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39 Flamingos Killed After Aircraft Rams into Flock in Mumbai

Officials say that the investigation into the incident is still underway, but local activists allege that power lines passing through Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary could be forcing the birds to fly higher than usual.
Flock of flamingos. Photo: pexels.com/Amar Preciado.

New Delhi/ Bengaluru: In a first for Mumbai and its flamingos – the latter, best known for painting the Thane and Navi Mumbai wetlands pink with their huge congregations – 39 of the large birds died after being hit mid-air by an Emirates passenger aircraft as it was descending to land at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. Forest authorities retrieved the birds’ carcasses from Ghatkopar in the city.

While authorities say that an investigation to ascertain the cause for the bird hit is still underway, local activists and birdwatchers say that newly-installed, taller power lines over the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary are possibly making the birds fly higher than usual. Activists also wrote to the Union environment ministry 

Thirty-nine flamingos dead 

On the night of May 20, the Mumbai-bound Emirates passenger aircraft EK-508 collided with a flock of flamingos mid-air as the aircraft was descending to land at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. The collision killed 39 of the large wetland birds over Ghatkopar in Mumbai. 

“This is the first such incident ever,” Vikrant Khade, assistant conservator of forests, Mangrove Protection-Mumbai who is in charge of the investigation into the flamingo deaths, told The Wire. Flamingos in the area have never collided with aircrafts before.

On knowing about the bird hit that occurred on the night of May 20, Khade was among the many forest officials who rushed to the spot to look into the issue. That night, Khade said, the team recovered 29 flamingo carcasses. On the morning of May 21, officers also deployed two search teams who found 10 more carcasses in the area. The forest department’s veterinary doctor from Sanjay Gandhi National Park arrived at the location and took samples for the post-mortem, and conducted other observations as part of the procedure, Khade said. Officials also inspected the Emirates aircraft that was also damaged after it collided with the birds.

The incident is still under investigation, and possible reasons as to why it happened can be ascertained only once the investigation is completed by May 22 or 23, Khade told The Wire. “We are still awaiting details such as the exact pathway of the aircraft route, its deviation if any, and elevation of the flight at the time of collision.”

Mudflats and wetlands in and around Mumbai such as at Thane and Navi Mumbai are home to a huge diversity of birds, especially waterbirds such as waders (bird species that wade through wetlands and shorelines that have shallow water, to feed on small invertebrates). Flamingos (both the Lesser and Greater flamingo) are the largest wading birds that inhabit these wetlands. The state government recognized the Thane Creek area as a flamingo sanctuary in 2015, in return for permitting part of the 22 km-long Mumbai Trans-Harbour Sea-Link to pass through the wetland. The Thane Creek – one of the largest creeks in Asia – is also a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance.

Are power lines affecting flamingos?

Local activists say that there’s more to the bird-aircraft collision than meets the eye. Unplanned infrastructural development in and around the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary is one of the issues that could have led to the collision, they say.

In 2022, the Maharashtra government passed an order to divert 57 hectares of forest land – including 37 hectares of mangrove forest – for the 400 KV Kharghar-Vikhroli transmission line. The line consists of 47 transmission towers, some of which pass through the Flamingo Sanctuary. As per one report, at least 34 of these towers were to be installed in and around the flamingo sanctuary. The new power line has been constructed by the Adani Group

Power lines pass through the Sanctuary, but the new ones that have been erected are far higher than the older Tata Power ones, according to Stalin Dayanand, founder of Mumbai-based environmental NGO Vanashakti.

“The high voltage power lines are very close to the bottom of the aircraft that come into Mumbai airport while landing,” he wrote in a letter to officials of the union environment ministry and senior officials of the Maharashtra Forest Department on May 21, demanding that the government take “corrective action” to protect the last remaining wetlands in Thane Creek, Navi Mumbai and Raigad following the deaths of 39 flamingos. “These power lines are forcing the flamingos to fly higher and get in between the aircraft and the lines.”

Dayanand also noted that these power lines were completed even as permissions were pending before the Wildlife Board and despite court orders to refrain from doing work till all permissions were granted. He recommends that authorities either reduce the height of the towers or reroute the lines to avoid the Sanctuary.

Adesh Shivkar, a resident of Mumbai who has been watching and observing birds in the city’s wetlands for more than 30 years now, told The Wire that power lines are indeed a concern. Such development infrastructure is being planned without considering the wildlife in the area, and without putting any mitigation measures in place, he added.

“We’re also bound to see more of such bird hits happening when the Navi Mumbai airport becomes operational,” said Shivkar, also the founder of Nature India Tours and the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club. The Navi Mumbai airport – aka the D.B.Patil International Airport – is not yet operational. Shivkar says authorities need to take up immediate studies to map the flamingos’ migratory and flight pathways and design infrastructure keeping this in mind.

Hindustan Times reported in 2023 that state forest department officials and scientists at the Mumbai-based Bombay Natural History Society have noted that flamingo deaths have occurred in and around the Flamingo Sanctuary due to existing power lines in the creek. However, there’s never proof, or data, of their deaths: the birds’ carcasses get washed away and are impossible to retrieve from the creek.

Loss of wetlands due to construction

Another issue is habitat loss, according to Dayanand. Encroachment into wetlands to construct buildings and other infrastructure is the norm; even the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra (CIDCO) has built the new Navi Mumbai airport on 1,400 hectares of wetlands, his letter to the union environment ministry and other officials on May 21 noted. His letter also claims that during a hearing before the Principal Secretary of Forests regarding the importance of the nearby Panje wetland in Raigad to wetland birds, CIDCO said that the birds posed a danger to aircraft and that all water bodies need to be destroyed.

“Just two or three weeks later, this accident [deaths of 39 flamingos] has happened,” Dayanand wrote in his letter, suggesting that there could be some kind of foul play afoot. His letter also mentions that “to achieve the goal of making these water bodies available for construction, the builders have employed people to chase the birds away and to degrade the water bodies by blocking the tidal flow of water.”

The deaths of the 39 flamingos come shortly after five flamingos were found dead, around a month ago, near the DPS Lake in Navi Mumbai. In February, at least seven flamingos died after they hit a signboard near Nerul Jetty in Navi Mumbai on two separate occasions; authorities later took down the signboard.

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