Turtles and antelopes


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THE year, 1965. The sun had gone down and an early moon dimly lit the Santhome beach in Madras. There were no one else on the beach. Thilaka and I were sitting there wondering if it was time to leave when we heard the sound of sand being shovelled. Turning back we saw behind us what appeared to be a dark mound a few metres away. It took only a few seconds to recognize the shovelling movement of the flippers of a sea turtle. Olive Ridley to be specific. We got up and squatted close watching it prepare its nest. That was one of my early introductions to the wildlife of Chennai.

Only a few cities are as blessed as Chennai is with varied geographical features – rivers, sea front, hills, lakes, backwaters, swamps and an estuary. And few have squandered such a heritage as we have done in a frenzied and unbalanced urbanization.

When the British traders began building a fort near the village Madarasapatinam in 1639, thereby taking the first step towards founding the city of Madras, the area was replete with wildlife. Marshes stretched along the seacoast. The British soldiers often set out of the fort to shoot waterfowl that congregated in the marshes. The Quibble Island, with its expanses of swamp and marshes attracting hordes of waterfowl like snipe and curlews, was a favourite hunting ground for the British. Along the coast were vast areas of tropical dry evergreen forest in which antelopes roamed. Two rivers, the Adyar and the Coovum, meandered close by. And there was this long sea front that the British artistes celebrated through their etchings. The landscape was dotted with lakes of varied sizes. Decades later, when the British officers were engaged in land survey in 1800, they reported sighting tigers in Vandalur hills, just 40 km from the fort.

The picture we have now is very different. A modern factory, sprawling under the shadow of Vandalur hills, is busy producing cars and the nearest spot where tigers can be found is the Mudumalai sanctuary, 600 km away, where a mere twenty-five lead a precarious existence. The lakes survive only as names of townships. Most of the tidal mud flats and creeks have been reclaimed by land hungry urbanites and converted into colonies such as Foreshore estate. The beach has been vandalized and buildings have come up close to the sea. The rivers have been defiled beyond recognition and the hills blasted out of shape to produce concrete. The estuary has been encroached upon and constricted out of its distinctiveness as a habitat.

But a patch of coastal scrub jungle, a mere 271 ha, has survived, albeit in a degenerate form and is now a national park. In 1947 it was a 400 ha expanse but parts of this prime forest was allotted to various institutions and over the years it has shrunk to what it is now. The Guindy Deer Park is a link with the ecological past of the city and provides an idea of the heritage lost. This is one of the last holds of the endangered antelope that is exclusive to India, the blackbuck. It is the fastest animal in India, capable of running fifteen kilometres at a stretch keeping an average of 70 km/h and at times peaking at an astonishing 90 km/h. Once plentiful in the plains, the blackbuck is now seen only in a few protected areas like the Point Calimere Sanctuary in Nagapatinam district and in the Thengumarada forests in Erode district.



The park is also home to spotted deer but these are not endemic to the jungle; they have been introduced and in time have flourished. The park has quite a few other mammals such as the jackal, Indian hare and monitor lizard. It is also home to a variety of reptiles, including the star tortoise. More than a hundred varieties of birds, migrant and residents, can be spotted in the park. Among the noteworthy are the green-billed malkoha, a resident cuckoo that builds its own nest and the forest wagtail, a migrant bird of the size of a sparrow with zebra markings on its grey body. As a sanctuary for wild animals and as a laboratory for researchers, the importance of this park is increasingly being recognized.

In the early 1970s, enthused by the initial waves of conservation efforts, a group of us set out to prepare a checklist of birds of the Guindy Deer Park. The red-winged cuckoo, a migrant that visits the wooded part of the city, is easily spotted. It breeds in North East India and migrates south. My friend and fellow twitcher 10-volume Narayanaswamy recorded the presence of this cuckoo in Guindy and surprised even a seasoned birder like M. Krishnan. You might wonder about the prefix to his name. When the other birders barely managed to posses a copy of Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, Narayanaswamy was the proud owner of all the 10 volumes of the newly released Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan by Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley. Whence the identity.

The Guindy Park also played a crucial role in conservation education. It was here that quite a few wildlife enthusiasts honed their concern, began their life-long involvement with wildlife and now contribute to the cause of conservation in India. R. Sukumar, Chairman of Asian Elephant Specialist group of IUCN, Shantharam who gave up a career as a chartered accountant to become an ornithologist and Ravi Chellam, India’s lion man, now with the UNDP, are some of the names I can think of.



