This essay won The Fr. Cecil Saldanha Wildlife Writing Contest, 2020 in the Open Category.
While in the City, it is easy to ignore wildlife that surrounds us. Poorly conceived designs of our living spaces divide us in urban areas from neighboring wilderness, and have contributed to seeing nature as something that is isolated from us. This carefully crafted isolation has incurred significant costs on our health as well as the health of the environment – including an inability to respond to crucial modern challenges, such as climate change, simply because these dire environmental topics feel removed from us. When we think of climate change today, a picture of starving polar bears is the first thing that comes to mind but nobody told us that climate change would result in our gardens looking like garbage. The environment appears distant because we designed it as such, and it is time we acknowledged that there are problems closer to what we call home rather than pondering over the plight of Earth’s largest terrestrial predator.
Bangalore in the 1990’s was still called the ‘Garden City of India’ and the city’s then ample green cover meant that its citizens shared their living space with more than just bipedal hominids. Fast forward thirty years and Bangalore transitioned from being India’s Garden City to India’s Silicon Valley – a transition that was characterized by rapid urbanization and unplanned development. There was also the small matter of the City losing 65% of its green cover at the peak of the IT boom, which occurred between 1999 and 2014. Bangalore at present has 1.5 million trees to support 9.5 million people, and the latter are continuing to grow exponentially. As the trees disappeared, so did most of the wildlife, and the few species we see frequently today are resilient commensals that have managed to adapt to their rapidly changing surroundings under anthropogenic stressors.
If you took your cup of morning coffee up to the terrace and scanned your surroundings, you’re likely to find evidence of these stressors and the changes they’re causing on Bangalore’s landscape. In my experience, you will spot various combinations of these elements: flowering avenue trees, one coconut tree, neem or peepal trees, black kites soaring along thermal gradients, crows and pigeons. And then somewhere on the periphery you’ll find this cluster of high rise buildings burning bright on Bangalore’s horizon, accompanied by one crane which is equally high signaling the fact that there are more towers to be added to this “township”. As you grip the railing and peer down to inspect the roads below you, you’ll first encounter a thin layer of dust on your palms and see abandoned garbage bags that have been gutted to reveal their contents by feral dogs, a Nandini milk booth, potholes and one sapling planted carefully along the footpath in a cage so that it isn’t devoured by that one cow that visits your area for it is the only being that can actually cross the main road to get to your place.
Cities are said to have olfactory profiles – smellscapes they’re called. For eight months in a year, Bangalore had the distinct odor of avenue trees in bloom: the flame of the forest and Tabebuia trees early in the year were followed by the musky odor of crushed gulmohar and Jacaranda flowers along roads in the summer months. Petrichor was the dominant aroma during monsoons followed by the sweet scent of dainty, white flowers belonging to the Indian cork tree post monsoon while the soft fragrance of frangipani trees dominated the winter months. Bangalore today reeks of burning fossil fuels, dust, and pretentiousness. There is, however, one sensory element that heralds hope and if you close your eyes and listen carefully, you might just hear the throaty whistle of a white-cheeked barbet or the shrill crescendo of a male Asian koel piercing the still morning air. Bangalore at present is a city in flux, and its sights, smells and sounds are all strung together in confusing moments of therapeutic greenery, vibrant colors, and soothing smells of the past served with the side effects of a promising metropolis.
Nature in the City today is a mere relic from an era where greenery and wilderness were the default setting, not some feeling of cold nostalgia that is meant to chill us to the bones while we complain about the City getting hotter each year. The avenue trees survive today because they line roads that haven’t been widened yet or don’t fall within the framework of BMRCL’s plans. These trees are the city’s lifeblood for they enliven the otherwise mundane cityscape while providing us with fresh air, moderating temperature and a host of other services that are not easy to quantify. These trees are also sources of food and shelter for a multitude of insects from butterflies and ants that feed on the nectar of their flowers to bees and beetles that build hives amongst their boughs and bore into their trunks respectively. The flowers also attract nectarivorous birds like sunbirds, flower peckers and orioles while insectivorous birds like mynas, fly catchers and drongos flock to them to feed on the aforementioned insects. But most importantly, these trees connect distant pockets of greenery and lakes that are found scattered amongst this urban jungle, thus preventing Bangalore from asphyxiating on aluminium composite panels and concrete.
