World Forestry Day, observed on March 21 every year should move beyond just planting saplings. It is for each individual to shoulder the responsibility and be sensitive to trees and forests

Madurai’s reference as ‘Kadambavanam’ remains only in books. The Kadamba forest has given way to a congested town. In places where trees stood, tall buildings have come up. Forests that were untouched have been encroached upon by human population. Records at the District Forest Office indicate that Madurai’s green cover today is 11 per cent, much below the national green cover of 20 per cent. The ideal forest cover requirement for any geographical area is stated to be 33 per cent. So, is this a wakeup call for the Temple Town?

“Madurai division has 38,000 hectares of reserved forest while the district’s green cover stands at an alarming 381 Sq.Km. “Urban forestry must go beyond just planting saplings. Some method to maintain and look after the planted trees should be devised,” warns A.S. Marimuthu, the District Forest Officer. He says of the total number of saplings planted, hardly 20 per cent grow to become trees. ”Any development activity on the roads starts with felling of trees and we lose a further 10 per cent of these grown trees. There are no provisions to ensure replanting of trees,” he points out.

Under the Urban forestry programme, the department plants trees within the corporation limits every year. “But most saplings either get cut or eaten by stray cattle as people steal the tree guards and sell it off,” says Mr.Marimuthu. As an example, he cites the area behind Madurai Kamaraj University where the department has managed to create green cover with the support of the residents.

It is mandatory to water and maintain a sapling at least for three years given the scarce rainfall. The forest department’s nursery maintained by Vadipatti-based women self-help group, sells about 10,000 to 15,000 saplings in a year to individuals apart from giving out for mass and free plantations on various occasions. This year the department’s target is to plant 81,500 saplings. “Neem and Pungai varieties grow well under Madurai’s climate conditions,’ says Mr.Marimuthu.

“Maintenance of social forestry can be given to NGOs so that every planted tree can be protected. At least one tree should be planted every 100 sq.ft. Unused agricultural lands should not be converted into real estate. Instead some variety of trees can be grown that will generate income for the farmer,” notes Francis Xavier, an Environmentalist.

“School children should be sensitized. Every student should be given the responsibility of maintaining a tree on the roadside. Separate herbal gardens should be grown and Shola forests should be conserved and expanded on naked slopes,” he adds.

Dr. D. Stephen, Assistant Professor in Botany, The American College, who is currently working on the conservation of forest patches behind Alagar hills, says, “The Shola forests unique to western ghats are a separate ecosystem. If a single tree is destroyed, the entire thicket vanishes gradually.”

Reserve forests under Madurai division include semi evergreen forests at Sirumalai, Kizhuvamalai and Vavuthumalai and Dry deciduous forest ranges at Sholavandan and Usilampatti (Elumalai, Sulapuram, Nalluthevanpatti, viralipatti, Kulasekerankottai, Vikiramanagalam).

Under the aegis of Tamil Nadu Afforestation Programme, the department has motivated villagers on the forest fringes to take up alternative jobs and sources of livelihood instead of trespassing into reserve forest area. Forest committees comprising villagers were formed in villages bordering reserve forests to monitor illegal activities.

“Over the years, awareness level has gone up among public,” says Marimuthu. “In Madurai district, grazing of cattle, fire and illicit felling are the main causes for forest degradation. Illicit felling has reduced considerably but cattle grazing and agricultural activities inside reserve forests continue to be major threats.”

The department has also implemented Tamil Nadu Bio diversity project that concentrates on creating green cover on private waste lands. So far, the year old project has been implemented in 10 villages in Usilampatti area. Both long and short rotation trees have been planted and the beneficiary can harvest the trees after six and 15 years respectively.

As far as reserve forests are concerned, re-growth of wild trees is never ensured once they are destroyed and hence certain species have become endangered. “We are trying to revive those species through tissue culture,” says Dr.Stephen and adds, “We are yet to develop a monitoring system to ensure sustenance of seeds germinated under lab conditions in the wild.”

Revival of Kadamba trees

Madurai Green, an NGO working for nearly two decades has planted over six lakh saplings so far. “We maintain the saplings by roping in young volunteers, residents’ welfare associations and education institutions and that’s how nearly 40 per cent of our plants survive to become trees,” says Project Coordinator, N. Chidambaram. “Parts of Gomathipuram, Railar Nagar and Paravai are green today because of people’s cooperation. In Paravai, the residents of two main streets take care of the 200 neem and pungai trees we planted.”

“Kadamba trees are found only as small patches in the forests. And, to revive them, we have been planting 1000 Kadamba and Marutham trees annually for the past three years. These are native trees to the region and both have medicinal value,” he says. “It’s said that the Vaigai banks were full of Neer Marutham trees in the past. Native trees don’t need much protection and maintenance as they adapt to the temperature and that’s why Rani Mangammal planted tamarind trees on the road sides. These days, we find only the gulmohar trees which are just ornamental plants and need care and protection.”

The NGO also conducts tree walk in collaboration with DHAN Foundation, a monthly initiative to know and learn about trees. “In the last 10 tree walks, we have got participants from various professions. Even home makers and children are enthusiastic in knowing about the flora and fauna. At this rate, we are sure to bring a positive change,” says Chidambaram, who is determined to make Madurai greener in the coming years.

Youth group initiative

A youth friends’ group called ‘Naanal Nanbargal Kuzhu’ has transformed a vacant ground behind HIG Colony into a cool shady place. With over 30 Iluppai, Vembu and Pungai trees, the site near Shenbaga Thottam, a residential colony is now a pleasant sight. Tamil Dasan a volunteer, says, “Earlier, the ground was full of thorny bushes and people used to dump garbage and plastic waste. Thirty boys in our group cleaned the site and planted trees, fenced them and maintained. Now, the children in the colony have planted flowering shrubs and Thinai pul. Every day, one person takes the charge to water the plants.”

Forest facts

Total reserve forest area in Madurai Division: 38,000 hectares including 11,000 hectares of the Giant squirrel sanctuary near Sriviliputtur and the eastern and western slopes of Sirumalai hills. Thick forest cover is found on Vasimalaiyan peak (1439 feet) at Elumalai near Usilampatti, the highest in the district and also on Kannadi Parai at Sirumalai (1390 feet), the second highest peak.

Endemic species to the region is Kudhuppi, Kadamba and Marutham

Endangered species are Kongu Ilavam, Kurinji and Kunguliam.

Other common trees in the region are Aelampaalai, Ala maram, Alingil, Arasa maram, Ayani pala (found only in Alagar hills), Illupai, kanjaram, konnai, Mamaram, Manjanathi or Nuna maram, Mayirkondrai, Naval, Nirkadambu, Peru maram, Pungamaram and Vedpalai

Wildlife – Indian gaur, deer, wild boar, wild dog (Sirumalai), sloth bear (Uthappanaickanur), porcupine, monkeys, wild Asian elephants (Elumalai)