Though most of the swampy areas of the city have given way to residential colonies, the Adyar estuary survived, till recently. An estuary, where the fresh water of the river meets the brackish water of the sea, is a unique and fragile ecosystem, representing a habitat between the land and the sea. It presents a transitional condition that is never static. The important feature of this environment is the constant change of mixture of salt and fresh-water. It is dominated by fine sedimentary material, taken into the estuary by the tidal flow and this forms the mud flats. The ebb and flow of the tidal currents work on the soil and make it a nursery of many aquatic creatures. During low tide, a vast area of the riverbed is bared and a host of wading birds feed on the tiny crabs and other small creatures.

In the migratory season, waterfowl of different varieties, thousands of sandpipers and shanks, long-legged waders, flock to this feeding ground. The little stint, a tiny, winter visitor, comes all the way from Eastern Europe and remains till the end of March. The flamingos that used to visit the estuary have their breeding grounds in the Rann of Kutch. They can also be seen in Thada lake on the outskirts of the city. Rare plants like mangroves bordered the estuary. In fact, some remnants of these mangroves can still be seen on the Theosophical Society side.

The Theosophical Society campus sustains a considerable bird population. The variety of trees, both indigenous and exotic (including the two baobab trees) attracts migrants and resident birds. On my evening walks, in addition to celebrities like paradise flycatchers, I have sighted star-tortoise moving unhurriedly across the path. The howl of jackals after sunset seems to celebrate the protection they enjoy on the campus.



While developing the city, the citizens and administration seem to have completely ignored the presence of the sea front. Buildings have been erected too close to the sea and encroachments of various size have been allowed to grow. Long stretches of the beach are virtual latrines. The school of dolphins that shows up near the coast spasmodically goes unnoticed. Two kinds of dolphins can easily be sighted in the sea off Chennai: the bottle-nosed dolphin and the hump-backed. Madras Yacht Club members tell me that schools of the latter variety are seen more often around Chennai. Though there has been no record of whale sighting in recent years, in 1890 a sperm whale was washed ashore on the coast of Chennai, and the skull is on display in the Madras museum. The occasional whale shark that gets beached and appears as news item is an indication of what the sea contains in the shape of life forms.

It is only in recent decades that the need to conserve and care for our wildlife heritage has been articulated in Madras city. In the forties and fifties, M. Krishnan, one of the early conservationists, was ploughing a lonely furrow by writing on wildlife, first in Tamil and later prolifically in English. The burden of his song was that we should recognize animals, birds, rivers and hills as our heritage. His column Southern Diary in The Illustrated Weekly often carried pieces on the wildlife of the city. He inspired many wildlife enthusiasts. Harry Miller, writing in The Indian Express drew people’s attention to reptiles and birds and kindled the light in many budding wildlife photographers.



The founding of the Snake Park in Chennai in 1969, largely due to the efforts of Romulus Whitaker, with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund, was a landmark in the conservation movement in this part of the country. Ignorance about snakes, compounded by superstition, destruction of their habitats and a boom in the snakeskin industry has spelt disaster for the reptiles. In the late 1950s, one tannery near Madras was curing five to ten thousands snake skins daily. In addition to the legal steps taken by the government, protection also came in the form of a public conscious of wildlife. A key effort of the snake park was to educate the public and to encourage research on Indian herptofauna. In this task, the services of the Irula tribals were harnessed and their traditional knowledge put into use in conservation work. More important, the park became a training ground for youngsters interested in wildlife and some of them, such as Shekhar Dattatri who grew to be a wildlife filmmaker and Satish Bhaskar who blossomed into an expert on turtles made a career of their interest.

The surge of enthusiasm for wildlife conservation that swept the country in the early seventies had its impact on Chennai. In 1970, Romulus Whitaker, then managing the Madras Snake Park, was living by the sea and observed the decimation that the sea turtles were being subjected to. Along with Satish Bhaskar and Jean Delouche, he initiated steps to save the turtles. With a group of volunteers, he organized what came to be known as ‘turtle walks’. During nesting season volunteers walked along the beach at night covering the area from Marina to Kalpakkam and collected the eggs.

According to their estimate about 14,000 Olive Ridley turtles came to the Chennai beaches for nesting. Whitaker and his team persuaded National and Grindlays Bank to provide a space in Injambakam, where a makeshift hatchery was set up and the eggs were buried under sand to hatch. In 1982, the WWF took up and continued the hatchery programme. Soon the Forest Department stepped in and set up three more hatcheries. Whitaker demonstrated what could be done with very little resource and a strong belief in the cause. He was subsequently to prove the same point with regard to crocodiles. Later, Chandy Abraham and Karthik Shankar formed the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network and carried on the work. Now, Murugavel of the Trust for Restoration of Ecology and Environment (TREE) and other volunteers continue turtle walks. In addition to helping the turtles, these walks continue to win new converts to the cause of conservation in Chennai.



