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Mumbai architect records 55 bird species over 12 years, a click at a time

Avian enthusiast’s aim is to protect Mumbai’s depleting bird habitats amid rapid urbanisation and loss of mangrove cover

mumbai Updated: Mar 19, 2018 12:24 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,birds,bird conservation
A Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron, one of the rare species that Chawla has managed to spot. (NEERAJ CHAWLA)

Adorned in military attire and camouflaged within the green spaces around him, a 55-year-old architect can be spotted clicking pictures of rare bird species a wetland site in Mumbai’s suburbs every weekend. His aim is to provide a better protection status to the city’s fast-reducing bird habitats.

As a crusader for the cause of wetlands, Neeraj Chawla’s intent is to save these areas from environmental and man-made hazards. Unabated wetland destruction is leading to habitat loss for resident and migratory birds in Mumbai Metropolitan Region, with the latest example being 22 hectares of mangroves that were lost to debris dumping at Malad-Marwe and Charkop over the past five years.

Chawla, a resident of Charkop, Kandivli, and architect by profession, has recorded 55 avian species over the past 12 years across 136 hectares of mangroves, lakes and wetlands. He also has his checklist of birds from the Borivli National Park (66 species) and various wetland sites in Thane and Navi Mumbai.

Some of the rare species spotted by Chawla include Eurasian golden oriole, barn owls, Eurasian sparrowhawk, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Purple-rumped Sunbird.

Chawla’s efforts have called for better protection of the Charkop wetlands as he has submitted his checklist to the state mangrove cell highlighting the need to identify the area as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA), an internationally recognised status for a wetland site.

“More than half the birds that I recorded over the past 12 years have gone missing from this site due to increased urbanisation, degradation and destruction of mangroves, dumping of garbage and debris leading to a loss of water bodies. The area also used to be a resting site for many migratory birds such as flamingos but they have stopped coming back over the past two years,” said Chawla. “My efforts are only aimed at preserving these areas, some of which have become completely inaccessible either due to construction activities or garbage stuck to them.”

Charkop, a coastal area of Kandivli (West), is a suburb in north Mumbai. Primarily developed by Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada) and World Bank in early eighties for low cost housing, the area is home to mangroves, water bodies and a large population of bird species.

“By the early 90’s, I witnessed a noticeable transformation as the natural marsh lands turned into a thickly populated suburb. During my architecture course, I developed an interest towards documenting wildlife and had a keen interest towards bird species,” said Chawla. “In 2006, I purchased my first SLR camera and began documenting the species on a weekly basis, which later became a daily affair. Now, with the loss of habitats, I have curtailed my efforts to only weekends.”

Environmental watchdogs from the area lauded Chawla’s efforts. “He has a fabulous record of the birds from this area, which stands testimony for protecting it. If every wetland site in the city has such a detailed documentation of its fauna, the pitch for conserving them becomes much stronger,” said Mili Shetty, an environmental activist from Charkop.

“I have personally worked with Chawla at Sanjay Gandhi National Park where he has managed to capture fantastic still images of migratory birds. Nobody in the city is aware that Charkop has 55 species today. His efforts are increasing awareness, and will automatically draw attention and finally, protection,” said Dr KD Batwe, former veterinarian, SGNP, between 2003 and 2008.

Chawla is starting his own YouTube series where he will be identifying various bird species from the Mumbai suburbs through still image videos, and highlight them to the state government for better conservation practices.

Kedar Bhide, herpetologist said, “The documentation over a decade clearly highlights how the Charkop landscape has changed and it is a great effort for comparative studies. However, this needs to be understood by authorities so that there is active action on ground.”

First Published: Mar 12, 2018 11:57 IST