Protecting ecosystems in urban spaces requires education, sensitisation and sustained surveillance. Urban development is a sad commentary on how this lesson is easily forgotten. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Look no further than the IIT Madras and MCC campuses, which are woven into natural ecosystems sustained by nature-loving faculty members and students. On World Biodiversity Day (May 22), PRINCE FREDERICK tracks down academicians Susy Varughese and P.J. Sanjeeva Raj and gets the low-down on the two campus-ecosystems.


Consultant ecologist Sanjeeva Raj, who taught Zoology for 37 years at MCC and lived for 40 years on the campus, calls the forested campus “a successful model of participatory conservation by the academic community”. Edward Barnes, a Chemistry professor and amateur botanist from Scotland, set an example when he moved into the campus in 1932, barely two years after around 400 acres of “pristine scrub jungle” were sliced off the Selaiyur Reserve Forest for the relocation of the college from George Town to Tambaram.

“Barnes and his wife Alice attended to the self-imposed task of transforming this patchy scrub jungle into a mixed forest of large trees,” says Raj. “Alice, a field ornithologist, published the first account of 84 birds observed on the campus between 1932 and 1938. The couple referred to the campus as an ‘academic sacred grove' and declared it a sanctuary. Taking the cue from Barnes, successive curators of this estate have effected careful plantations that have enhanced its biodiversity. The campus is endowed with 458 species of plants and 350 species of animals, including 160 bird species, 24 mammal species, 17 snake species, 10 lizard species, 10 amphibian species and 28 invertebrate species. Despite the severe loss of herbaceous undergrowth in recent years due to grazing by spotted deer and despite a growing number of students and residents, newer wildlife — including 30 peafowl and 10 porcupines — are reported to be colonising the campus scrub. Clearance of the undergrowth by the deer population has perhaps led to porcupines, peafowl and feral pigs to occupy the new niche. Local migrant birds and butterflies have increased in number, underlining the benefits of adding a diversity of trees, an agricultural farm and a dug-lake to a scrub jungle. Retention of the corridor with the Vandalur Reserve Forest is another reason for the campus' teeming biodiversity.”

The Scrub Society symbolises the college's continual effort to cherish the wildlife in its midst. Says Raj, “The society was formed in 1990 by a group of environmentally conscious students with C. Livingstone, Botany professor and co-author of the book Campus Flora, as its first president. It has now grown in numbers and importance. Undergraduate students are encouraged to take up Scrub Society work, one of the seven activities that will earn them one credit.”


For Susy Varughese, a faculty member in the Chemical Engineering department, the institute’s contribution to society goes beyond producing brilliant engineers. Her roll of IIT honour includes black bucks, spotted deer, monitor lizards, star tortoises and many others. from the animal kingdom. “As a natural extension of the Guindy National Reserve Forest, we have all the animals found there.”

Susy is part of Prakriti, a wildlife club comprising students, staff, alumni and residents of IIT. This 10-year-old club conducts nature walks and an annual bird-watching camp for children. But it its primary functions as the conscience of IIT, is to encourage ing residents and the other stakeholders in the institute to avoid lifestyles that endanger its rich wildlife.

“For example, we put up billboards around the campus sensitising residents to the danger plastic poses to animals. We also circulate emails, urging insiders not to litter the campus with plastic bags. Deer have a tendency to ingest plastic bags with leftover food. Their digestive tract being different from ours, They suffer severely from this unnatural diet. The plastic can get entangled in their intestines and prove fatal,” says Susy. “We encourage insiders to use cloth instead of plastic bags.” Sensitising the large floating population to behaviours that imperil animals is a difficult task, she adds.

“The ecosystem in IIT is an isolated one. To illustrate the point, a deer from here can’t go to Adyar. In such a scenario, we have to make adjustments for the animal,” says Susy.

The overall situation is, however, chirpy. “Despite galloping developments in areas around IIT Madras — especially on the IT corridor — birds are still found in good numbers.” Cases of birds losing out to development are few, like it happened with the house swifts. They colonised a building on campus, whose curved ceiling provided them ideal nesting spaces, and deserted this home when its windows were shut for the purpose of air-conditioning.

In an urban ecosystem — of which the IIT-M campus is a classic example — man-animal conflicts can’t be avoided and, when they arise, they can be intense. Says Susy, “The conflict can be minimised if we are inclined to make adjustments for them, bearing in mind that they keep a healthy ecosystem going.”


Prince FrederickMay 11, 2012