
Due to this strange occurrence, the flamingos have reshaped the ecological mindset of the city: locals have even made the birds a source of pride.
Mumbai citizens have held annual flamingo-themed festivals and runs to raise awareness of local wetlands. In 2018, authorities designated about 1,700 hectares of the creek and shore as a flamingo sanctuary.
The flamingos also show what the wildlife can do to help conservation despite being in the most pressured environments. Despite constructions, and efforts to keep them in check, flamingos have adapted, staying away from construction sites.
Outside the African continent, India has the largest population of the near threatened lesser flamingos. Flamingo flocks that come to Mumbai are thought to come from breeding grounds in Gujarat, about 375 miles away.
Scientists have tried to band and tag the flamingos to know the places they’ve been. They’ve also tried to count the birds along one-kilometer transects, estimating the bird’s population while they’re there.
These tall, pink avian creatures love the cyanobacteria algae, which cover the Thane Creek mud flats more than in other creeks around the country. Cyanobacterial seems to increase after November, around the time the flamingos start flocking.
Pawan K. Dadheech, a professor of microbiology had a corroborating theory. Lesser flamingos like to feed on a type of cyanobacteria called Arthrospira, or spirulina, which requires alkaline water.
When the rainy season stops in September and the temperature rises, it becomes a prime time for the cyanobacteria, especially Arthrospira, to grow and reproduce.
Prabhu and his team will study the flamingos’ breeding grounds in Gujarat to know if there are factors that drive them to seek food somewhere else. He said, “Breeding is a different ball game [than feeding].” So, the birds may not permanently stay in Thane Creek.
Other birds that came along
Flamingos aren’t the only birds that turn Thane Creek into a rest area: about 65 species of migratory birds have been spotted in the mud flats, and 100 bird species live in the surrounding mangrove stands.
Migratory wading birds may have increased as well. According to Prabhu, they’re interesting because their origin or destination is still unknown.
For example, in June 2021, a curlew sandpiper that breeds in Siberia and tagged in the creek was found in Tianjin, China. Then, a common redshank that the scientist team banded in 2018 was spotted in Russia.
This suggests that Mumbai may be an important stop on the Central Asian Flyway, a migratory avian route between the Arctic and Indian Oceans.
And because these birds, along with flamingos, have to compete with other biodiversity, everything gets more complicated.
Biodiversity vs flamingos
Excess mangrove growth is a potential threat to the mud flat habitat that the flamingos depend on, because mangroves also like nutrients they get from the sewage.
Now, mangroves are good most of the time because they’re beneficial for fish population and it’s an important barrier against storm surge and sea level rise. Hence, removing them was banned in the surrounding state of Maharashtra in 2018.
Unfortunately, in order to keep the mud flats intact for the flamingos, the ban gives another issue: authorities at the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary must now get permission from the courts to remove new growth.
Coastal and urban ecosystems are not simple, and they challenge traditional understandings of conservation.
Scientist with Seva Mandir (Indian NGO) K.S. Gopi Sundar said, “Urban ecosystems in India are…not well understood.” He also stated that so far, India has often adopted conservation approaches from the West or from forest management, where conditions differ.
For instance, bird diversity in Indian urban areas is often much higher than in western countries. “We can’t manage our wetlands with a textbook from Europe,” Sundar added.
Moreover, coastal habitats are dynamic: soils and biodiversity in Thane Creek change upstream to downstream, tide to tide, season to season. And while the pollution is a good thing for the flamingos, it’s deadly to fish.
Thane Creek’s biodiversity has crashed since the 1980, from 22 species recorded in the early 90s to only 12 species in a 2000 survey.
Efforts from the locals
Destruction of environment due to construction or development project has the power to move people. Sometimes, such events lead to a creation of a local environmental activist group, like Save Navi Mumbai Environment that aims to protect local mangroves and wetlands.
Cofounders Sunil and Shruti Agarwal moved to the area in 2013. Not long after they settled themselves, they challenged the clearance of land for a new housing project and golf course on these wetlands.
Since the project was promoted by a subsidiary of a powerful group in the country, neighbors told them it’d be impossible to win. But five years later, the Bombay High Court stopped the development—a first win for the couple.
Since then, they’ve fought against other development projects in nearby wetlands as well as raising awareness about local biodiversity.
It’s mentioned above that the locals have held annual running event. Well, it’s organized by Save Navi Mumbai Environment, called Run for Flamingos. In 2020, at least 2000 people participated in the event.
Why is it called Run for Flamingos, even though what the organization cares about is wetlands? Well, the Agarwals see the appeal of flamingos and use it to their advantage. Daughter of the couple, Surabhi, said, “Nobody’s going to run for wetlands.”
Flamingos have gotten even more popular in India ever since the 2020 lockdown. Residents of Navi Mumbai had to stay at home with not much to do other than looking out their windows and marvel at the sea of pink. Together with the clear skies that time, it was truly a sight to see.
But one thing to note, though, is that while flamingos are great for raising awareness and making initiatives for local ecology, it can also be just an empty symbol.
Around 2021, the local municipality tagged Navi Mumbai as Flamingo City, putting up statues of the bird on streets and painting murals on walls. Everything looked good; unfortunately, local agencies haven’t put an end to development projects on wetlands.
Let’s hope that the Agarwals and their organization, as well as scientists at BNHS could come together and conserve the wetlands along with the biodiversity in it.