Guindy National Park: From colonial game reserve to the green lungs of Chennai

With its origins in the colonial Madras Presidency, the Guindy National Park today provides a number of ecosystem services to the people of one of India’s biggest metropolises

By V Sundararaju
Published: Wednesday 30 June 2021
Children's Park located within the Guindy National Park in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia
Children's Park located within the Guindy National Park in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia Children's Park located within the Guindy National Park in Chennai. Photo: Wikimedia

It is amazing to know that a tiny protected area measuring just 270.57 hectares (ha) serves as the green lungs to a great metropolitan city in Tamil Nadu. This is the Guindy National Park, located in the heart of Chennai’s metropolitan area.

Guindy is India’s eighth-smallest national park and one of the very few national parks located inside a city. The park is an extension of the grounds surrounding Raj Bhavan, formerly known as the ‘Guindy Lodge’, the official residence of the governor of Tamil Nadu.

This green patch, with a multitude of trees, shrubs and herbs, not only purifies the air but also acts as a habitat for a wide number of faunal species.

Though this tiny area is surrounded by a concrete jungle and human habitations that exert intense biotic pressure, the biodiversity inside is amazing.

Colonial Madras 

The area where the national park is located was once spread across five sq km. It was one of the last remnants of the tropical dry evergreen forests of the Coromandel Coast.

Guindy National Park was originally a game reserve. During the 1670s, a garden space was carved out of the Guindy forest and the Guindy Lodge was built by William Langhome (1672-1678), the governor of colonial Madras as his residence.

The residence of the governor helped to develop the area of St Thomas Mount as a salubrious place for rest and recreation. The rest of the forest area was owned by a British citizen known as Gilbert Rodericks.

In 1817, the owner passed away, with the property heavily mortgaged. The Government of the Madras Presidency purchased it in 1821 for a sum of Rs 35,000 or 10,000 pagodas, ‘pagoda’ being the gold currency of that time in south India.

After that, the area of 505 ha started to be used as a country house and weekend resort of the Governor of Madras. Late in 1910, the area was declared as a reserved forest with the idea of conserving the floral and faunal populations.

After becoming a reserved forest, it attracted the provisions of the Madras Forest Act, banning entry without permission, cutting and clearing vegetation, etc.

Independent India

In 1947, it became the permanent residence of the Governor and began to be called Raj Bhavan. The then-governor offered to relinquish about 400 ha to reduce costs. The area was contributed to the public for developing certain amenities.

The then-Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru accepted the proposal and suggested conserving the area with a small area developed into a Children’s Park. In March 1958, the area was handed over to the forest department.

Of the 400 ha, land was allocated to Gandhi Mandapam (1954), Indian Institute of Technology (1961), Guru Nanak Educational Society (1970), Rajaji Memorial (1974), Kamaraj Memorial (1975) and Cancer Institute (1977) sparing an extent of 270.57 ha.

In 1978, this small area, popularly known as Guindy Deer Park, was declared as a national park. The park then started playing a major role in the ecological environment of Madras. A random rubble masonry wall was built all around the park in the late 1980s to provide better protection.

Flora and fauna

Guindy National Park is one of the last homes of a relict vegetation, the Carnatic coastal or tropical dry evergreen forest type of the Coromandel coast according to naturalists Harry G Champion and SK Seth. Now this vegetation is reclassified as the Albizia amara Boiv community.

The ecosystem consists of the rare tropical dry evergreen scrub and thorn forests that receive about 1,200 millimetres rainfall annually. About 350 species of plants have been identified so far including trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs and grasses.

A large portion of the area is under mixed dry deciduous scrub jungle. As leaves fall off in deciduous vegetation, the entire vegetation looks dry during summers. But with the onset of the monsoon, the vegetation acquires a green appearance with new leaves.

The open grassland found here is an ideal habitat for blackbucks. The wealth of plant life inside the park is unique. Guindy National Park is thus a significant piece of land that acts as green lungs of the city, fighting against the onslaught of environmental degradation, pollution and unsustainable development.

About 14 species of mammals are found here. The park abounds in spotted deer and blackbuck. The near threatened blackbuck, considered the flagship species of the park, was introduced in 1924 by Lord Willingdon, who later served as the 22nd Governor-General and Viceroy of India.

Pologround, an open grassland on the northern side of the park is an ideal blackbuck habitat. Almost every evening, they gather there, feeding on the grass. Jackals are the main predators and scavengers found here. Toddy cat, civet cat, jungle cat, pangolin, hedgehog, shrew and black-naped hare are found mostly during the night. Bonnet macaques and mongoose are also seen often.

About 150 bird species have been identified here. The floral biodiversity is mainly responsible for the bird biodiversity as there are dense forests, open scrub, grasslands and water bodies that cater to the needs of different bird species.

Among reptiles, one often comes across rat snakes or cobras here. Besides snakes, the park is home to a few species of tortoises and turtles, lizards, geckos, chameleon and the common Indian monitor.

The other invertebrates commonly seen here are worms, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, butterflies, bugs, grasshoppers, scorpions and crabs. They assume greater importance as they play a key role in the ecosystem, increasing soil fertility, helping in pollination, decomposing waste, etc.

Guindy Snake Park is next to the Guindy National Park. It gained statutory recognition as a medium zoo from the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) in 1995. One can see king cobras, pythons, vipers and other reptiles here.

About 22 acres of the Guindy National Park has been carved out into a park known as the Children’s Park for ex-situ conservation. This park has a play area at the northeast corner with a collection of animals and birds. It was recognised by the CZA in 1995.

Animals and bird species have been kept here for entertaining visitors, especially children. A fossilised tree specimen estimated to be about 20 million years old has been exhibited here. A statue of a dinosaur called Tyrannosaurus has been installed at the entrance of the park.

The Children’s Park and the Snake Park are provided with separate entrances. A new interpretation centre about the biodiversity of the park has been developed and a visit to the core zone is restricted. It can be visited only with a forest ranger from the Guindy National Park.

The ecosystem services provided by this kind of protected area have immense value. They include sequestration of carbon dioxide, release of oxygen, conserving soil, preventing floods, mitigating climate change, improving water quality, generation of employment opportunities, revenue generation in addition to recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits.

Any such natural forest found within any city can be declared as a protected area in order to enjoy sustainable ecosystem services. Even if it is degraded, it can be afforested with native and fast-growing tree species and made into a proper forest to help us fight environmental degradation.

If all state governments emulate the model of Guindy National Park, develop such forest areas and declare them as protected areas, the human-made disaster of global warming and climate change can be mitigated without much difficulty.

V Sundararaju is President, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.