Urban Lungs: Green in the midst of concrete

Kanheri Caves
Kanheri Caves

When its time for a vacation, a serene environment beckons one and all – be it the CEO of a big-shot company or a down-to-earth labourer. The former may achieve it in a five-star hotel situated on a hill-station and the latter may achieve it in his own village. The city life doesn’t give much opportunity for people to actually be amidst some greenery. Being in a situation where you couldn’t be out for an entire day, yet manage to escape into wilderness for a short period of time – One is left with but a few choices. If you are lucky enough to live in a city like Mumbai, you have but one choice! Sanjay Gandhi National Park- a little green haven in the heart of one of the most polluted cities in the world!

It is quite extraordinary how one can displace him/herself from the hectic and exhausting city life to the peaceful and serene environment of the park within an hour or two. It is like the only little oasis in this vast urban desert. Often called the ‘Lungs of Mumbai’- this green patch not only forms the catchment areas for Vihar and Tulsi lakes, which are among the important sources of water for Mumbai city (other than Modak Sagar, Tansa, Upper Vaitarana and Bhatsa), but also helps in keeping down the pollution levels of Mumbai by supplying fresh oxygen and acting as a sink.

I happened to visit SGNP this July (well into the middle of monsoon). The monsoons had transformed this dry forest into a lush green scape with flowers blooming and adding more than just green to the scenery. We had not gone with the intention of serious birding or a wildlife trail. It was just meant to be a hike… a walk from the entrance (at Borivali) to Kanheri… explores the caves…and head back! That’s about it! And even though, we weren’t ‘looking’ for wildlife sightings, we had the opportunity to see many wonderful inhabitants of the park. All the trees were wearing their best green outfit and the smaller bushes and plants adorned themselves with colourful flowers and fruits.

The ones that I could identify included Teak (Tecttona grandis), Karanj (Pongamia pianata ), Red silk cotton tree (Bombax malbaricum ), Coral tree (Erythrina variegata ), Copper pod (Plectophorum inermae), Acacia, False Ashoka, Palms, Cannon ball tree (Couroupita guianensis), Zingiberaceae Species, Bitti, Kadamba (Adina cardifolia ) and many woody climbers. There are large patches of Bamboo, which make the feel of the forest even better. We didn’t expect to see many birds, as during peak monsoons birds normally retreat to more sheltered places. But it so happened that, the weather for the day had a sunny morning in store for us and we managed to see a few birds that included Sunbirds, Greater Racquet tailed Drongo, Flowerpeckers, Kingfishers, Barbets, Prinias, Parakeets and Warblers. The invertebrate world is well established in this region from tiny ants to huge crabs. The Reptilian world is represented by Crocodiles in Tulsi lake, Monitor lizards (rarely sighted), Rock Pythons (Python molurus molurus), Cobras (Naja naja), Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii), Rat snake (Ptyas mucosus), Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) and Checkered keelbacks (Xenochrophis piscator) found in and around the park. During the monsoons, one can hear the mating calls of frogs giving a tough competition to the bird calls!

But the highlight of the walk (this time) – The butterflies!! Often neglected, these invertebrates rarely share the limelight with the higher classes of the vertebrate kingdom. We got to see over 20 species of butterflies and they included- Common crow, Blue bottle, Common emigrant, Common grass yellow, White Orange Tip, Yellow Orange Tip, Blue glassy tiger, Common Lime, Danaid Eggfly, Common Mime, Plain Tiger, Tailed Jay, Blue Oakleaf, Tiny grass blue, Common Pierrot , Tawny Rajah etc.

