It's the transformation that really hits you. A few years ago, it was a rubble-filled junkyard through which sewage sluggishly coursed its way to the sea; today the Tholkappia Poonga (Adyar) is a beautifully-landscaped and artistically-presented public space. Of course, the 60,000 tons of urban waste and garbage had to be cleared, and the various illegal sewage pipes plugged before this was possible. A Herculean task in this garbage-blind nation! (As Jairam Ramesh famously quipped: ‘If there was a Nobel Prize for filth, we would win it'!)
The next step was to remove alien flora such as mesquite that had colonised the entire land area. Only an island of the thorny Mexican tree has been allowed to persist as a nesting site for egrets and other water birds. There's not a sprig of the water hyacinth left that had choked the waterways, although the foxtail weed still remains to be eradicated.
The Poonga is the largest open-air classroom of natural ecosystems in Chennai city. Four artistically-designed interpretation centres are devoted to invertebrates, reptiles, fish and birds.
Ten schools send 20 children every month for an environmental course, and now that the Poonga is open, such programmes are expected to expand. Children who don't get a chance to go out on field trips to sanctuaries and parks now have a little piece of the wilderness right here in the city!
The same artists whose wildlife paintings-on-stone adorn toll booths on ECR, have left no surface undecorated: glory lilies on boulders; two scorpions dramatically facing-off on a bench; a chameleon carved and painted onto a fence post along the path, are a few that stand out. I nearly jumped when I saw a life-like model of a salt-water crocodile posed realistically near the waters' edge. Whether it is education or an artistic endeavour, there is nothing else like it in the city.
As we wandered along the pond, a wet cormorant stood in the sun drying itself, unalarmed by our proximity while, amazingly, a white-bellied sea eagle circled overhead. The tall apartment blocks circling the eastern perimeter were the only reminder that we were in a city.
That's all well for human enjoyment and edification. But, what of the wetland ecosystem? Has it benefitted from this restoration project? In 2007, only five species of fish were recorded; today there are 27. Comparing the estuary records of the last Century, the monitoring team found 87 species of fish missing — 16 species of gobies alone, so there is still much to be done. Besides, in the past, alien species such as catla had been deliberately introduced to boost commercial fisheries. What is worse was the introduction of the African tilapia, locally called jalebi meen, which has taken over the water body and crowded all the other fish out.
Another foreign invader is the dwarf gourami. In tandem, the river is also being colonised by species (found only in rivers) such as dharna barb and guntea loach, thanks to the linking of rivers.
More than a 100 species of birds have been spotted at the Poonga, and the planting of a large variety of native plants and trees will attract more and more birds in the years to come.
Butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and bees, often homeless refugees in an urban landscape, have made their appearance, much to the delight of hawking drongos and bee-eaters.
Town planning generally goes out the window when it comes to valuable chunks of real estate such as the Tholkappia Poonga. Rom says they barely managed to hang on to Guindy Deer Park in the 1970s, as it was whittled away for a college, a cancer hospital and numerous aesthetically-lifeless mantapams.
So, go visit the Poonga, and see the scale of transformation for yourself, and you'll wonder as I did at the lost opportunity of making something similar of the Semmozhi Poonga.
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