Sunday, March 2, 2008


Second largest Mangrove forest in the world

Almost two and a half decades ago, when I was working in Chennai, I first heard of the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram - 14 kms. from Chidambaram.
I did not really know what Mangrove forests were and what Pichavaram was like.
I requested my friends to organize a visit.
After my visit, I wrote about Pichavaram in the Swagat (inflight magazine of Indian Airlines) and a number of other magazines.
To this extent, I take credit for increasing its popularity.
Since then, I have visited Pichavaram several times.
My last visit was a few months after the Tsunami of 2004.

Pichavaram is a unique success story.

Mangrove Forest

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest has been created by the backwaters, inter connected by the Vellar and Coleroon river systems.

The Mangrove Forest is followed by an extraordinary sand bank which makes a lovely sandy beach.
The total area of Pichavaram Mangrove Forest (including 50 small islands) is about 1470 ha.

The Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, the second largest in the world, is the healthiest mangrove forest in the world.

Mangrove Trees

Mangrove trees are unique.
Try to visualize trees standing on stilts. And you have a rough likeness of what a mangrove tree looks like.

The mangrove trees grow in coastal areas of the tropics and sub-tropics, at the edge of waterways; and in estuaries, creeks and channels in the delta regions, where the water ebbs up and down twice every day.
The sea water rushes in and out, through the waterways, twice a day, changing the salinity of the water from that of sea water to fresh water.
The trees and other creatures have developed unique systems to survive and thrive in these harsh conditions.
The trees have developed unique stilt like roots.
The roots have pores through which the trees breathe oxygen when the water level is low and the roots are exposed.
The roots have specialized membranes which act like filters allowing only fresh water to enter.
If some salt passes through, it accumulates in the leaves, which later drop off to get rid of the salt.
Seeds could hardly survive in such hostile conditions.
The mangrove tree has developed a singular solution.
The seeds germinate on the tree itself and develop into cigar shaped seedlings.
When mature, the seedlings simply fall off the tree, penetrate into the soil and develop roots.
This ensures a high survival rate.

Soil and other debris accumulate between the roots, actually reclaiming land, and creating a unique eco-system.

Unique Creatures

The complex root system provides accommodation to a myriad creatures,including algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges and bryozoans.
The mudskipper fish comes out of the water on to the banks for short spells.
The archer fish can shoot out a jet of water, much like the fireman’s hose, striking down small insects.
All kinds of crabs and crustaceans live amidst the mud banks.
The habitat can also host commercially important species of fish and crustacea providing livelihood to the locals.


Pichavaram is the bird lover’s paradise.
The rich aquatic life attracts all kinds of birds.
You will find - the local residents, the immigrant residents and the genuine migratory birds that come annually to mate and breed.
Over 177 species of birds belonging to 15 orders and 41 families have been recorded in Pichavaram.
The peak season for birds is from November to January.

The Tsunami and after

The Tsunami hit the shores of India on December 26, 2004 at 08:32 in the morning.
At that time, I was having tea with a friend in Chennai.
I received a phone call from my friend in another city to enquire if I was all right.
Only then I learnt that the Tsunami had hit the eastern shores of India.

Cuddalore, where the Mangrove Forests are located, was heavily affected by the waves.
572 bodies were recovered and many were missing.
Several fishing hamlets simply disappeared.
Silver Beach and the historically important Cuddalore Port were devastated.
However, Fort St. David survived without damage.

The Income Tax Office in Cuddalore was slightly affected.
I immediately made arrangements to ensure that our staff were safe and received immediate help, if needed.
The loss of lives was too tragic.
But relief started pouring in.My office in Chennai also collected and sent relief material for the local people.
The management of relief operations in the district was handled by the local authorities and villagers themselves.
They did a remarkable job.

The Tsunami proved that mangrove trees act as buffers and prevent damage to the hinterland.


Mangrove forests are gigantic biological sinks with an unrivalled capacity to absorb and assimilate chemicals and recycle them into nutrients.
Late M.G. Ramachandran used Pichavaram for his film Idayakani.
Later, when he became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he developed the place.

However, till the early 1980s, policy makers and planners throughout the world, considered mangrove wetlands as wasteland.
This resulted in over exploitation and conversion of mangrove wetlands for other purposes.
Only after 1980s, the importance of mangrove forests has been understood and replanting programs have been started all over the world.

Inspite of this, over half the world’s mangroves have been lost in recent times.
But Pichavaram is an exception.
There has been new mangrove forestation to the extent of almost 90%.
Who says we cannot improve our environment.
We have done it.

Several reports, including a few by some scientists, mention that Pichavaram was declared a Reserve Forest in 1897.
This cannot be correct.
I think the correct year is 1987.

See this unique place and the magnificent beach.
And you can see also Chidambaram Temple, the temple without a deity, and the Annamalai University, famous for its B.Ed. programs.

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