If Bangalore has to continue to breathe, these pockets of green and blue must be protected for they serve as its vital organs. They come in all shapes and sizes and occupy spaces within the City that are both public and private. From humble kitchen gardens in modest bungalows with fruiting trees such as jackfruit, tamarind and guava which attract bats, squirrels, macaques and parakeets to the long-standing relationship that government buildings have with the Indian mast tree and its berries that feed barbets and koels. From the sprawling campuses of Bangalore’s universities and colleges with their heterogeneous forested spaces which serve as a haven for all creatures great and small to the monoculture Eucalyptus plantations that are ever present on defense land catering to specific animals that have evolved to exploit this niche in the Cantonment. From sacred spaces that house ponds which are sanctuaries for freshwater turtles to the City’s shrinking tanks and lakes that serve as the last refuge for hundreds of species of fish, wetland birds and snakes. These are spaces that can be used as starting points to reconnect with nature and bridge the gap we have so meticulously created over the last three decades.
Broadly, there are two ways we can reconnect with Nature: the easy solution would be to plan weekend getaways to places like Bandipur and Kabini, revel in nature’s abundance and spot some of South India’s iconic wildlife only to return to the concrete jungle and resume our mundane lives until our withdrawal symptoms force us to go back in an attempt to fill an ever widening void. The harder, but arguably more satisfying and sustainable solution would be to inculcate an appreciation for the much ignored wilderness that still surrounds us within the city, by educating and raising awareness amongst the humans of Bangalore. These are animals that shared their living spaces with us just a few years ago, animals that will return provided we create space for them to coexist – after all, they were the original inhabitants of the city we so proudly call home.
It is best to start small and build steadily upwards. To encourage children to look at colorful butterflies, dig for earthworms in their gardens and punch holes in their lunchboxes to bring caterpillars home from school. After all, Nature is often greatest in her smallest creatures. Bird watching and bird feeding have had a disproportionately large impact in raising awareness about urban wildlife amongst citizens of countries in the West. Bangalore is home to the oldest weekly bird watching community in the country, dating back to the 1970’s, it is led by a dedicated group of (now) senior citizens who meet in various parks every Sunday.
Their aim is to inspire other citizens to take up birdwatching in order to appreciate and understand the importance of avian fauna that can be found in and around the City. From spoonbills and pelicans that visit Hebbal lake from Africa, to rosy starlings that fly down from Europe to feast on wasps found in the figs of the banyan tree at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore and its surrounding areas host a staggering 350 bird species. Citizen science initiatives take things one step further and involve citizens as stakeholders in conservation and documentation of focal species. The Urban Slender Loris Project in Bangalore has documented a sizeable population of slender lorises which are elusive, nocturnal primates 15 minutes away from Mantri Mall! Ecologists have collaborated with IT professionals to develop apps that help citizens identify frogs, birds, trees and butterflies in the City. These apps are available for free, and allow people to quickly and conveniently document flora and fauna, thus eliminating the need to purchase expensive, bulky field guides.
This growing desire to document wildlife found in isolated pockets of blue and green in the City is a promising sign, and is possibly the first step towards the reintegration of nature and urban dwelling spaces. Bangalore doesn’t need fancy vertical botanic gardens like Singapore or vertical forests like Milan to achieve this. With over 10,000 concrete pillars between our metro rail and various fly-overs, we have plenty of uncolonized vertical space waiting to be afforested with native climbers and creepers that will not affect the integrity of these structure. Purple Passiflora blooms, yellow trumpet vines, star jasmine climbers and multi-colored flowers of the bougainvillea and Rangoon creeper have the potential to be ‘avenue trees’ of the new millennium with their limited ground area requirement and available space for vertical growth. High rise projects have massive budgets for landscaping which are currently being wasted on manicured lawns and aesthetically pleasing exotic plants species.
A shift towards native horticulture in these spaces has the potential to recreate scenes from Bangalore in the 90’s while increasing functional diversity of both flora and fauna. This will ensure that ‘margosa’ and ‘sampige’ aren’t just random road names in Malleshwaram. Simple changes to balcony gardens which involve understanding which plant species are important for native butterfly species and incorporating bird feeders and water bowls will encourage these animals to visit living spaces and there might just be a day when monkeys actually return to the few remaining monkey tops in the City and everything will make sense again.
Bridging the gap between human settlements and the urban wilderness has its origins in a fundamental human character – curiosity. The more we know of other life forms, the more we enjoy and respect ourselves as a species. Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.