Thursday, 11 December 2014

Looking for jackals in RA Puram, a walk in the wilderness of Adyar Poonga

Like most arterial roads in the city, the stretch of Dr. DGS Dinakaran Salai a.k.a Greenways Road in RA Puram chokes with bumper-to-bumper traffic on most evenings.  As the sun sets,  home-bound bikers, four-wheeler riders and MTC drivers clamour for every inch of road space compounding the mayhem.

Barely a few hundred feet away from the cacophony of blaring horns, behind the large concrete wall that surrounds the Adyar Eco Park, a jackal meanders along the banks of the Adyar Estuary and watershed searching for mud crabs blissfully unaware of the chaos outside. After having a sumptuous meal of half a dozen mud crabs, the jackal disappears into the thickets as dusk shrouds the regenerated forest situated right in the heart of the city at RA Puram.

Early this year, when staff employed at this 58-acre eco restoration project spotted a jackal inside their campus, they were jubiliant.  It was a sure sign that their eco restoration effort was heading in the right direction. Since then, park officials vouch that they have spotted atleast two pairs of jackals that have now made the Adyar Eco Park home along with fourteen other mammals including civets, jungle cats, and dozens of mongoose.

When this ambitious project of bio-remediation and regeneration of native vegetation along the Adyar Estuary and surrounding wetlands was taken up in the year 2007, the area used to be a garbage dump yard and a giant sewage pit. After stopping the flow of sewage and clearing the debris, officials of the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT) conducted a bench mark survey of the various species present at the park.

“In that first survey, we identified 141 different species including commonly found fish, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals. After seven years, during our most recent survey done in 2013-214, the numbers of species identified at the Adyar Eco Park has risen dramatically to 239. It is a clear indication that the eco restoration is proceeding in the right direction,” said a senior CRRT official.

The park is now home to atleast 100 different species of birds, 15 mammals, 19 reptiles, 10 amphibians and several dozen species of insects. Atleast 55 different species of butterflies alone have been identified so far.

Until recently, the park formerly known as Adyar Poonga had been closed to the general public and was open only to school and college students for guided educational tours. After long deliberations, the authorities have now opened the Poonga for a guided tour twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays to a limited audience of 20 people.

During these tours, ornithologist and Interpretation Executive N. Gomathi shares her excitement of being a part of a thriving forest in the midst of a bustling metro.

 “In May 2011, the first Pelican landed at our waterfront on a mound located right in the middle of the backwaters. It was moment to cherish for all of us here,” she says. “Within a few days, the lone Spot Billed Pelican was joined by three or four more pelicans.”

Until then, the park management had to engage private parties to clear excess fish from the back waters as their numbers had multiplied drastically. But with the arrival of the first batch of Spot Billed pelicans, we never faced the problem of too much fish as these large birds had consumed most of them. Soon, the number of pelicans grew to 20 and the birds even decided to spend longer time at the Poonga as there was enough food.

Gomathy points out that between May and June 2012, at least 200 Spot Billed Pelicans visited the wetland and have been steady visitors every year since. “A few of the birds have also become residents and can be found through the year as this wetland never becomes dry,” she says.
Along with the Pelican population, the number of darters, night herons, little cormorants and various other aquatic birds too grew significantly as many of these avian visitors even started to breed at the park.

“Many of the birds even brood for a second season here,” the interpretation officer says pointing at a pair of Spot Billed Ducks. “While there was just one pair of spot billed ducks in 2011, the numbers have increased fourfold over the past three years. Many of the chicks have even migrated out of here and are expected to come back to us during breeding season,” Gomathi says.

Over the years, the Adyar Poonga has become a seasonal home to painted storks, purple herons, five different species of kingfishers including the Black Capped Fisher, Yellow and Black Bitterns, and even a handful of Forest Wagtails, Indian Pittas and Paradise Flycatchers whose attractive long tail feathers enthrall lucky visitors who manage to spot them.

While planting the green cover, the park managers were careful to plant mostly mangroves and mangrove associated species near the water front and Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest species in the surrounding areas. When the restoration effort began, the biologists working here had planted 177 different plant species, all of which are native to this region. Atleast seven different varieties of mangroves were planted along the banks and are presently thriving.
Besides these native plants that were physically introduced, several new species of plants have also been introduced here by the migratory birds that bring seeds of a diverse range of flora from different parts of the country and deposit here through droppings.

With most shrubs and trees having grown tall providing a perfect canopy for visitors as they stroll along the stone pathways, the green cover has also attracted a diverse range of insects that have become fodder for several terrestrial birds such as the Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Green Leaf Warbler and even the Orange Headed Thrush that now visit the Poonga.

On quiet afternoons, it is not uncommon for visitors to spot a rat snake slither across the pathway or a mongoose scurry into the bushes. “The reptile population has been thriving here. While the increase snake population has been healthy, the corresponding increase in mongoose and other mammals keep them under check,” Gomathi says as she guides her audience to the Karpagam Bridge for the last leg of the wilderness walk. Visitors are allowed only up to that point of the walkway as access is restricted beyond the stretch which is exclusively planted with mangroves.

On the way back, the Interpretation Executive shares the secret behind the success of the project. “It is very simple. When the water remained fresh through the year, fish population thrived. The fish attracted the birds that built nests and lay eggs in and around the wetland. The eggs attracted the reptiles and amphibians who in turn more terrestrial birds and the larger mammals. The most important thing is to protect the water. As long as water is clean, any forest will thrive.”

With the first phase of the project reaching completion, work is underway to clear debris from the mouth of the estuary as part of the second phase of the project. After clearing the debris and blocking inflow of sewage, more mangroves would be planted along the banks as part of the Phase II of the restoration effort which is expected to be completed by end of 2015. “We are also in the final stages of preparing detailed plans for Phase III which involves cleaning of the entire stretch of the Adyar River from its source,” says a senior official of CRRT who is obviously satisfied with the way the project has turned out. 

Despite changing governments, Adyar Eco Restoration Project is one of the few that have progressed undeterred by the altered political landscape. “We are very cautious about every little step we take in this project as the environment is so fragile and could be destroyed easily. It is exactly for this reason that we have decided not to throw it open to public. While all efforts are heading in the right direction, there is a long way forward before this forest regenerates fully. Until then, it needs to be protected,” the official says.

Activities at the park close down at 5 pm after which only a bunch of security guards remain stationed at the gates. As the handful of staff working here prepare to leave for the day, a crow pheasant whistles from somewhere inside the bushes. The throbbing call of the large, dark bird with bright, brown wings is soon reciprocated with a resonant whistle from the other side of the water body. A mud wasp is busy transporting a dead caterpillar into a hole in the loose sand in between the stone pathway. A cast of crabs search for prey near the banks of the back waters, and somewhere in the bushes, a jackal is waiting for the right moment to pounce on the crabs.  

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