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Wetland Rovers of Tamiraparani: Igniting young minds to conserve the wetlands of Tamil Nadu, India

by Sachin Medigeshi Harish

I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to volunteer in November 2019 and March 2020 with the Wetland Rovers, an education program for students from Tirunelveli by Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC). The main objective of this program is to educate students about the biodiversity, threats, and conservation of the Tamiraparani River and its associated wetlands, as well as to train them in wetland monitoring and sampling techniques. This education program started at the wet evergreen forests of the Agastyamalai mountains to demonstrate how the streams join to form rivers while swamps hold, filter, and slow down the flow of water.

On the morning of November 3rd, 2019, twenty students from Muthamil public school arrived at the Agastyamalai community conservation center. The first activity of the day was facilitated by Mr. Tamilalaghan, a multitasking research assistant. He allowed students to climb a Syzygium cumini tree canopy using a ladder and a canopy bridge. Tropical rainforest canopies are often referred to as our planet’s 8th continent due to its unexplored extent of biodiversity. It was a thrilling experience for students to walk at a 20-meter-high canopy bridge.

After breakfast, we all headed towards paddy fields. In a short distance, one student spotted a black little cormorant (Microcarbo niger) perching on a branch. The question that arose then was, “why were these birds staying immobile?” Mr. Antony explained that these birds mostly fed on fishes by diving in the streams and ponds, and so they stood still with outstretched wings to dry themselves. After reaching paddy fields, Mr. Mathivannan (head of ACCC) spoke about how their elders controlled the infestation of rat population with the help of owls by facilitating wooden logs to perch. He also explained how the unfortunate shift to pesticides was killing the owls as they ate poisoned rats. 

Later, students were divided into groups of 4-5 to conduct sampling for macroinvertebrates. Each group was provided with a soil corer to test the soil, a bucket, a mug, a sieve, thermometer, pH strips, and a dip net. They took five soil cores from their designated sites and unloaded them into a bucket. Once full, they added water to homogenize the sample thoroughly before finally pouring the sludge over the sieve to look for macroinvertebrates. After separating organisms from their samples, students used the macroinvertebrate keys to identify the organisms. Antony explained their morphology and ecology which was a very interesting demonstration and refreshed my knowledge of basic biology!

On the morning of March 3rd, 2020, we visited the saltpans along with 23 school kids from Tirunelveli where Mr. Antony started describing the adaptation of plants and animals to high salinity environments. Students especially found the red-colored Fairy shrimps (Artemia sp.) interesting and were keen on taking notes. 

Students interaction with the caretaker of saltpans

Our next destination was the estuary where Mr. Saravanan (field botanist) showed us mangrove forests from the beach using binoculars. He highlighted two major species – Rhizophora sp. (tall) and Avicennia sp (short) forming two communities of mangrove forest. He also spoke about pneumatophores, which are specialized roots that stick up out of the waterlogged soil like straws for breathing. Students were amazed to see floating mature propagules of mangroves. Subsequently, he demonstrated how mangroves seeds germinate while still attached to the parent tree by opening one of the floating propagules (i.e., through viviparity). Once germinated, the seedling grows to form a propagule. In Rhizophora sp., the mature propagule drops into the water and floats vertically, eventually lodging itself in the mud and rooting at a suitable destination. Avicennia sp. Propagules, however, float in the water, get displaced by tidal waves, and eventually settle and germinate onshore.

Students observing Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) feeding on snails

Outdoor environmental education for young students is the most powerful and dominant influence on parent’s perception towards making the world a better place through science. I have personally seen kids argue with their parents in an attempt to convince them against the application of chemical fertilizers and rodenticide on paddy fields after attending outdoor sessions on eutrophication. Additionally, students who participate in this type of outdoor environmental education program are now more likely to opt for a career in conservation research! 

I am thankful to Dr. T Ganesh, Mr. Mathivanan, and Mr. Saravanan of the Agastyamalai Community Conservation Centre for allowing me to volunteer in this education program. I truly appreciate the efforts of Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in igniting young minds to conserve the wetlands and rivers of Tamil Nadu. I hope they will obtain more resources and funds to spread this type of environmental education across other parts of India. 

A person holding a sign posing for the camera

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Sachin Medigeshi Harish is a Ph.D. student at Dr. Selvadurai Dayanandan’s laboratory in the Department of Biology, Concordia University, Montreal. Before joining Concordia university, he worked for India biodiversity portal, a citizen science initiative  to document biodiversity richness of India. 

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Post date: July 09, 2020

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