Chennaiites step out to survey their neighbourhood trees

Teaching the city to care, Nizhal is showing residents of all ages how to identify, check and protect the trees in their neighbourhood, as part of their city-wide survey of hundreds of Chennai trees

August 04, 2021 05:35 pm | Updated 05:38 pm IST - Chennai

Everybody loves a Gulmohar. Its fiery flowers command stretches of cityscaped horizon, and are often mistaken by the average morning walker for the flame of the forest — the fleshier, more distinctive blossoms of the Palash. And yet, for all their similarities of hue, there are enough differences between the two to keep five earnest children busy all morning.

Masks on, forms out, pens at the ready, the middle-schoolers were out on their maiden tree survey, encouraged and guided by city-based friends of trees initiative Nizhal. They stopped at each tree down their street — Ormes Road — and repeated the same ritual of calculations that have been followed by groups across different Chennai neighbourhoods over the past two months.

“The tree survey is being conducted all over the city. So far, we have had about 80 participants from Kilpauk, Nungambakkam, RA Puram, Mugalivakkam, Vepery and Thiruvanmiyur, to name a few,” says Avni Mohindra, Nizhal member and a programme coordinator for the survey.

“We encourage participants to start with surveying trees on their street first, then take on more streets in their neighbourhood,” she adds.

Though now meant as a way to make Chennaiites feel more involved with,the Nature around them, after a year of staying indoors, the idea of such surveys is not new to the city.

“Our first tree survey was back in 2007,” says Shobha Menon, founder of Nizhal. “Now, the idea is to make an inventory of all trees in the city, and encourage planting of native trees. So, this time, we want to do it in neighbourhoods around Chennai, and get residents involved.” She adds that Nizhal hopes to build enough of a database to eventually create a GIS (Geographic Information System) survey of the city’s trees, with information visible by location on online maps. That, however, is the far-flung future plan: the immediate one is to increase awareness among participants.

To that end, back on Ormes Road, the young gang of five meticulousl filled up rows of data per tree. They noted its species, estimated its age and its health, measured its height, canopy (in metres) and trunk circumference.

Under “comments”, they noted whether or not it had been pruned, and how. They checked for symptoms of common tree diseases, as per a list provided by Nizhal. Most importantly, they checked it for five specific kinds of tree abuse: nails or cables, rubbish, injury by careless chopping, choking by paving, and surprisingly enough, tree guards.

Meant to protect saplings, tree guards can deter growth when not removed from around a maturing tree, explains Shobha. Avni adds, “Tree abuse was something they were not aware of before participating in the survey.” Indeed, the information the children gained went far beyond the 10 trees they managed to survey that day.

Says Avni: “One of the key learnings was identifying names of trees which they were not aware of previously. Another was the presence of a large number of exotic species like Gulmohar, Raintree, Copperpod in comparison to native tree species.” While Gulmohar was categorised as exotic, the Palash — had they found one — would have been a victory, as the sighting of a native species of tree.

There were other little victories, however, in the form of a marked change in attitude. As Avni observes, “Some of the children noticed the biodiversity more closely like bees, birds, butterflies and they are motivated to set up bird baths in their street for their bird friends. This is the kind of impact we would like on our participants after the survey.”

Nizhal coordinates its tree surveys through a WhatsApp group. Please contact 9841449829 for details.

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