By Liza Tom
IIT Madras is the perfect place for nature enthusiasts. The institute area was originally part of Guindy National Park and the vegetation here is the tropical dry evergreen type, meaning, the rains are irregular and trees do not shed their foliage. This is also the rarest vegetation in the Indian sub-continent which explains the astonishing diversity in the plant and animal species on campus. IIT-M has about 300 plant species, 50 species of butterflies and a different 100 bird species. Several non-region specific species like the spotted deer have also been introduced on site. The lake at IIT-M is a hot spot for many birds, both rare and common, as this is one of the few green patches around.
If you ever step out for a walk early in the morning, you’ll see (and hear-birds are more easily recognised by their calls) cormorants, kingfishers, herons, purple moorhens and egrets. The lake covers 25 acres in total. This is a vantage bird-sighting point. The lake is a very important part of this ecosystem. It supports certain types of flora, aquatic life and insects, which in turn support avian and mammal life. Thus, all species are inter-dependent and the destruction of one spells doom for the others. “Each creature has its own niche, a role to play in nature”, said Prof. Varughese, the Prakriti co-coordinator. Each species is linked with another in complex but significant ways.
Prakriti, the nature club of IIT-M, was formed in April 2002 by environment-conscious students, faculty, alumni, and residents on campus. The main aim of this organisation is to preserve the distinctive bio-diversity of IIT-M. Their activities include awareness campaigns, nature walks, bird –watching expeditions, studies on existing species and waste management programmes. Their recommendations also influence any decision the authorities make, if it concerns the environment. They are actively involved in policy-making on issues of environment. They also organise trekking, film shows, talks and discussions. Prakriti has conducted several surveys to gather information about the spectacular variety of species on campus. They try to promote harmonious co-existence between humans and animals. Prof. Varughese was vociferous on how campus residents should react if they were to encounter an animal. “If you want to take photographs, do so from a distance, without disturbing the subject. Animals on campus are almost always gentle creatures and get aggressive only when provoked. If you comes across an injured animal, the best thing to do is call a Prakriti member. DO NOT, under any condition move the animal. Most injured animals die due to shock when moved or mishandled”, she says.
Prof. Varughese has taught at IIT-M since 1997. She feels, a large section of people do not consider environment as ‘important’ or as having ‘value’ in everyday life. She says we are woefully ignorant about exactly how dependent we are on nature. The primary reason for this is, according to her, is the education system of today. “During the early days of human life, we had to know the ways of nature to survive and we protected it for our survival. Today, we fail to appreciate the significance of the environment in our lives, precisely because of our ‘nature-delinked’ education and life style. It’s not that that we don’t know. It’s just that it is usually inconvenient to ’do the right thing’. Therefore, we quite simply don’t.”
A good example of how our ignorance has a powerful, irreversible consequence on the ecosystem is the one of monkeys. The much-reviled bonnet macaques are actually one of the gentlest species of monkeys. On campus, some buildings like Sharavathi hostel, were built on sites where the monkey-roosting trees originally grew. Since they have long memories, the macaques come to the same place every day to roost (sleep).
There are innumerable fascinating species at IIT-M. For example, the strangler fig (Ficus amplissima) – a tree of great height and girth, similar to the banyan, but which depends on a nearby smaller tree for support. Its roots encircle, or ‘strangle’ a nearby-tree, thereby giving itself a clutch, at least during its initial growth. Occasionally, interrupting the scenic environment, we does come across trash, mostly plastic lying around. One cannot over-emphasize how absolutely dangerous this is for the animals. Deer and birds regularly choke to death on plastic. And, of course, plastic doesn’t do the decent thing and degrade by itself. Construction of new buildings, increase in the number of vehicles on campus and the consequent rise in pollution has also resulted in loss of certain species. Dog-attacks are a major menace and the leading threat to the black bucks here. Prakriti has student squads to prevent precisely such occurrences and they could always use volunteers.