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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Paradise Regained


Tags : CEMDE | DDA | Aravalli Biodiversity Park |

Tucked away in a cul de sac at the tail end of a posh residential street in south Delhi, shimmers a magic portal. The gate to this world is always locked but a twisty side gate allows the intrepid to enter while a mustachioed guardian looks on through sleepy half closed eyes. At his feet lies a fawn bitch, just as sleepy with a litter of puppies attached to her swollen teats. I step over the dozy family and follow the dirt trail into this new world.

Red with rust and who knows if a little dried blood, wire fencing on both sides of the trail, close, meticulous and sharp, keeps all but the thickest skinned and desperate from invading this little island. A few more steps and the noise and smoke of the city leave you, like reluctant hangers on who know that they aren’t allowed any further.

Walk on further, and like a seductive temptress, the winding trail and green vistas draw you close. The winter sun seems a little brighter, the air a little sweeter and the songs, carried by a wind that seems to revel in this new found freedom, bring back memories of a Delhi whose gardens had birds once.

As the trail curves around the edge of a cliff, a startled mongoose darts across the opening and disappears in the brush. Beyond me yawns a valley, carved not by the gentle hands of all knowing nature, but by the myopic hunger of bull dozers and excavators that had once mined and ravaged this land down to its very bones. Here stand the high ridges of the ancient Aravallis, weather beaten guardians of Delhi, that had deterred invaders in the past and still strive to keep the heat and dust of the Thar from flooding the city and the rain clouds from going too far away. Mindless mining though had left this region pock marked and gasping for breath. Native flora and fauna had been decimated and driven off and an uncaring invader, prosposis julifera, better known by its notorious nom de plume – vilayati keekar had flourished on this denuded landscape. This tree, though greening the ground on the surface, does little to provide nourishment to the native fauna and instead acidifies the soil and degrades it. Barren and left for dead, this land was grabbed by settlers. Ramshackle shelters and slums rose on these grounds and litter and feces dotted the pockmarked grounds that had once been home to deer and partridge and had once nourished the city with oxygen rich air.

But that was nearly a decade ago. Two formidable institutions – Delhi University’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE) and Delhi Development Authority joined callused hands and decided to do something about restoring dignity and if possible a bit of the old charm to this ravished landscape.

It was not going to be easy. Mission near impossible, you’d think. But an unassuming man with a soft voice that masked steely determination and indefatigable reserves of enthusiasm and patience has today almost achieved the impossible. Aravalli Biodiversity Park, nestled between South Delhi’s urban environs in Vasant Vihar and the airport has been resurrected and is today a veritable paradise. The mining pits have a cloak of green, and the birds have returned. Last week, a morning’s birding expedition led by Dr Aisha Sultana, field biologist with Aravalli Biodiversity Park, identified nearly a hundred species of avifauna. And recent surveys have revealed the presence of more than 200 species of birds in the park. A stunning turnaround from the terrible low of thirty odd bird species that had managed to survive the mutilation of the landscape.

So what went into recreating this little Eden? I asked the man who made it all possible – Dr M Shah Hussain, Scientist-in-charge at the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. Having cut his teeth on the recreation of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and kept his promise to his mentor, Professor CR Babu, Director CEMDE, of giving Delhi “a mini Bharatpur” in the Yamuna basin, Dr Hussain took on the challenge of restoring the Delhi ridge to its original splendor.

This was no easy task. Each floral species that had originally sprouted on these lands when untouched by the hand of man was painstakingly identified and planted. Then they had to be protected from the elements.

Encroachers, both animal and human had to be evacuated and all 692 acres of the designated park area secured. After eight long years of restoration the park has begun to acquire the look and feel of the scrub and deciduous forest that it used to be.

As I walked along the trail with Dr Hussain, he marked out species after floral species and highlighted the role that each played in the restoration process. Not only did the park, unlike other parks in the city, provide green cover but is also instrumental in refilling ground aquifers and maintaining the water table. Based on a self-sustaining natural model, the symbiotic relationship established between floral and faunal species will ensure that the park will continue to flourish “..with increasingly minimal economic support” said Dr Hussain. “Not only does this natural model neutralize pollution levels… restores the water table… but traps many micro fauna that can trigger diseases”.

At that point Dr Hussain stopped and his eyes scanned the bushes. “Nilgai!”, he whispered as he peered into a thicket nearby. I couldn’t see anything but I followed his gaze and soon enough a female, a mahogany red vision of delicate grace sauntered into view. It looked into my eyes, evaluated its options and then decided we weren’t really a threat and settled down to a good chew.

It was a beautiful moment. A forest reborn, its natural flora re-establishing old associations with the earth, her old wounds healed, and animals large and small fulfilling their designated roles in nature.

“This is a true forest pyramid”, said the modest Dr Hussain, without a hint of much deserved pride. “It is a model for forest officials and town planners for reclaiming mining areas. Once ready it will not only provide aesthetics… a pollution free environment… but it also opens avenues for eco-tourism”.

We walked back, past a flock of peahens, out on a matronly stroll in the afternoon sun and made our way towards the pride of the park – an open air butterfly conservatory. What was once a barren mine pit is a green basin today with hundreds of species of floral blossoms blooming like broken bits of rainbow strewn on the ground. And flitting about amongst the pollen and the petals were butterflies. Dr Hussain pointed one out that had settled on a blade of grass nearest to us – “…that’s the Plain Tiger!” he said,  and I could see how the tawny wings of the dainty insect dotted with black and white got them their name. The park was now home to more than 90 species of butterflies.

The restoration process is still far from complete though, warns Dr. Hussain. Delicately poised, the park is still vulnerable to excesses from uncontrolled excursions by thoughtless visitors. “This is a reserve forest…” and joggers and people playing loud music disturb the animals in their habitat. Dr Hussain laments the fact that he has had to endure the sight of dogs tearing apart a peacock, our national bird.

Once the park is ready and the wheels of nature have been well and truly set in motion, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park will become far more resilient and independent. But it is essential that we citizens, as both beneficiaries and stakeholders in the health of this park act responsibly and conscientiously in our relationship with this environmental jewel that is in, and in many ways is, the heart of this city.

The city owes people like Dr Hussain and his team and the institutions that made this experiment possible and successful a debt of gratitude. And perhaps the best way to thank them all would be celebrate the park’s presence in our city and our lives by honouring the laws of nature, within and without the park’s boundaries. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017