Reflecting on the Biodiversity of Urban Wetlands, on the occasion of World Environment Day

Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra, is also the financial capital of India. It is also known as Mayanagri, or the city of dreams. Mumbai has always been famous for being the economic hub of India, the land of opportunities, for Bollywood, for its Architecture, for rich history with the likes of Kanheri caves, Elephanta caves and for its art and entertainment centres. Moreover, Mumbai has also been a hub of rich biodiversity, be that in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Tungareshwar, Tansa or Karnala Bird Sanctuary.

Mumbai, Gateway of India – Photo by Parth Vyas on Unsplash

Navi Mumbai is a planned satellite city of Mumbai, developed in 1972 over 16000 hectares as a new urban township of Mumbai and is currently the largest planned city in the world.

Mumbai and Navi Mumbai are cities that never stop. But with the lockdown, everything has changed. The global pandemic has confined everyone inside their homes. While being a constricting and difficult time for all, this has given people ample time to look outside their windows, connect with nature, admire it, capture it in photos and videos and share with the world.

Amid these stressful and unprecedented times, the flamingos of Navi Mumbai which were earlier witnessed by only a few, suddenly caught the eye of the whole world. Flamboyant flamingos making beautiful forms were all over international news with videos from Talawe going “viral”, inspiring awe across all forms of media, be it TV, Twitter, WhatsApp, you name it. The whole world came to know about the migration of these greater and lesser flamingos in the winter months to breed and feed up until monsoon. Experts say they have seen an increase in the flamingo population in 2020 and believe reduction of human activity is the primary reason for the same.

BNHS estimates that numbers this year may be more than 1,50,000 vis-à-vis 1,34,000 counted last year. Hence, larger lovely pink carpets have spread across Talawe.

Flamingos gathering at Navi Mumbai
Flamingos gathering at Navi Mumbai – Photo by Surabhi Agarwal

The whole world is now slowly discovering the flamingos of Navi Mumbai but birders and experts have known about these wetlands for years. Hidden behind high-rise buildings popularly known as NRI Complex on Palm Beach Road, Nerul, Navi Mumbai, is 80 hectares of wilderness known as Talawe. Talawe is a mix of mangrove forest (47 ha.) and water bodies (33 ha.). These wetlands are a stop-off point for a large number of migratory birds, mainly lesser and greater flamingos, that can be seen here mostly during high tide and they fly away to nearby roosting sites during low tide. I have seen that birds are predominantly brown and grey as they arrive and get the reddish pink tinge from a component called beta carotene as they feed on algae and shrimps. We can find the same in carrots!

These flamingos are social animals which is why we always find them in large groups. But these wetlands are not only host to numerous flamingos, but over 80 other bird species too! One can find waders like ducks, egrets, herons, terns and painted storks in the waterbodies. The mangrove forests are also rich in biodiversity with bee eaters, sun birds, kingfishers, jackals, mongoose, spiders and butterflies to name a few. Not to speak of marine life like fish, crabs, snakes etc.

Not only are these 80 hectares of wetlands and mangroves a habitat to rich biodiversity, they also play a crucial role in protecting our shoreline from floods. While the infamous Mumbai floods wash away the city, these mangroves stand guarding Navi Mumbai and ensuring a peaceful night’s sleep for its residents.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, they also play an important role in carbon removal as they are the most carbon-dense ecosystems in the world. If protected, mangroves act as long-term carbon sinks to this world otherwise awash with carbon emissions.

Talawe is ample proof that the marvels of nature can surely be found in urban centres, as long as we keep our eyes open. There is wilderness in our cities, right next to our homes, waiting to be explored and pleading for nothing but protection from destruction.

Can you believe that the same Talawe wetlands were slated to disappear and be replaced by a golf course and a residential complex? They were fortunately saved due to citizens vigilance and action. The Bombay High Court order on the PIL filed by local residents prevented the planned destruction and the good news doesn’t end there.

The forest department has decided to make this a conservation reserve. Maharashtra environment minister has promised to protect these wetlands and declare it as a flamingo sanctuary or conservation area.

But this was just a small victory, and across the cities there are many more such areas screaming for protection from Mumbai’s unchecked corporate greed and rampant, uncontrolled, unplanned urbanization.

Fridays For Future Demonstration Climate Strike

There is sensitization and a realization across the world about the utmost importance of preservation of biodiversity. The theme for this year’s “World Environment Day” is “Biodiversity.” And the theme for the “World Biodiversity Day” was “Our solutions are in nature.” So, preserving existing solutions found in nature must be prioritized.

Mr Sunjoy Monga, well-known naturalist, articulated this very well in an article dated 9th Feb, 2020 in Hindustan Times. He concluded with “Here’s a plea from the Mumbai Bird Race participants to CIDCO and MMRDA, the planning agencies of Mumbai region- Could you please take a pledge on World Wetland Day and announce that a golf course is not as important as saving the last of our natural spaces? Could you, for once, accept that these waterlogged sites pack more birds than there is hair on the human head, and the wetlands are better than some of the RAMSAR sites! History will remember you for saving these sites.”

Recently, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde expressed his concern over the extinction of flamingos because of expansion of the Kanjurmarg dumping ground in Mumbai. He said “We are equally concerned about the flamingos. They will disappear from there. Once they go away, they will never return. You have no power over nature.”

Dr Ramakanta Panda, chairman and head cardiovascular surgeon at Mumbai Asian Heart Institute, and avid photographer expressed similar sentiments. On the occasion of World Heart Day, he spoke about his love for photography and cited it as his escape from his gruelling hospital schedule, while strongly recommending that other working professionals take up similar hobbies to lower their stress levels. High stress levels can have an adverse impact on one’s cardio-vascular health.

Wetlands are our most critically endangered natural habitats. By losing them, we lose their bewildering range of biodiversity. As per RAMSAR convention on wetlands, one million species are at risk of being lost completely: 40% of the world’s species live & breed in wetlands. Wetlands must be at the heart of national and global biodiversity decisions and actions in 2020 and beyond. So, on the occasion of World Environment Day with its theme of “Biodiversity”, let us all pledge to be vigilant, sensitive and proactive to preserve the wetlands in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.

By Sunil Agarwal

About the author: Shruti and Sunil Agarwal have actively protected the Seawoods Lake among other wetlnds in Nerul, Navi Mumbai, from builders and bureaucrats, for three years now. You can follow Sunil’s work on his instagram.