In 1978, about 16 wildlife enthusiasts of the city led by Vivek Kunte, joined and formed the Madras Naturalist Society. To begin with there were two concerns that brought them together: one was the Adyar estuary and the other, the Guindy Deer Park. One of their first activities was to carry out a census of the blackbuck and chital population of the park. In 1980, the members took Salim Ali to the estuary to give him an idea of its bird wealth. In 1982, a survey of the Madras beach from Ennore to Covalam was done. Its quarterly journal Blackbuck, begun in 1983, has established itself as a reputed publication providing a forum for many non-professionals to document their observations on wildlife. With 300 members, of whom 180 are for life, the MNS has the capability to serve as an enlightened voice for the city’s natural heritage.



Even now, in the new millennium, there are some pockets of greenery in the city that serve as wildlife habitats – the Theosophical Society, the Indian Institute of Technology, Anna University, the museum and Women’s Christian College. In addition to the trees there, these ‘green spaces’ sustain a variety of birds like the golden backed woodpecker and spotted owlets; there are also mammals – toddy cat, squirrels, flying foxes and mongooses. Small ponds inside the city attract pond herons and the white-breasted kingfisher. Inside the IIT Madras campus is a roosting site for open-bill storks and white ibis. A few years ago I lived in a house on Commander-in-Chief road where a family of mongooses were regular visitors to our garden.

One threat to wildlife in the city is the growing population of stray dogs. The corporation has stopped its programme of elimination of strays and they have multiplied in the thousands. In the Guindy Deer Park and the IIT campus, they prey on the fawns of chital and blackbuck, steeply bringing down their numbers. Along the beach, the strays smell out turtle nests and feed on the eggs. This problem is yet to be addressed.

Though Chennai appears to be a city of trees from the air, much of the tree cover has gone. The evergreen indigenous trees like the banyan, peepal, neem, mango, and pungamia, tamarind and wood apple can be seen only in some parts of the city. In recent decades we also observe a change in the kind of trees that are planted. Exotics, which are small in spread and weak in the trunk, are favoured. For instance, the gulmohar sheds its leaves in summer, when we need shade most. Instead, there is need to propagate indigenous varieties such as neem and peepal. The people’s obsession with coconut palms militates against providing a proper green cover. Though hardly anyone harvests coconuts from the trees planted in their houses, the tree remains popular. The concretizing of pavements has spelt death for the trees. The tree trunk is covered all around, as if it was a lamp post and eventually the tree dies. There has been no sustained tree-growing programme in the city.



But nothing is more symbolic of the utter disregard for wildlife heritage as the destruction of the Adyar estuary. Biologists point to the estuaries as the most productive natural habitats of the world. The food web here is complicated and so the area invites specialized feeders. It takes eons to shape an estuary and we have ruined it overnight by deciding to dredge it, preparatory to setting up a boathouse. If only the sanctuary had been given protection it would have attracted a lot more tourists – if that were the purpose – than a few boats will ever do. And we would have had a heritage intact.

The environmental degradation of Chennai is also indicated in many other ways. Water shortage is one. All the wetlands in the city have been reclaimed and the water resources neglected. The lakes at Nungambakkam and Vyasarpadi have been overwhelmed by urban sprawl. This process of destroying wetlands, our main life-support system, continues. The marshes near Foreshore Estate in Santhome are getting filled up. The latest in the list is Pallikaranai swamp, a vast stretch of marshy wetland adjoining Velacherry in South Madras, which is getting filled up with the garbage of the city. As wetlands and lakes shrink inexorably, the water table falls drastically and subterranean aquifers get depleted.



The bird population, which is a good indicator of the ecological health of any area, has come down drastically. One sees less and less of them both in the ground and in the sky. In the seventies, in Besant Nagar, we used to watch a pair of white-bellied sea eagle soar along the sea front. The birders knew that the pair nested inside the Theosophical Society. They are no more to be seen.

Still, even today Chennai has a considerable bird population. We often sight the golden oriole in the gulmohar tree in our house. There are occasional white-headed babblers and drogues that visit us. The tailor-birds and bulbuls are always there. A crimson-throated barbet shows up sometimes. You would hear pied-wagtails perched on water tanks in the terrace of flat complexes. In the evenings we see batches of mynas fly overhead to their roosting spot for the night. Flocks of rose-ringed parakeets dash across as if they have just remembered an important appointment. The western sky grows deep pink and from their many roosting spots in the city come night herons, on leisurely wing bets, silhouetted against the crimson backdrop. They are flying towards their feeding ground for the night… the backwaters of Muttukadu? There they will feed till daybreak when the golden oriole starts calling from the Gulmohar tree, announcing another day.



For more on the snake park and related matters, see Zai Whitaker’s, Snakeman: The Story of a Naturalist. The India Magazine Books, 1989; Penguin, 1990.

Edgar Thurston, The Madras Presidency with Mysore, Coorg and the Associated States. London, 1913.