An aerial view of Agatti Island, one of the inhabited islands of the Lakshadweep archipelago. Photo courtesy: Nupur Kale
White sands and blue waters- these two features instantly evoke an image of gorgeous isles, fringed with tall palm trees that overlook a surf line formed as the blue water sweeps over the sand before continuing into the calm, endless expanse of the ocean.
This description instantly fits that of the beautiful, yet lesser-known island groups in India- the Lakshadweep Islands. These coralline atolls are about 200km off the west coast of Kerala in the Arabian Sea and comprise 16 atolls and 32 islands, of which merely 11 islands are inhabited. Most of these islands are Northeast-Southwest in orientation and are characterised by shallow lagoons on the west and steep reef slopes on the east. These conditions provide a perfect haven for a variety of marine flora and fauna. The water bodies house rich seagrass beds, algal and coral communities that are teeming with various species of fish, invertebrates, sea turtles, elasmobranchs, and marine mammals. While the blue waters are a treasure trove of marine diversity, the white sands are dotted with various trees -predominantly tall and sturdy coconut palms -and supports one of the most densely packed human populations in the country. The sand is also what accentuates the slender shape of the islands and provides a grainy texture, and colour to the surface.
Into the blue
A recreational diver enjoying the reef habitats of Lakshadweep Islands. Photo courtes: Vardhan Patankar
Submerged within the blue waters lie coral reef and seagrass species that serve as the foraging, breeding, and resting habitats for a range of marine fauna. A dip into the water stuns the eyes with a rainbow of colours- red snappers, orange anthias, yellow oriental sweetlips, blue-green parrotfish, blue tangs, and purple damselfish zooming past. To compliment all the different colours, seagrass and algae add to the shade card with dark green flowy long leaves of seagrass like Halodule and thin bright ones of Syringodium with some fleshy or filamentous red, green or brown algae providing rather earthy tones in the water. If you’re lucky, you might chance upon a juvenile green turtle resting under some coral or a hawksbill turtle digging out and feasting on a sponge! If you are extremely lucky, a juvenile white-tipped reef shark might just join your snorkelling expedition in the lagoon. If none of these characters make an appearance, then sometimes even the sight of a ray gliding across the white sand substrate will make your day! While these serve as some lucky sightings, the varied shapes and forms of coral are enough to keep one interested: from the brain to branching to the table. While swimming in the water, one can also witness the fishes and other creatures darting in and out of their hiding places. But watch out, you might just swim into an eel slowly coming out of its cave or a lionfish flashing its red, white, or black banded fins looking all pretty but silently venomous. While the aquatic realm supports rich marine life within, the land provides for various marine bird species like terns and waterfowls like herons, terrestrial birds, and agricultural animals like poultry, sheep, and cows. Any trip down a Lakshadweep street will not be complete without a family of sheep resting on the concrete road or a row of chicks following their mama and crossing your path.
Varieties of tuna fished in the Lakshadweep islands. Photo credit: Vardhan Patankar
Providing company to the rich flora and fauna in the sea and on land is a large, densely-packed human population. According to popular belief, human settlements in the Lakshadweep islands first began in the 7th century A.D. and automatically, the island inhabitants came to rely on their natural surroundings for their livelihoods such as coconut cultivation or fishing. Since the 1950s, one of the main sources of subsistence has been fisheries, mainly that of skipjack and yellowfin tuna. Tuna here is caught using a sustainable fishing technique called ‘the pole and line fishing’ which has its origin in the Maldives. The caught fish is then dried and sold as maas choora in addition to being sold fresh for local consumption. Apart from tuna fisheries, lagoon and reef fishes are also caught either for consumption or for use as bait. The other important and highly coveted livelihood here is Government employment especially in the capital island of Kavaratti owing to the stability and benefits from the job. The other land-based professions include the hospitality/tourism sector, coconut cultivation for coir, and associated products sale and shops. Another profession popular with the islanders is shipping in the form of passenger ships and cargo ships. Most of these professions result in the islanders depending on land and marine resources forming intricate bonds between them.
Island inhabitants rely on livelihoods supported by coconut plantations and fishing. Photo credits: Vardhan Patankar
As the marine ecosystem is an integral part of every islander’s life; it makes them cognizant of the slightest of changes. Conversations with any individual about the marine environment bring up topics such as an increase in the number of trawlers coming to the islands, construction of sea walls along the coast that restricts habitats for marine fauna, fishing malpractices and dredging of the lagoons. Dig a little deeper by going into some details, and the island-folks are also brimming with information on animal behaviour and biology along with traditional uses or significance which makes one realise that every islander is in his/her own right is a closet biologist.
Islands in peril
Jetty constructed at Kavaratti Island for passenger vessels to dock at the harbour. Photo credits: Nupur Kale
As the human population continues to grow, their heavy dependence on natural resources is increasing the pressure on both marine and terrestrial resources. In recent times, the Lakshadweep islands have faced various natural threats such as storm surges in the form of cyclones (such as Cyclone Ockhi in 2017), rising sea temperatures causing coral bleaching events in 2013 and 2016 etc. Exacerbating this is the negative impact of developmental activities like coastal construction, increased ship traffic, tourism, and an increase in fishing intensity due to livelihoods pressures- to name a few. Most of these anthropogenic stressors have come under the guise of development and provide essential services to the island inhabitants. However, every developmental activity has its impact on the environment and consequently, the people in the region. With some imminent dangers such as a rise in sea level and extreme climatic events, it will become important to ensure the safety of the island inhabitants, their homes and the diverse ecosystems of which they form a part.
What lies ahead...
All these dangers make it imperative to preserve the biodiversity-rich habitats of the Lakshadweep islands and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of the local community by addressing the threats through collaborative efforts. With this regard, WCS-India, in collaboration with partner institutions, plans to work towards protecting the biological integrity of these pristine islands by engaging with local stakeholders and using their knowledge to inform conservation and management actions. These efforts will include working with local communities to safeguard island resources, collaborating with dive operators to assess recreational dive practices as well as working with the enforcement agencies to combat the rising threat of illegal marine wildlife trade. Through on-ground assessments and collaborative work, we hope to assist and strengthen conservation efforts persisting in the islands.
While several planned activities and on-going conservation efforts aim to reduce the intensity of these imminent threats, the forthcoming years will prove extremely valuable for the future of the Lakshadweep islands and the communities that call these islands home.
By Karan Deshpande and Nupur Kale