A peek at Chennai’s ‘living’ heritage

Murugavel educating kids about the city's ecospots  

What does the word “heritage” mean to you? Buildings, monuments, title, property…? Chennai has a “living” heritage — “living” as in moving, crawling, flying, breathing, growing non-human denizens — said members of the Madras Naturalists Club, who organised an expo to prove it. Their two-day “Eco-spot Expo” had photographs, a 10-minute film, maps of eco-spots, and presentations by experts on the subject.

Revere bio-diversity, said “Pavai” Bhanumathi, pinpointing the diverse habitats Chennai boasts of. To the well-known eco-spots of Guindy National Park, Nanmangalam Reserve, Adyar Poonga and Vandalur Zoo she added the lesser-known ones like Madhavaram Jheel, the ECR/OMR coasts and the campuses of the Madras Christian College, Theosophical Society, Women’s Christian College and Presidency College. “If St. Thomas Mount has helicopter trees, Kalakshetra has 260 species of animals,” she said. Chennai's wildlife has lost many of the species found in the 80s, she rued. Where is Usilamaram ( Albizia amara) whose seeds were made into arapu podi, a natural soap-powder? The mole cricket ( pillai poochi)? Magar (crocodiles)? Varieties of rice? Sharing rare pictures of creatures she has spotted — civet/toddy-cats to tree geckos, she appealed: celebrate creatures around you, be they millipedes and centipedes that churn soil or squirrels and birds that disperse seeds.

Did you know Vedanthangal means “hamlet of the hunter”?” asked Dr. Murugavel discussing the two dedicated sanctuaries bird-lovers flock to. He told his student audience how a campaign started by villagers to protect the birds in the “hunting hamlet” in 1798 ended in the lake being declared a sanctuary in 1972, after a series of government steps. Pulicat sanctuary that straddles two states is a brackish-water lagoon, known for its birds, crabs and prawns, he said. The bird numbers and bird visitors — flamingos, storks and pelicans – make it a place that deserves utmost care, he argued.

Institutional habitats (office/school/factory) must be protected from callousness and apathy, said Preston Ahimaz, one of the people behind Adyar Poonga's transformation. Any place with tree cover and water is a habitat, and if you leave it undisturbed, without pesticides, creatures will stay. Once a 55-acre dump, Adyar Poonga now invites 100 bird varieties and 28 species of fish. Despite the pollution, birds do come to roost in Chennai's rich forest/riverine/coastal habitats.

But when you fragment forested areas to erect memorials with manicured lawns and exotic shrubs, these are, alas, lost. Fortunately, many educational institutions (MCC, IIT-Prakruthi) now make concerted efforts to preserve the rich environment on campus.

Industrial houses may be the last resort for our wildlife, he said, citing the very scientific efforts made by the TVS group to maintain their wooded wealth. But it is us who should assume the role of custodians of heritage.

Three rivers (Kortalaiyar, Cooum and Adyar) flow through Chennai, bringing with them rich bio-diversity said marine biologist, T. D. Babu. And Chennai's coast, running from Thiruvallur in the north to Kancheepuram in south has its own ecology. Mangroves, sand-dunes, sandy beaches, swamps, lakes and ponds that form the water habitats are severely degraded, he warned. Water-bodies have vanished; rivers are synonymous with sewage drains, toxic leach from garbage dumps poisons groundwater. Why do we see dogs on the beach? It is not a dog habitat, he pointed out. It’s because we throw food around.

South coastal Chennai was once known as Amaiyur. Sea turtles control growth of sea grass, and eat jellyfish that kill other fish. Protecting their habitat is protecting the fish. So, when you're on the beach, don't look for bajji and ice-cream; instead follow fiddler crabs, watch ghost crabs burrow themselves in, enjoy the stunning patterns sea creatures make on the sand, look for sand balls, and ask fishermen why they collect worms to feed shrimps. We need collective action to preserve our coastal wealth, he said.

Young environment crusader Vikas Madhav introduced the audience to what he saw and captured in pictures at GNP and Nanmangalam Reserve, adding notes about their habits. Patience paid off, he said, in efforts to click albino blackbuck to pangolins, marbled spiders to rare butterflies. Step into your backyard and observe wildlife there, he suggested.

“The city's myriad eco-systems present a kaleidoscope of flora and fauna forming an inheritance that is matchless,” said organiser Vijay. “We should sensitise people to the importance of preserving them.”

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:01:47 PM |

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