On a pleasant Sunday morning in the first week of February, a team of 30 people with a couple of volunteers from Suzhal Arivom meet on Medavakkam Road in Shollinganallur. At around 6 am, everyone assembled near a private college to begin their journey, which, over the next three hours, turned into an eye-opening experience full of bird-spotting and learning about the delicate ecosystems. Within a few steps from Medavakkam Road, the walkers found all their senses engaged as they were greeted by sounds of birds, the trickling of clear water, greenery, and the smell of grass. Before starting the walk, a volunteer asked, “What are the forests you know in Chennai?” Most of the participants echoed “Guindy”, “Pallavaram” and “Nanmangalam”. However, the volunteers from Suzhal Arivom revealed, “We are already standing on a forest which is reserved by the government and is the only surviving wetland in Chennai — the Pallikaranai marshland.” In 2005, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa declared Pallikaranai marshland as protected after seeing an aerial view of the flood-hit Velachery and the surrounding areas. Every alternate Sunday, Suzhal Arivom, an environmental organization led by Deepak Venkatachalam started in 2019, organises walks to educate people about the marshlands and its ecosystem. It aims to create awareness about conserving Pallikaranai wetlands. While it was roping in school and college graduates, IT employees and residents before the lockdown, after restrictions were lifted, the team started conducting walks from the beginning of February this year. Spotting birds and tales of the spittlebug The Conservation Authority of Pallikaranai Marshland under Tamil Nadu Forest Department has identified Pallikaranai as a home to 178 species of birds, most of which reside and breed in the marsh. On February 7, the walk started almost a year after receiving permission from the Forest Department. Walking through the stretch between Shollinganallur and Medavakkam, the team spotted migratory birds like Ruddy Breasted Crake, a water bird found in the wet areas of South Asia; Northern Shoveler, a duck found in parts of Europe and across North America; Eurasian Wigeon, a duck found in Palearctic range; Egrets, similar to herons, which breed in marshy wetland lands in warm regions; and Glossy Ibis, a bird found in Asia, Africa, Australia and America. Egret with a fish catch Fulvulous Whistling Duck Common Coot Rudy breasted crake Duck Weed Beyond bird-spotting, Pavithra, one of the volunteers, talks about the ecosystem and the plants found in the region. “Can someone tell me the reason for finding drops similar to water on the leaves during early mornings here?” she begins. Many of the walkers respond, “They are dews drops.” However, Pavithra says, “Many of them are created from the saliva of the spittle bug.” Deepak, founder of Suzhal Arivom, points out that though the marshland is home to several species of birds and plants, he has noticed lesser numbers of migratory birds this year compared to earlier. An avid bird watcher for three years, Deepak believes that this is because of disturbances in the migratory pattern. “We could not spot Northern Pintails and Flamingoes like we usually do due to road and flyover extension works and dredging (remove mud and sediments in order to deepen lake or river bed) being undertaken in the marshlands despite opposition from environmentalists,” he said. A holistic learning experience The last destination of the walk is Pallikaranai Marshland Interpretation Centre where the team meets to share and discuss the learnings. Pavithra, a bird-watcher turned volunteer, says, “I just participated in a Sunday walk in 2019after I saw a WhatsApp forward. I found this to be one of the walks where everything was covered in a holistically. The event did not just end with bird-watching but covered several topics. They taught us efforts we can make as individuals to become more environment-conscious,” she says. Pavithra was also inspired by the efforts of the team to introduce books and discuss environmental issues in layperson terms. “After every meet, we discussed various books. Even during the lockdown, Suzhal Arivom produced several videos which were a way to make laypersons understand the environment. The topics covered introduction to amphibians, replies, plants, water bodies, aquatic life and much more.” Conversation and conservation Deepak also believes that introducing people to the environment is the first step towards conservation. The victory of these events, Deepak says, is “introducing people to the different species living around them. Only if they know of the life around them can they conserve it. Hence, through our program the people are made aware of the flora and fauna in the marshland.” “We were able to stop 3-4 poaching activities and rescue several birds that suffered from injuries. The people who participated in the meetings and walks would inform us if they spotted any violations. Several people who started as bird-watchers with Suzhal Arivom are returning to us again for conducting sessions as volunteers,” he says. “Finally, we are happy that people’s perception of Pallikaranai is changing. People are starting to realize that Pallikaranai is not just a synonym to a dump yard but a reserved wetland that needs to be conserved,” he asserts.