Call it an assault on the senses, call it financial capital or Bollywood or whatever. Choked it sure is, a bhelpuri of everything, but Mumbai could well have laid claim to almost being the world’s NatCapital (read Nature Capital). All that was required was some degree of genuine sensitivity in recent times on the part of the city’s various planning bodies, and its political bosses. Alas, the chosen path to Shanghai and Singapore and what not turned out to be quite another story.
For starters, Mumbai had several inherent advantages. Foremost was its location, at almost the northern tip of the lush Malabar Coast. The great variety of habitats and terrain range from forests to coastal stretches, mangrove creeks, sheltered bays, freshwater bodies, plenty of hills and remnants of grass and scrub. Location and topography was amply aided by fairly salubrious climate, never too hot nor cold, and good rainfall. Perfect NatureCity, one could say, generously cocooned by nature’s largesse on all sides. And I didn’t even mention the endless sea with its various coastal locales lapping the western margins.
Little wonder that flora (all plant life) and fauna (insects, other invertebrates, marine life, reptiles, birds, mammals) abound to make it a Biodiversity-rich area.
If one were to judge a city and its environs on a BioDiversity scale, based on various parameters, Mumbai would, quite simply, rank among the top few cities. Unfortunately, the endless and vigorous developmental onslaught has all but sounded the death-knell of original natural heritage, resulting in a qualitative loss of BioDiversity, the fall of many key and critical species and a corresponding swell of the ‘wrong’ key species, these keys indicative of an ecological disaster in the making.
Unlike many a city in India and elsewhere in the world, Mumbai may have actually burst at its seams and its biodiversity seriously impaired for good. Yet there miraculously survive pockets of life, often in the midst of and around urbania, depicting the tremendous resilience of the natural world, oftentimes on its last legs. If only we could learn lessons from nature’s resilience and display some of our own in first making sure this remains a City for Life than aiming for an unattainable Shanghai or a Singapore or whatever next.
I was asked to list some favourite sites for experiencing the region’s floral and faunal riches and here are some; all are quite easily accessible and well, they are perfect for grown-ups and children alike.
SANJAY GANDHI NATIONAL PARK : Despite the immense pressures on it, my City Forest remains a perennial favourite; perfect to experience nature in a manner many renowned National Parks deny. There is still a biodiversity-rich feel through every season, reaching a peak during the latter half of the monsoon; there are many trails and with permission, one can even explore some of the closed trails, including the wilds around Tulsi and Vihar Lakes. There still are great bird and butterfly moments and the phantom of the forest is never too far, in body and in spirit.
GORAI – MANORI: A classic example of how not having a bridge proved to be conducive to nature. Alas, this will soon be a thing of the past as the bridge comes over the creek. As yet these sites along the northwest ends of the city have a distinctly countryside charm about them, especially on weekdays. The bulbul and barbet, mongoose and rat-snake, Indian Coral and the Red Silk-cotton, the overgrown orchards and groves with dark, heavy foliage laden with birdcall and butterfly flutter transfer you, even if momentarily, into the lush-green, laidback delights of the not-so-ol’time, verdant Catholic villages of Mumbai.
ELEPHANTA ISLAND: Swamped under a sea of humanity for over half the year, Mumbai’s most accessible island still has pockets of semi-wilds that could very well be how the people who chiselled those caves well over a thousand years ago may have experienced. Tread off the main path, beyond the primate frequented and litter-lined stretch and you are in for some featherfolk surprises and a jungle-feel.
ALIBAUG AREA: While real estate has shot through every roof in this once very sleepy world across the harbour, stretching from Rewas-Mandwa in the north to Murud-Janjira in the south, yet some fine surviving flora and fauna can be experienced. Kankeshwar and Ramdharaneshwar, two hillocks in the northern part of the Alibaug belt, continue to enamour both, the bird and the floral enthusiast, and right down south is the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary.
KARNALA: Bird Sanctuary: Pocket-size it may be, but this site on the Goa Highway, topped by that thumbs-up shaped rock, never fails to surprise the bird enthusiast. There are at least three good walkable trails here, and you can climb all the way through the forest to the ruins of the fort atop the hill. Perfect for a half-day.
THANE CREEKSIDE & SEWRI BAY: The waters of the extensive Thane Creek may be heavily laden with industrial and domestic discharge, but birds, thousands of them, find it very rewarding. Many of these birds travel thousands of kilometres to spend up to seven months in these waters and their muddy margins. And the bird enthusiasts are not complaining. There are several sites to bird-watch from along the western and eastern lengths. West of the main creek’s extensive mouth is the sheltered Sewri Bay that has attained fame for the thousands of bewitching flamingos that throng here for nearly half the year. And there are vast congregations of other waders as well.
The writer is conservationist and photographer based in Mumbai.