Season for change
Much to everyone’s relief, the monsoon winds have finally found their way to India’s west coast; and alongside us, the wild landscapes in this part of the country are preparing to welcome the rains. We explore the many alterations that take place in the forests during this transition phase, with particular reference to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai.
It’s the first week of June here in Mumbai, and after completing my short morning trek I am sitting on the edge of a rocky outcrop in the forest. Wait! Did you just read ‘forest’? And that too in Mumbai city? Unbelievable as it may sound, the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is a 104 sq km expanse of pure, unmanicured wilderness right within this metropolis. An ‘oasis’ in a desert of cement and concrete, this striking landscape enthrals visitors, transporting them from their tense, chaotic lives to a pristine wilderness within a matter of minutes. This forest has been like a second home to me since the last one and half decade.
A Fruitful Term
As I sit upon the rocks, the warmth of the summer sun is already showing its effect even at 9.30 am. Summers are hard and taxing but they’re important to me, thanks to my keen interest in fruits and fruit-eaters (frugivores). Large trees and bushes are laden with fruits and berries of different descriptions—wild mango trees bestow raw and sour mangoes; the dense bushes of ‘karvanda’ or the Indian conkerberry (Carissa carandas) adorn themselves with tempting fruits which go pitch black when ripe, alluring many trekkers on sweltering hikes. The summer platter in these forests is brimming over with jamuns or the Java plums (Syzygium cumini) and also the sporadic ‘tadgola’ (Borassus flabellifer) palms, the fruits of which are relished both by civets and humans. As I continue starring endlessly into the landscape, a loud squealing call brings my attention to a lone Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) streaking across, only to vanish in the canopy somewhere. Over the next hour, the hornbill appeared in that spot at least twice, only to fly back the way it came in. The sincerity of this bird and the sense of urgency in its flight suggested that it had good reason to do these trips back and forth; possibly he had found a tree in profuse fruiting, and was busy carrying the fruits back to its nest, where his mate waits in a partially concealed chamber along with the young ones. Summers coincide with hectic breeding activities of birds like the Indian Grey Hornbill. Their breeding rituals ensure that the forest is quite vocal: tailorbirds, sunbirds, robins, koels, peafowls, junglefowls, cuckoos, kingfishers all have one goal – to impress a mate and get her to further the progeny.
It’s not always fun in the sun, and though the forest is filled with a wide array of flavours and fragrances, the harsh heat takes a toll on the plant life, especially on herbs and shrubs that wilt away during summer. Ground cover almost disappears, barring some wet patches along streams. Even so, some plants seem to make the best out of this season. The ukshi climber (Calycopteris floribunda), for example, uses the heat to dry its paper-like seeds, which are then flown away to new fertile spots to reproduce. If you’re walking the trail in summer, you cannot miss these papery, dry flowers twirling like helicopters in search of new ground.
As the clock ticked away, I relocated myself to a cooler spot and quenched my thirst. The effect of cold water running down my throat triggered thoughts about the onset of the rains, and the reprieve it would bring to this natural landscape around me. relief was not too far away, for just a couple of days back, one of my friends sent me an image of a Jacobin or Pied Cuckoo (Clamator jacobinus) from an upmarket area of Mumbai—this bird is known to be the harbinger of the monsoons, and if the signs were to be believed, the rains could not be very far away. And no sooner than the first showers hit the ground, the landscape around me will undergo a most striking visual transformation.
The first fortnight of the monsoons are especially characterised by frenzied, heightened activity. Immediately after the first few showers, the dry forest floor will be bursting with small and big herbs. Lilies of myriad sizes and description will dominate the first fortnight. These plants seem to be in a great hurry, and they present their flowers even before their stalk or leaves appear, for they have a small 15-day window to take care of life’s important businesses before disappearing into oblivion. Most striking among them is the beautiful, pinkish white and considerably large Crinum lily (Crinum latifolium). Also significant is the ‘safed musali’ (Chlorophytum borivilianum), a small, white, dainty flower, high in medicinal value and endemic to SGNP. It has been postulated that these plants time themselves so as to beat being overcrowded by all the other herbs, shrubs, climbers that will launch themselves forth soon. But as of yet, this has not been proved. With too many flowers, there ensues a competition as to who will attract more pollinators (insects, birds etc.), and almost everyone seems to have a novel strategy up their sleeves. Strangely, not all flowers look beautiful and smell pleasant; definitely not the large flowers of the dragon stalk yam (Amorphophallus commutatus), which resemble a serpent’s hood and the smell of rotting, putrid flesh! They have good reasons to be this obnoxious, as their pollinators are all those insects and flies that are attracted to foul smelling, dead and decaying organic substances. Intriguing, isn’t it? While a lot of flowers compete with each other to attract pollinators who are swayed by sweet-smelling things, a few flowers have cashed upon the fact that there are a considerably large number of creatures attracted to foul-smelling objects.
The effect of this seasonal transformation is not only limited to the plants; look closely at the ground, you will notice red crawling mites. These are not insects, but arachnids (like spiders) and are called Velvet mites (Trombidium sp.). Farmers take the presence of these velvety mites, locally called ‘mrugacha keeda,’ as a sign of the impending rains. Like the lilies, some butterflies are also early starters and the Spot swordtails along with Baronets would already have initiated their breeding activities. And how can one leave the frogs behind rains are synonymous with frog and anuran orchestras resounding from every pond, puddle or water body. These orchestras are at their crescendo, especially during the dark.
Within weeks, the dry and dull forest landscape will have undergone a complete image makeover. Plant life will literally be bursting from every nook and cranny in the soil and even in the slightest toeholds on steep rocky surfaces. Green shall replace brown as the colour of the forest. Barren, open trails and trekking routes are likely to get covered with grasses and herbs, and soon the wide forest tracks of summer will shrink to narrow one-man trails. Forest streams that were reduced to mere shells in the dry season will slowly trickle back to bountiful proportions. Insects and other invertebrates take their cues from the blooming plant life and will increase their numbers phenomenally. Every plant, every leaf will go on to become a centre for life’s activities
Immersed in these thoughts of pleasant, impending transformation, I am jolted back to reality, as the weatherman, like a wretched soothsayer has foretold a possibility of a weak monsoon this year, thanks to possible el nino effect. If this turns out to be true, then the city outside will be under severe water stress. The population of metropolitan Mumbai (which is more than that of entire Australia) gets a sizeable part of its drinking water supply from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, while the rest comes from other protected areas like Tungareshwar and Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, with all these forests being tenuously connected to each other. I realised that had it not been for these forests and all the drama that unfolds within them, even the water in my bottle would not have been as easily available. The beautiful rain-filled thoughts that occupied my mind a while ago are now replaced with a prayer that the weatherman’s prognosis should turn wrong. Barely a few steps into my way back, I see a fresh dump of glistening, black substance; a leopard had relieved himself on the trail even as I had been musing about the impending transformations that will play out in this ecosystem in a matter of days.
Cover Photo: Dry, hot summers reduce forest streams to mere shells (facing page) in summers. | Photo by Dr. Anish Andheria
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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