Urban jungle book

Apr 26, 2012, 07:04 IST | C Gangadharan Menon

Signature Spiders, leopard pugmarks, deer get-togethers � a stay at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park is filled with more than just urban jungle legends. The forest, within touching distance of our big, bad concrete city, seems to offer more than just an oasis of hope. Experience it, before its too late...

It was four years ago when this intrepid traveller had last set foot in the amazing city forest called Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali. And, that’s a long time in the life of a susceptible forest. The cancer of urban growth had spread deeper into this forest, which is the only National Park in the world that’s within the municipal limits of a metropolis!

Jewel Bug

Spread over 100 sq kms, step inside and one is witness to a tapestry of wide-ranging natural and man-made wonders: semi-evergreen forest, mixed deciduous forest, dry, rocky plateaus, historic caves, two massive lakes that supply water to our burgeoning city, scrubby land, and a mangrove creek.

Return to green routes
Four years on, I decided to check out on new developments that I had heard about. I met the new Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Sunil Limaye, an upright, diligent and committed forest officer, a breed that’s an endangered species as well. Limaye had executed many an ambitious plan that would warm the cockles of any nature lover. Starting with free screenings of films on nature, wildlife and conservation at their Interpretation Centre for students, they opened up a well- appointed tented accommodation in the middle of the park for wildlife enthusiasts.

Red canopy in the forest

The drive from the Main Gate off the Western Express Highway to the camp was ample proof of his commitment. This would arguably be the National Park with the maximum pressure of tourism of the picnic variety. Thousands stroll in just to have a good time, with care for the environment thrown to the forest wind; and scores of lovebirds come just to run around the proverbial tree, almost outnumbering the birds of the feathered kind. In the process, tons of plastic litter is dumped in these sacred precincts, but Sunil Limaye’s co-workers clean up the place at dawn and dusk, despite the visitors repeating it 24x7.

Rosy Starling atop a tree

After depositing our haversacks in the beautifully appointed tent, we proceeded on our evening trek. Along the way, we stumbled upon the Commelina plant, with gentle flowers of a bluish hue. This shy flower vanishes at the first onslaught of air pollution. A gentle reassurance that the tall, evergreen sentinels at the periphery of the park have done a commendable job keeping pollution in check.

The spectacled cobra that was caught in Kandivali and rescued on the Silonda Trail

Next up, we were introduced to two interesting species of spider: Signature Spider and Great Wood Spider. The Signature Spider is not an anonymous artist like the Buddhist sculptors of the nearby Kanheri Caves. It makes its web and then weaves its distinct signature on all the four sides of its web! The Great Wood Spider on the other hand, makes his web at a 45-degree angle. The reason being, after his dinner, he has to throw down the leftovers, and the angle of the web makes sure that the leftovers don’t get entangled in his own web, and go straight down to the forest floor!

Backlit forest

Sundown surprise
By the time we walked back, it was sundown. And, we had to pass the outskirts of the Lion Safari with its gigantic walls crowned with barbed wires. The place reminded me of Jurassic Park and the deep-throated calls of the lions in the distance fuelled my primordial fear. Meanwhile, the forest had dissolved into a form-less black. The molten moonlight was trickling down a tree that had a stunningly white bark, and it looked like a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness. No wonder this tree is called the Ghost of the Forest.

Eight-year wait for purple haze This stunningly beautiful flowering plant called Karvi, blooms every eight years. It is also called the Carvia Callosa.

Near the tented camp, over 60 spotted deer had gathered. They were planning to spend the night near our tents, with the intuitive knowledge that they were safer here than inside the jungle. There was a surprise waiting for us in a huge plastic jar: a cobra. It was rescued from a colony in Kandivali. It looked docile as it lay curled up at the bottom of the well-ventilated jar, sleeping. The next day, Ramu the snake-rescuer, decided to release it in the forest on the nearby Silonda Trail.

Along the way, we passed by the defunct Mafco factory, a place that had created havoc in this forest a few decades ago, as leftovers after processing poultry were dumped in the forest. This attracted the leopards that got easy meat, and as a result lost their predatory instincts. These ferocious cats were reduced to begging for food. Mafco had to shut shop.

There were fresh leopard pugmarks on the path. I looked around, almost sure that though I couldn’t see the leopard; the leopard was watching me! We stopped by a dried rivulet, beside a bamboo grove. Slowly, Ramu kept the jar sideways and opened the lid. The cobra hesitated for a few moments, and then slid out. The moment it left the safety of the jar, it stood up with its hood opened out in a warning posture. We waited for ten minutes, but the suspecting hood was still up. It was only after the last one of us moved far away that it put its head down and slithered away to the safety of the forest.
But then, after all the atrocities we have committed to their habitats, are we worthy of their trust? 

How to get there
>> The Park gates are located in Borivali East, 0.9 km from this railway station on the Western Railway. Local trains ply regularly between Churchgate and Borivali. 
>>  From Borivali station, one can walk or hire an autorickshaw.
>>  The park entrance is on the Western Express Highway. (NH8)
>>  Many BEST bus routes that ply regularly from the station pass the National Park. 
>>  The nearest airport is 18 km away.

Flora and Fauna
It is home to over 50 reptiles, 300 species of birds, 150 speciesof butterflies and 800 species of flowering plants. 

When to go
Summer for animal sighting. Monsoon for picturesque landscapes. You decide.

Raju or Deepa Chawak of Ankur on 9821014820 / 9870264762

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