Patchwork recovery

Feb 27, 2013, 23:52 IST | C Gangadharan Menon

From a thick forest to a quarry site, and then the long, slow road to partial recovery � Manpada in the northern zone of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, has witnessed a tumultuous fight to retain its green cover. C Gangadharan Menon reports from ground zero of this metamorphosis

For years, they dug into the bowels of a dense forest looking for stones. When quarrying hit the rock bottom in the early 1970s, it was banned. But by then the destruction of this beautiful forest called Manpada in the northern reaches of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, was near complete.

Great Orange Tip. Pics Courtesy/C Gangadharan Menon

Foreign invasion
When the extent of the tragedy dawned on the State’s Forest Department, they went on a green frenzy. Instead of planting the indigenous trees that were destroyed, imported trees were randomly planted. The simple logic was: ‘a tree is a tree is a tree’. So, Acacia and Gliricidia from Australia, Tamarind trees from the United States, and Gulmohar (yes, this beautiful tree with a beautiful Indian name is actually an import!) from Madagascar were planted arbitrarily across this tract of forest land.

Bamboo trees reflect in the sunlight of Manpada

The problem with these trees was that they drank up too much water, thereby reducing the ground water level. And, the other problem was that they also spread, uncontrollably. Along with these foreign flora, surfaced certain weeds that spread wildly. Candy Floss, Mexican Poppy and Lantana: each one of which systematically wiped out local plants. In fact, Lantana is a huge threat to local vegetation because of its strange habit of secreting toxic chemicals from the roots that destroy any sapling that tries to grow near it.

Participants on the forest trail with Kaustubh (right) from BNHS

Soon, the colonialisation of the forest was complete. When local conservationists protested, a few saplings of Babool, Bamboo, Indian Rosewood, Bauhinia, Khair and an interesting tree called Monkey Biscuit were planted in small numbers. The latter is so called because monkeys relish its seeds that are shaped like biscuits! Slowly, the Indian trees started taking on the might of their foreign counterparts.

Forest trump
Hearing these forest tales from Kaustubh Bhagat of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), we began our trek from the eastern gate of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, where Manpada is located. It’s part of the Yeoor Range in Thane, and adjoins the beautiful open-air butterfly park called Ovalekarwadi.

The first sighting was the Quarry Lake. It was a lake formed in the pit of a large deserted quarry. But it looked beautiful with egrets, kingfishers and herons waiting at the water’s edge for their catch of the day. We witnessed three types of predatory hunting: close to the lake was a Khair tree, where we spotted a Shikra lying in wait for its prey.

The strategy of Palm Swifts was unique. They flew about in the sky in unpredictable paths, holding their mouths wide open. Their prey, essentially small insects, would simply enter their gaping mouths and get stuck on their slimy sides! On the other hand, the bee-eaters would wait against light, and once the wings of their prey are lit by sunlight, they would catch them acrobatically in mid-air! A bee-eater flew alongside as we trekked, and demonstrated her mastery in aerial combat. Soon after, we noticed a patch of bamboo grove. Bamboo lives up to sixty years; flowers and dies. In this patch, all the bamboos had died of old age, at once, and tiny saplings were slowly taking their place.

Jungle book
The forest floor was teeming with life. As Dr Asad Rahmani of BNHS says, “ it’s where you will find myriads of life forms.” While looking for bigger wildlife, we miss the floor of the forest. In front of us was a butterfly called Peacock Pansy. This beautiful creature had four eyes on its wings to make it look diabolic such that predators were warded off.

We spotted the Slender Coral Snake slithering into the dry leaves, its distinct black head drawing our attention immediately. What’s peculiar about this snake is that, though extremely poisonous, it has a mouth that opens just a wee bit. So it can only bite and kill tiny prey. Next up, we came across the nest of the Harvester Ant. It was made from soft soil, in the shape of a flower. The Harvester Ants ‘harvest’ seeds from the forest, peel these, and store these inside this four-feet deep nest for a rainy day!

Looking back at the forest, it appeared more like a garden, and less like a forest, because of the dominance of imported flowering trees. Once a forest has been destroyed, it’s not possible to retain its original glory. One can plant trees, but cannot re-plant the intricately balanced forest floor with its myriad life forms that took several millennia to evolve. Clearly, this attempt at afforestation is a patchwork done on a tapestry that has been lost forever.

Unlike the big raptors like kites and eagles, SHIKRAS are small in size with smaller wings. So, they don't swoop down from the skies on spotting a prey. They wait, perched on the lower branches of a tree, and pounce on unsuspecting preys from close quarters.

How to get there
>> Take the road to Thane, and then take the Ghodbunder Road.
>> 5 kms on, turn left towards Tikuji-ni-wadi.
>> Just ahead of Tikuji-ni-wadi is the Manpada forest gate.
When to go: All year round
How to to sign up 
BNHS conducts regular trails to Manpada and nearby places in Mumbai
Call: 9594953425 / 22821811 EMAIL 

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