A stone throw’s from Guru Dronacharya Metro station, a city forest is in the making. Developed by the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) and IAmGurgaon from 2004, the Aravali Biodiversity Park has slowly transformed from a site of mining quartzite to a burgeoning ecosystem, with rich (and increasing) floral and faunal diversity.
Why I say “in the process of” is because they have gone above and beyond creating just a green cover — the 380-odd acres are slowly being restored from the rocky, barren land with little to no soil cover and an infestation of Vilayati Keekar (Prosopis juliflora) to a rich young ecosystem. Taking the help of Vijay Dhasmana (an eco-restoration practioner), they took a systematic approach — identifying forest species native to the Aravalis, drawing up planting plans, and creating a network of drip-irrigation systems. Because so many of the plants they identified were not found in nurseries (often even in those maintained by the forest department), they created in-house nurseries where seeds, plants and cutting from all over the Aravali range were nurtured.
What is interesting about the park is how the process of forest formation (albeit assisted) can be seen to be taking place slowly over the course of a generation. In 2004, the soil cover too poor to support too much vegetation- while the Vilayti keekar flourished, not much else could, starved for nutrients in the denuded land and muscled out by the more invasive species. Water, too, was a problem- while the area receives rainfall during the monsoon, the denuded and rocky surface means that water quickly drains off, preventing saplings which would have sprouted during the rains from being able to survive the blistering summers.
In order to address these issues, a grid-work of drip irrigation pipes were laid, which would artificially supply tricking amounts of water to the plants during the hot summer months. The planting was carefully planned, and saplings grown in the in-house nurseries were transplanted in organized drives involving schools, corporates and citizens- many thousands of saplings have been planted over the years. Manuring and mulching were routinely done, and the survival of the individual species assessed to ensure casualties were re-planted in the subsequent drives.
As can be expected, the grasses were the first to take root and set in motion the process of slowly re-vitalizing the ecosystem. Insects, rodents and birds began making their homes, eating seeds, saplings and each other. Following suit were their predators- snakes, civets and jackals.
A measure of the success of the restoration can be seen by talking to birding enthusiasts, who have reported an increasing diversity in bird species which can be seen in the park. Misha Bansal, a graduate from Delhi’s Jawaharlal University, and currently a researcher affiliated with the park, talks about how birds populations can be used as a index for measurement- the nature of diversity and changes in population structure indicate how the ecosystem is faring. Her research compares designated sectors of the park with “control” areas where ecological restoration was not done and seeing how the bird populations vary with time and space. In the chill of the morning, while conducting a walk through the park, she points out the peculiar flit of a bird mid-flight, and describes how the ecosystem is changing and what impact that has on the diversity of species.
It turns out that the park is now slowly transitioning from a grassy ecosystem to a shrubby one. The trees are still young, and do not provide dense cover, leaving the tracts of land open and exposed. The bird populations are thus similar to those seen in gardens, with open-country birds, which prefer open woodlands and shrublands currently dominating. As the forest matures, however, the population composition changes. The change is reflective of two different processes happening in tandem- ecological succession- where the species composition changes gradually over time as the growing and changing flora and fauna provide hospitable territory; and colonization - a relatively faster process where species form nearby forests migrate to occupy the new habitat. Consequently, species which would be otherwise rare for the NCR- such as the Sirkeer Malkoha, the yellow-eyes babbler and the Indian Eagle Owl are slowly becoming more common. Pointing to the growing trees, Misha describes how as the forest matures to resemble the nearby forests of the Mangarbani and other mature Aravali forests more closely, they expect the bird populations to shift in response as well, and hope to welcome hornbills, woodpeckers, flycatchers, fantails, barbets and other dense-foliage birds.
Already the park has over 400 species of plants (with over one lakh trees thriving in its boundaries), 200 of which are endangered or rare. They are host to over 183 species of birds, 38 species of butterflies, and are slowly becoming home to innumerable species of insects, spiders, beetles, aphids as well as larger animals such as jackals, porcupines, civets, hares, snakes, neelgai (the jungle cat has also been spotted). The team of 50+ malis who maintain the park also work constantly to ensure that invasive species do not take root.
The work being done at the Aravali Biodiversity Park is a truly inspiring example- it combines the scientific rigor involved in creating a reproducible model of ecological restoration along with societal engagement. The nature walks, plantation drives and birding tours acquaint us with the wildlife in our backyards, and provide launchpads for discussion on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the conventional (how ecologies and ecosystems work and the impacts of human activities) to discussions on the scientific method. The ongoing and subsequent efforts at assessment of the impact of the activities can help build both scientific roadmaps for other restoration efforts and as a tool to engage students in understanding concepts of hypothesis building, testing and verification.
Much as I would like to end this article on the excitement of learning about this project and on its potential for use as both as an educational tool and as a research endeavor, I cannot without talking about the sting to this tale.
The NHAI is planning to build a six-lane expressway cutting through the park, with the aim of decongesting traffic between Delhi and Gurgaon. The planned route will destroy anywhere from one-half to one-third of the park, eroding both the years of effort as well as the money which have been invested.
Many worthier articles have been written about how the Aravali’s serve as the green lungs in an over-polluted cityscape, and how the water table, which would have slowly inched upwards with the park and other ventures of reforestation and restoration, will now be further degraded. Much can also be said about the disillusionment which will be faced by children and other participants who have over the years participated in plantation drives and would excitedly talk about the impact they have had in restoring the barren land, or the disinclination which might occur in both corporate circles and among the citizenry in funding further efforts and participating in other projects when they exist under a cloud of uncertainty- the proverbial Sword of Damocles being the ever-present fear that all the effort and investment and promise of continuity could become meaningless at the stroke a bureaucratic pen.
All this can be said, and indeed, has been said. The evils I mention above are a regular feature of conversations in the walks IAmGurgaon is conducting walks through the park in protest of the planned construction (you can learn more about the protests and how to get involved by going to the Save Aravali Biodiversity Park Facebook page).
What hits me over and above all this however is the thoughtlessness about the entire exercise and the sheer loss of potential. In a time when the world is moving towards assessing and mitigating the impact of the rampant assault of human activity on natural resources, the park serves as a rousing example of how we are capable of positive impact as well. The thought which has gone into the planning, the way the community was engaged in the efforts, and the quantitative assessment of the impact could serve as a model and case-study to not only research efforts globally, but also as a how-to and resource for other communities working on similar projects- providing rare specimens from the in-house nursery the park maintains and sharing the experience and comparing notes to discuss the pitfalls and vulnerabilities they face and can avoid.
The park brings value to more communities than the local residents, and we need to protect the efforts undertaken at Aravali Biodiversity Park for many reasons- to protect a buffer zone of vulnerable species, to protect ourselves from the polluting impacts of our own activities, and also to protect a scientific endeavor, pedagogical tool and research effort serves as a source to teach and inspire both children and adults.