Butterflies
Butterflies

The rains had got many weird and colourful looking insects to come out of the various crevices and cracks to look for food – black and red ants, yellow spiders, jewel bugs, metallic blue insects, brilliant blue and crimson coloured dragon flies … peculiar looking beetles and bugs and mantis. The sheer sight of these vibrant colours took my breath away!
(Image clockwise from top- Blue Oakleaf, Common Crow, Black Stream Glider, Lynx Spider, White orange tip)

One of the ‘Tourist’ spots of Mumbai lies inside SGNP- the Kanheri Caves. This forest has a history dating back to the 4th century BC. Sopara and Kalyan were two ports near Mumbai which used to trade with Greece and the Middle East. The trade route connecting these trade centers and the two ports passed through this particular forest. En route, you come across the rock cut caves of Kanheri which housed ancient Buddhist settlements dating back to the 1st century, often serving as rest houses for wanderers and weary travelers. The caves can be reached easily and provide an interesting glimpse of Buddhist history and culture in India. Most of the Buddhist caves are chiseled out of the volcanic rock, and are simple small chambers, known as viharas . Some chambers are much larger and are known as chaityas, probably used for congregational worship.

The main chamber has colossal figures of the standing Lord Buddha, on either side of the entrance; a colonnade of 34 pillars stand in the inner hallway and a large stupa (shrine) at the far end – all carved in to the existing basaltic rock.

The blend of nature and human architecture is distinctly visible at Kanheri. If you are done exploring the caves below, you can head towards the higher areas which will treat you to more wonderful and panoramic views of hills, lakes and open expanses. At the same time, from another side, the not-so-distant city can be seen beyond the greens…sky scrapers… tall buildings and mega structures and murky skies that spoil the other-wise natural green scape of this forest.

Stupa at Kanheri Caves
Stupa at Kanheri Caves

This National park is unique for yet another reason – it sustains a sizable population of Panthers/Leopards. The density of Leopards is one of the highest for any such wilderness, which makes an encounter with this wild animal a very real possibility. For the past ten years, there have been attacks stalking children and adults outside the park fringes, attributed to leopards. This green patch amidst Mumbai city is under the tremendous pressure of the mounting metropolis surrounding it. A very high degree of encroachment from outside and within the park by human settlements is causing severe environmental degradation. The careless attitude of devotees/pilgrims during certain festivals poses a threat of fire hazards. It also leads to the further degradation of the forest. The human-animal conflict in the fringes of the park arises mainly due to panthers looking for easy prey like stray dogs near garbage dumps, human settlements etc. Adult leopards are solitary. Each of them lives and hunts by itself in a territory also known as the home range. The size of the home range varies, depending on the food and water supply. In areas where there is plenty of food, a leopard’s territory can be as small as a few square kilometers. In areas where food is hard to find, a home range is much larger. In general, a leopard’s territory usually ranges from 10 – 50 sq km. Considering that Sanjay Gandhi National Park spans over only 104 sq km, of which just 50 sq km fall under the ‘core’ area of the park; this area is insufficient to sustain a population of even 20-25 of these big Cats. No wonder the leopard often finds himself in the unruly territory of us human beings.

Though the park boasts of other large mammals like- Spotted deer, Sambhar, barking deer, Porcupine, Palm Civet, Four-horned Antelope, Hyena, Mouse deer- it is something short of a miracle if you spot any of these wild animals (maybe except a spotted deer) whilst your walk at the park. Many believe that the park cannot support these animals anymore due to the terrible extent of the habitat degradation that has already occurred here. These animals may have once lived in these forests, but probably not any more. The Hanuman Langur, Rhesus Macaque and Bonnet Macaque are the only mammals that you may sight in the park trails now.

Almost the entire park is washed with the rainbow hues of the flowers that bloom here, during the monsoon season and it is a must to visit this place during this time of the year. All of us are not lucky enough to see all the facets of nature’s symphony in the forest in one walk. Many may not be able to appreciate this little place unless they lose it. But I am hoping that doesn’t happen. It is too valuable a place to be lost due to our carelessness. I consider myself lucky as a Mumbaikar, that I am blessed with such a green haven just next door. I will do all it takes in my power to keep the faith, create awareness and help this green forest fight the deconstructive consequences of urbanity.

Author: Adithi Muralidhar
Adithi has completed her masters in zoology, specializing in Environmental sciences. Her love for nature has taken her across the length and breadth of India, volunteering with various organizations in the country. She is also the recipient of the prestigious ‘Young Green Warrior Award’ from Symbiosis International University. Her interests mainly lie in the domain of environmental education and wildlife conservation. Her other interests include singing, writing, drawing, playing basketball, amateur astronomy and birding.

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