A few million years ago, 114 million to be precise, the trees in the mountains started walking towards the sea. The pioneers perished, as the sea was too saline for them.
Their descendants slowly adapted to thrive in these hostile conditions, developing special roots with holes that rose from the seawater like periscopes so that they could breathe. Clinging roots came down from the stem, preventing them from getting washed away by the tidal waves, and saline-excreting glands removed sea salt from their bodies. These came to be known as mangroves. With as many as 4500 sq kms of these tidal forests lining India's coast, it's blessed with a line of defense against storms and tsunamis. In fact, India, along with Bangladesh, has the richest mangroves in the world; with Sunderbans being the largest.
There are over 16 species of mangroves in India like the Red Mangrove, Grey Mangrove and Mangrove Apple. A fragile eco-system subsists here: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, butterflies, and even mammals like tigers.
On the western banks of Thane Creek, lie the city's last surviving pristine mangroves: the Godrej Mangroves. Protected by the Godrej Trust since 1985, this forms the second lung of our city after Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivli.
A walk with Maya Mahajan, the manager of these mangroves, was my initiation into this unique world. Soon after we entered the protected area, we were welcomed by a wild boar. Maya explained that in this mangrove alone, they have counted 206 species of birds, 30 species of reptiles and 76 species of butterflies. Not to mention the jackals, wild boars and mongoose.
The view from the watchtower was of endless mangroves on the west abruptly stopped by a row of skyscrapers in the distance. Maya told me the difficulty of constantly patrolling this vast stretch and about the passion and commitment required to restore degraded.
Capable of surviving in seawater polluted by sewage and effluents, these mangroves purify water and release copious quantities of oxygen into the air. The Soonabai Godrej Trust researches mangrove ecology, and imparts knowledge through tours, film screenings and seminars.
My newfound love took me to the endangered mangroves of Dahisar and Airoli, and to Navi Mumbai, where a walking track has been laid along a winding stretch of dense mangroves. I even caught a glimpse of the flamingos that have landed here this year, after the reckless filling of wetlands in Uran rendered them homeless. Then I travelled along the Konkan coastal stretch, where I found mangroves among estuaries, bays and creeks, all the way up to Goa, which has the most photogenic mangroves of them all at the Salim Ali Sanctuary in Chorao.
A recent newspaper report talked of builders cutting off seawater that flows into these forests, to strangulate them and claim the land. I wonder if the Godrej Mangroves will soon become the solitary green island of mangroves floating in a diabolic sea teeming with landsharks. I hope not.