Forest essential

Rachna Shetty
Mumbai's concrete sprawl hides some remarkable - and invaluable - green spaces

Sanjay Gandhi National Park, the world's only national park within a city's limits, is home to leopards, as well as lions and tigers in safari enclosures © Getty Images

In late 2015, National Geographic released a set of photographs that highlighted once again a Mumbai theme that never gets old: the shortage of space. Only, this time the context was a little different: captured by camera traps, and lit by the ambient glow from neighbouring apartment blocks and street lights were the leopards of Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, north of the city. An estimated 35 of them lived in 40-square-mile green zone, hemmed in on almost all sides by the urban sprawl.

Mumbai is the only city in the world to have a national park within its municipal limits, a welcome and priceless green lung. "Verdant" isn't a word one would immediately associate with the city - its most iconic images have invariably been its buildings and bridges, or the crush of its local trains. And yet, a few green spaces exist.

The national park spans the western and eastern suburbs of the city at its northern end, and offers plenty of opportunities for short, easy trails on either side. From the west, the gentle Shilonda trail is a favourite during the monsoon, its path traversing a stream, lined with ephemerals that bloom in the season, the webs of giant wood spiders, and populated by a host of different butterfly species. Another popular trail is the Jambulmal, leading to the highest point in the city: on a clear day, the climber is rewarded not just with great flora and fauna sightings but also a view of the Tulsi, Vihar and Powai lakes. In the eastern suburbs, the trail leading into the Yeoor Hills in Thane is a popular one.

The park itself is home to over 1000 plant species, over 40 species of mammals, more than 250 species of birds, and 38 of reptiles. If you are attentive enough, and lucky, there are Racket-tailed Drongos zooming about with their trains, and the distinct calls of the Iora and Puff-Throated Babbler to listen to. You might also sight an Asian Paradise Flycatcher or a Heart-Spotted Woodpecker.

The White-throated Kingfisher is thoroughly at home in the city © Getty Images

A little to the south of the western side of the park lies the Aarey Colony, more famous perhaps as a site for film- and television shoots. Like the national park, the Aarey colony is favoured by locals for their morning walks and runs. The Conservation Education Centre of the Bombay Natural History Society lies in these environs, and also offers a few trails worth exploring. A short trail from the main road cutting through the Aarey forest up to the government guesthouse is another trail worth exploring.

The interest, among birders at least, heightens in the rainy season, not just because the forest bursts into bloom: it is one of the nesting sites in and around the city for one of Mumbai's most charming avian migrants, the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher.

The other popular winged visitors to Mumbai are the flamingoes, which arrive in winter and stay until late spring. There are a few places, in the city and just outside, to spot them. The Sewri mudflats are one of the most popular feeding sites for these birds when the tide ebbs. Another popular location in which to spot waders is Navi Mumbai, particularly Palm Beach Road. However, like most green spaces in the city, including the national park and the Aarey forest, the mudflats and mangroves are also under threat from developmental encroachment, infrastructure projects and pollution.

For tree lovers, one of the most interesting areas to visit outside of the national park is the Jijamata Udyan (more commonly known as the Byculla Zoo). The zoo, one of the oldest in India, has come under heavy criticism for the management and facilities given to animals under its care, but don't let that sideline its botanical wonders. It houses one of the few Pride of Burma trees in the city, and also boasts a Baobab (remember Rafiki's home in The Lion King?).

Thirty-seven acres of garbage dump found new life as a park and mangrove biome at the Maharashtra Nature Park © Getty Images

The stress on the city's infrastructure has put a significant portion of its green cover under threat. Given those circumstances, there are two examples of conservation that stand out in the city.

The Maharashtra Nature Park in Mahim is located on the busy Bandra-Sion Link Road in midtown, with the Mithi River flowing past it. It was a dumping ground until 1977, when the World Wildlife Fund (India) proposed turning it into a green refuge. Now the nature park, spread over 37 acres, is home to more than 300 plant species, with a mangrove forest attracting plenty of birds to the area. Among the main attractions at the park is a small butterfly garden, best viewed after August every year.

Butterflies are also the main draw at Ovalekar Wadi in Thane. This private park came about with the initiative of Rajendra Ovalekar, who began planting nectarine flowers and plant species to attract butterflies to his family plot. A lucky sighting here is the Blue Mormon, the second largest butterfly, and the incredibly deceptive Blue Oakleaf, which when perched with its wings shut resembles a dried leaf on a tree.

It is birds, though, that present a reminder of nature all through the city: whether in a neighbourhood park or just a cluster of trees surrounded by buildings, it's not entirely uncommon to spot the wild - sunbirds (the Purple and Purple-headed varieties), Coppersmith Barbets, White-throated Kingfishers (which can turn up in some unusual places), the Asian Koel, orioles, Red-vented Bulbuls, Barn Owls and Pariah Kites, in addition to the Common Crow, the Rock Dove and the House Sparrow.

Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo