Congested with people, vehicles and buildings, Chennai gasps for breath. But it still has some green areas that allow people to take in fresh air and even spot wild life. Geeta Padmanabhan writes

In an exploding city with an ever increasing population, , where construction is a major activity, vehicles have right of passage, sidewalks have no space for walkers and garbage rules road space, it's a miracle there are green areas that allow one to breathe some fresh air. They are real, outdoor, semi-wildernesses, within city limits. Know them? Here is a guide to a Chennai eco-spot-hopping.

At Adyar Poonga, Preston Ahimaz of Pichandikulam Forest Consultants (then), offers a lec-dem on “eco-spot”. “It's where the ecology of the land is allowed to function, relatively undisturbed,” he says. Animals and plants complement one another, balancing the local ecology. When you remove what is there and bring in what is not , the system collapses. “ Leave things alone, protect the green areas and promote them where feasible. Nature is resilient and dynamic; it balances itself,” he adds.

Walk up St. Thomas' Mount, he suggested. “When I was with the WWF, we fenced off some areas and planted (hardy, even non-native) greenery.” These were fast-growing plants meant to create a micro habitat quickly. They invited insects and birds, kicking off the process of eco-restoration. Native plants helped recover lost ground. At the Poonga, remediation has turned a 58-acre garbage dump into an eco park. “It's a wetland habitat with 70 per cent water,” says Preston. Visitors can walk around and be educated about the estuary, the Adyar river's gift to the city. You might visit exhibitions, and attend seminars or workshops, or maybe use the green centre for eco-friendly activities. “This restoration helps raise the water table, gives the city another green lung and brings in local wildlife.”

Not far is the wooded Theosophical Society compound. This 260-acre 'Huddleston Gardens', lies on the south bank of the Adyar and is a Nature-lover's delight. It has gardens, migratory birds, snakes, jackals, wild cats, mongooses and hares with a spider variety that's worth studying. Among the rare mahogany and other trees from across the globe stands the spectacular 450-year-old “aala (banyan) maram”, whose aerial roots cover some 60,000 square metres. Hundreds of fruit bats flap around as the bodhi tree that grew from a branch of the holy original watches benignly.

The Guindy National Park, famous for its black buck and spotted deer, was carved out of the Coromandel coast, that included spaces allotted for “mandapams”. Its lovely trees and the Snake Park next door are crowd-pullers. Walk down to see free-ranging deer, water birds, peafowl, monkeys, crocs, pythons and small wildlife. Spot the six chameleons in the enclosed bush; check out the 20 million-year-old fossilised tree specimen.

The Nanmangalam Reserve Forest on Velachery High Road is a 320-hectare wonder. A unique scrubland, it's an absolutely fascinating geo feature around an abandoned granite quarry. Some of its wildlife species are not seen anywhere else in the city. It has a variety of medicinal plants and hiking trails for kids. So, environmentalists want a protective wall, “desperately needed for keeping the area intact.”

The Pallikkaranai marsh, a bio-diverse ecosystem, is guaranteed to give a day's worth of bird sightings. Hundreds of species swoop in for the varieties of fish and to nest in the grass. Sadly, it is shrinking. “This once-thriving wetland is now a fragmented, dying marsh,” says ecologist Shekar Dattatri. The marsh has been cut into two for a road, with no free flow underneath. “The water is severely contaminated with untreated city sewage, and the mountains of un-segregated garbage contain a deadly cocktail of organic and poisonous waste. Leaching toxins build up in the food chain, poisoning the birds. Undoubtedly, many of these innocent winged visitors die prematurely from the effects of these poisons.” The sewage/garbage on the OMR side is an unspeakable eyesore.

“The area close to the Velachery Road must be protected,” says Preston. A sizeable part of this marsh, belonging to the Corporation of Chennai attracts a large number of birds. “If the Corporation hands it over to the Forest Department, protection would be enhanced greatly,” Preston suggests.

Warns Dattatri, “What remains is in severe danger of drying up in summer. Burning garbage chokes the air, damaging not only the lungs of the birds but also our own.” He believes if private companies that have gobbled up vast tracts of the marsh join hands with government agencies and wetland ecologists, “at least parts of this wonderful eco-system can be saved.” Adds Preston, “They could take up protection and promotion and make it a place to unwind.”

For birding, you could also drive down to Pulicat/Sulurpet, the Chembarambakkam Lake, Red Hills reservoir or the Madhavaram jheel. The Simpson Industrial Estate in Sembium is a mini Vedanthangal. “Extremely encouraging,” applaud environmentalists, “that industry should take the initiative in environment preservation.”

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