Nineteen-year-old Nidhi Trivedi had learnt about mangroves in school, but had no idea that a dense mangrove belt existed close to her Dombivali home until she was introduced by a friend to Vanashakti, a non-profit group that runs mangrove tours. Two hours of walking through the mangrove belt last month brought her school lessons alive in a way that no textbook could: Trivedi spotted birds like the marsh harrier and also came to understand the significance of the wetlands in an urban ecosystem. “If we didn’t have mangroves, this entire city would stink,” said Trivedi, of the ability of mangroves to soak up wastewater. “We would need to evacuate [Mumbai] during the summer.”
Since it was founded in 2006, Vanashakti has been working for environmental causes such as the conservation of mangroves and the prevention of mining and deforestation in ecologically sensitive areas. It maintains a database of the different species of mangroves in the city, and the birds and reptiles that inhabit them, and creates educational material. Project director Stalin D, who for many years took friends to mangrove belts in Bhandup and Navi Mumbai, added the tours to the organisation’s repertoire last year. While birdwatching groups often trek through the mangroves, Vanashakti’s trail is the first to focus primarily on the tropical vegetation. “There has been an increased public interest in the issue in recent years,” said Stalin, “The trips take people directly to the mangroves and help them understand the eco-system better.”
Vanashakti starts the tour early in the morning, just before sunrise, or in the evening. “When the sun is bright, the birds and reptiles retreat into the shade, making them harder to spot,” said Stalin. Flamingos, egrets, ducks, storks, herons, sandpipers and gulls can usually be spotted around mangroves, as well as a host of snakes including the rat snake, vine snake and the dog-faced water-snake. The land around the mangroves in Bhandup and Navi Mumbai is firmer, allowing one to walk up close to the trees unlike other spots like Bandra’s Carter Road stretch where the ground is swampy.
Vanashakti project officer Kavita Mallya said that mangrove conservation efforts involve protecting the surrounding wetlands as well, since the city’s coastline is overridden by construction activity. The tours also educate visitors on the effects of waste, construction projects and factories on these green lungs. The organisation recently filed a public interest litigation alleging that the Ministry of Environment and Forests had allowed a private company to develop an area in the Thane Mulund wetlands as an IT Special Economic Zone. “The government gives support to private developers and projects are on to convert wetlands into dumping grounds,” said Stalin, “When wetlands aren’t healthy, how can the mangroves be healthy?”
Mangrove conservation, Stalin said, is a better defence against natural disasters than the expensive concrete tetrapods at Marine Drive to prevent erosion. “What if there is a tsunami?” he said, “The tetrapods will be absolutely useless then. They will get swept away.” Once destroyed, a mangrove belt cannot be restored through any kind of compensatory afforestation either. “It is relatively easier to have compensatory afforestation in the case of terrestrial forests but not for coastal vegetation,” said Mallya.
Vanashakti took people on a clean-up drive in the Bhandup mangrove belt recently. Stalin hopes that the government will protect the mangrove stretches by converting them into sanctuaries. “Wetlands – both inside the city and those at a radius of at least 50 km [from it] – need to be protected,” he said.
By Mithila Phadke on March 02 2012 2.07pm