Chennai is home to not just one, but two reserve forests – the Pallikaranai wetland and the Nanmangalam scrub forest. Located along the Tambaram-Velachery Main Road, the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest is among the last remaining havens of the ‘Vandalur scrub’, the original natural forest of this landscape.
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While it might be difficult to tie the seemingly disparate scrub and forest together, the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (as they are also known) with their short, small leaved trees and thorny shrubs indigenous to South-East India are best equipped to survive the local climatic conditions.
The scrub and its diversity
Spanning around 320 hectares, the patchy vegetation of the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest thrives across hillocks and plains. While the plain landscape is dominated by thorny shrubs, thickets and grasslands, the thicker and woodier vegetation is found mostly in the hillocks bordering the reserve.
A study conducted by city-based biodiversity conservation organisation Care Earth Trust revealed the presence of 442 different species of flowering plants inside the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest alone. “The species diversity in Nanmangalam is phenomenal; it is the highest compared to any other patch of forest within city limits. The forest is home to some rare species of plants which are not seen anywhere in the vicinity,” says plant ecologist Muthu Karthick from Care Earth Trust.
The forest is home to 100-125 species of birds in addition to 40 different species of butterflies and close to 20 species of damselflies and dragonflies. Forest birds being very shy tend to nest far away from human habitations. As a logical extension, many of the birds spotted here in Nanmangalam are rarely to be seen elsewhere in the city, making this space a bird-watchers’ delight.
The Reserve Forest’s most famous inhabitant and star attraction is the great horned owl. “A ravine which was once a quarry used in the past for cleaning heavy vehicles now provides protection for these nocturnal predators,” remarks J Subramanean from Care Earth Trust.
As a general rule, the landscape is typified by small to medium sized birds characteristic of drylands. “Insectivorous birds such as bee-eaters and babblers are common-sight here. Smaller nectivores such as the sunbirds and fruit-eaters including mynas and bulbuls frequent the scrublands,” adds Wildlife Biologist Vinoth Balasubramanian from Care Earth Trust. In addition, many waterbirds, local migrants from the wetlands in the vicinity, continue to move in and out of the reserve on a regular basis.
Reclaiming lost lands
In the early 1960s, extensive portions of these scrublands were opened up for mining which massively affected the region’s diversity and ecological balance. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department took control of the area in 1974; mining has been banned since.
Abandoned quarries now serve as receptacles of rainwater, frequented by wild animals and cattle. The severe water crunch of 2017 saw the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) identify the quarries in Nanmangalam as potential sources for augmenting the city’s water supply. The plan, however, failed to take off.
Interestingly, Nanmangalam is one among the 23 megalithic sites within the Chennai metropolitan area. Stone-age burial sites, called cairns, dating back to the Neolithic times are found within the limits of the reserve forest.
Attempts to restore and rejuvenate the landscape are being taken up in earnest by the forest department. Decentralised water conservation projects and afforestation initiatives have been designed with an intention to minimise the impact of quarrying on biodiversity and the overall quality of the forests.
Here are some snapshots from the green haven:
Access to the forest is restricted; permission from the District Forest Officer is a must for entering the property.
Chennaites have to thank their stars for being blessed with two reserved forests and a National Park within city limits. Along with the Guindy National Park and the Pallikaranai marsh, the Reserve Forest in Nanmangalam plays a very important role in enhancing the city’s livability and improving its green quotient.[All photos have been shared with permission from Care Earth Trust, a Chennai-based biodiversity conservation organisation involved in studying the rich biodiversity of the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest.]