Some environmentalists, students and people inhabiting nearby villages walked through the rapidly shrinking Vellimalai forest

A pebbled path leads off from Idayapatti road towards Vellimalai and a patch of dry deciduous forest within Madurai district limits. A little Muruga temple at the foothill called Andikovil marks the starting of the jungle. Last week, a group of environmentalists from Naanal Nanbargal Kuzhu walked into the forest along with students of the Melur Panchayat Union School at Therkamur and villagers of Idayapatti. Their aim was to create awareness on the need to protect Vellimalai. According to Tamil Dasan, a volunteer, the forest is a Pudhar kaadu (thorn shrub forest). “The interiors of the forest are very dense and fortunately untouched,” he says.

A row of short stumpy Usil trees (Albizia Amara) sway in the breeze as school students gather under their skimpy shade. A. Baburaj, a retired botany professor explains how the Usil leaves are used as a shampoo. The local people call it ‘Arappu’. He says, “This is a naturally formed mono-type forest and is dominated by the one variety of Usil trees which is drought resistant. But, there are also a number of medicinal herbs, thorny shrubs and parasite plants.” The dry region starting from the eastern fringes of Madurai district extends till Ramnad.

The environmentalists conducted a two-day research into the forest and identified over 110 species of plants. Says Baburaj, “One important species found here in abundance is the ‘Kadamba’ tree. There are literary references to the tree and Madurai was once called ‘Kadambavanam”.

Vellimalai Forest is also home to a number of birds and few wild animals. “We have seen Loris deep inside the jungle,” offers Perumal, a villager. “Earlier when I was young, I used to listen to stories of fox encounters. But we hardly see foxes now. Probably there are few atop the hillock.”

Birdwatcher Raveendran says that he spotted over 20 different kinds of birds on his first trip. “Since it’s a shrub forest, the number of insect eating birds is more. He spots a grey bird with an eagle-like beak and recognizes it as ‘Shikra’ meaning a hunter. “It feeds on snakes, monitor lizards and rodents. It’s a smaller brother of eagles,” he points out. Hunting birds are also spotted here as snakes and reptiles thrive in the bushes, says Raveendran. Nitin, a class IV student is excited as he has seen this bird and he informs the gathering that the male bird’s colour changes to pitch black as it grows older.

Even as Raveendran explains the importance of birds to the students, a Red Wattled Lapwing flies across calling loudly. “That one is warning the other birds and animals about our presence. It’s called aalkaatti Kuruvi in Tamil, which means ‘indicator of humans’. The bird calls only when it sees people.”

The students also catch sight of a Kalli Pura (Eurasian Collared Dove), a pair of Peacocks and Babblers. But the Loris remains elusive. A bird slightly bigger than a crow alights on a branch and Raveendran identifies it as ‘Sembondhu’ which is the only nesting member of the cuckoo family.

The forest floor is covered in pebbles and broken rocks. Reddish sandstone boulders, sculpted into peculiar shape by Nature dot the path. “This was once a wild stream here,” says Yokesh a village youth, as he points out algae under the moist crevices of the rocks. “It would flow till the tank at the other side of the forest and the villagers of Idayapatti would draw water from there. Now, half the tank is dry.”