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Life - South India: The Flying Gems of Kerala

South India: The Flying Gems of Kerala

If you want to see and hear a unique variety of birds, it is best to travel to South India. Species can be seen in the Western Ghats that are not found anywhere else.

It is still cool this morning in May. The humidity is already 80 percent. Sunrise and sunset are the best times for bird sighting, says Sri Raj, our guide. We, a group of four, are on our way to a nature reserve near Chinnar in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is about a three-hour drive from the spice metropolis of Cochin on the country's west coast.

The road meanders through rice fields before plunging into the lush deciduous forest of the Western Ghats. The mountain range stretches like a bolt through the Indian states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - and separates the hinterland from the Arabian Sea. Rugged hills up to 1,800 meters high, tropical rainforests and rivers with wetlands characterize the mountainous region and offer ideal living conditions for wild animals and birds.

It beeps, whines, coo and crows in the trees

Before we start hiking, we stow handkerchiefs, pocket knives, bandages and identification books in the trouser and jacket pockets of our natural-colored clothes. Then we follow the elephant dung along the beaten path into the jungle. "Quiet," warns Sri Raj. "If you want to hear and see birds, you have to be quiet." The feathered ones are different: judging by the noise, hundreds of thousands are out and about in bushes and trees. "The bird call serves to protect the area, but is also courtship song," says Rajiv Sugathan, ornithologist in the Thattekad bird sanctuary in Kerala.

Kerala is a small Indian state in the south of the country. 34 million people live in an area of ​​almost 39,000 square kilometers. In terms of literacy, the social status of women and economic development, Kerala is one of the top places in the country.

About 1400 bird species live in India; 500 of them are from the southern Indian state of Kerala, says Rajiv Sugathan. They live in the forest or in bushes according to the diverse vegetation, are out and about in grass or agricultural land, in wetlands and by the sea. You get to see everything from mudflats, coastal and forest birds to birds of prey. The ornithologist Sugathan says: "About 24 of the local species are endemic to the Western Ghats", so they do not occur anywhere else.

This morning there are plenty of beautiful Asian paradise flycatchers above our heads. A little further back, a Hindu neck draws the attention of its fellows to our arrival with a rough “chack-chack”. A flock of oriental spectacled birds is also out and about in the trees, while a Bengal pitta with a loud “pree tree” calls its gschpänli.

On our left a spring parrot is doing gymnastics in the branches and is turning around its own axis with virtuosity. A blue stone thrush inspects the area while sitting on a branch. Somewhere you can hear a woodpecker hammering. “It's a white-bellied woodpecker,” says Sri Raj. "It's very rare."

People like Sri Raj grow up knowing about the bird world. They hear and see things that we miss. You can recognize birds by their behavior, their size and shape, the color of their plumage and their song. They know about activity and affiliation of each species. "The decisive factor is a responsible approach to nature," says Manoj Narayanan, hotelier and wildlife photographer.

Because in India environmental protection is not (yet) a matter of course. But experienced ornithologists like Sri Raj advise against luring the birds with voices from the tape or even cutting free nesting sites to photograph the brood: "These are massive interventions in the ecosystem that leave confused birds and defenseless nests behind."

On 3,200 square kilometers, the government in Kerala manages 22 protected nature and wildlife parks, including five bird sanctuaries. This area corresponds to a third of the forest area of ​​this state. In addition to birds such as the Hindu roller, which are native to all of India, migrated species such as the little cuckoo or the European bee-eater can be found. Various species, such as the Bengal Pitta, breed at the foot of the Himalayas or in Central Asia and overwinter in South India.

A flying jewel plunges into the pond

"Watching birds is not just a pastime, it's a passion," says wildlife photographer Manoj Narayanan. "It clears the head and sharpens the senses, because not only the eyes but also the ears are challenged." Those who regularly pay attention to the feathered ones will soon perceive nature more intensely.

Suddenly something glittering blue falls headlong into a pond with a determined "tieh-tieh". It is a kingfisher that hunts fish like a flying jewel. These are the moments when bird watchers forget everything around them.

It is noticeable in our group that birdwatchers are mostly male and of moderate temperament. The binoculars that dangle in front of her belly and the large telephoto lenses that she point up at lightning speed when an object of desire shows up are eye-catching.

If you take part in a hike through the south Indian jungle that lasts several hours, you will undoubtedly see over a hundred different species. "Birds that are rare or difficult to spot are particularly popular," says Sri Raj. These include the nocturnal spotty forest owl, the Nilgiri wood pigeon and the Ceylon frog mouth, an endemic species of owl that can hardly be seen in the thicket because of its brownish-gray color.

Birds' habitat is shrinking

Modern bird watchers are well connected in India too. They exchange ideas in forums on Instagram and Facebook, keep up to date with Vogel apps and films on YouTube. However, this commitment and the nature reserves do not hide the fact that the habitat of wild animals and especially birds is becoming smaller and smaller. "On the one hand, global warming, climate change and poaching are affecting the birds," says Renan Mathew Varghese from WWF India. And ornithologist Rajiv Sugathan adds: "On the other hand, mass tourism has a negative effect in the nature reserves - with the associated noise and mountains of rubbish."

He and the employees of the bird sanctuary meet this with excursions, lectures and brochures. "In particular, we want to make schoolchildren aware of the need to protect the environment and bird life." Not without success. "But if the government continues to focus on economically lucrative areas such as tourism, little can be done."

Good to know

getting there
International airports in Trivandrum, Calicut, Kannur and Cochin can be reached from Zurich, Geneva or Basel with airlines such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, Oman Air or Etihad Airways (with a stopover).

Swiss citizens need a valid visa in addition to a passport. Further information via vfsglobal.ch.

Information is available on the safetravel.ch website or from the University of Zurich's Tropical Institute on the travelclinic.ch website

Travel sustainably
Ecologically run resorts in Kerala such as ecotonescamps.com and kitesresort.com offer good bird excursions with experienced ornithologists in the Western Ghats.