Forgotten wildlife of Aravalli hills : The Tribune India

Forgotten wildlife of Aravalli hills

INCIDENTS OF LEOPARD RESCUE:The picture of a two-year-old electrocuted female leopard dangling lifeless on electricity cables at Lala Kherli village in Sohna created ripples in Gurugram city.

Forgotten wildlife of Aravalli hills

High-rise buildings and housing societies have come up in the Aravalli hills on the outskirts of Gurugram city. Tribune photos: S Chandan

Sumedha Sharma

The picture of a two-year-old electrocuted female leopard dangling lifeless on electricity cables at Lala Kherli village in Sohna created ripples in Gurugram city. The leopard that died a week ago brought to the fore the ignored issue of Aravalli wildlife management and increased incidents of animals straying into the suburbs of the city.

For a majority of city residents, Aravalli hills have always signified lost forests. Talks on the issue had always led to never-ending discussions on land grabbing or amendments to the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) or occasional promises of mass plantation. The wildlife has never been an issue related to the green, as apparently we believed that there was none.

The misconception, however, was challenged in 2016 when the city caught the attention of the nation after a leopard strayed into Mandawar village and was clubbed and lynched to death by villagers. It had mauled nine persons, including a policeman. Captured in a video that went viral, the incident was nothing less than an insensitive circus show, which was not only a classic example of human-animal conflict but also brought to the fore the inefficiency of the authorities concerned. The incident showed how unaware we were of the surviving wildlife, the remains of the lost forests, and how unequipped we continue to be to deal with and coexist with them. 

Ever since the 2016 incident  various surveys were commissioned to get an insight into the wildlife of Aravalli hills, which have shown a steady increase in the number of leopards and reported incidents of their sighting near villages. In 2015, 31 incidents of leopard sighting were reported from the Gurugram-Mewat-Manesar belt. In 2018, around 35 incidents of leopard being sighted were reported from Gurugram alone. Though there is no official census, the Forest Department claims that according to a joint survey with the Dehradun wildlife authorities over 40 leopards are known to be living in the forest surrounding Gurugram city.

Water scarcity in hills forces animals to stray

While till about two years ago we could have never imagined seeing anything other than an antelope in the area, leopards have become a common sight in various villages of Gurugram, especially Sohna block and Mewat. Reports of wild cats descending into water pools have been received regularly from villages such as Mandawar, Gairatpur Baans, Bandhwari, Kasan, Manesar, and Manger.

Recently, a leopard was sighted in Chandu village, just 20 km from Gurugram, ringing alarm bells about the feline headed towards the city. Experts believe water scarcity in the hills is the key reason behind the sighting of leopards in the city periphery. The major reason cited is the depleting water table in the Aravalli hills that were once natural aquifers. The man-made pits in the Aravalli hills meant for meeting drinking water requirements of the fauna were to be filled by officials through pipeline water. All thanks to illegal construction activities in the hills, most of the water is used there and animals are forced to stray into village ponds.

Most wild cat deaths in road accidents  

In January this year, a 10-month-old female leopard was found dead on the Gurgaon-Faridabad road. She was hit by a heavy vehicle. While it appeared to be one odd incident, official data reveal that 11 leopards have died in road accidents in the last three years. Heavy traffic comprising heavy vehicles, especially on the Gurugram-Faridabad road, and poorly-lit roads continue to be the biggest threats to the wild cats on the move. There have been numerous proposals ranging from building tunnels for animals to an over-bridge kind of corridor but nothing has materialised so far.

No ecological circuit proposed in state

On the one hand, a ban on mining activities and increased awareness about forest conservation have played a vital role in the increase in leopard population, on the other, the lack of a proper ecological circuit in the area has put them at risk. Having spent decades over deciding whether the area is a forest or not, Haryana with one of the poorest forest covers in the country has failed to create a healthy ecological environment promised repeatedly. Successive governments have floated the idea of declaring the area as a sanctuary but it was never implemented. Though the issue was included in manifestos in many elections, the wildlife corridor has not even been proposed officially so far.

Aravalli task force a distant dream

Despite being demanded for years, an Aravalli task force is yet to be set up. The state government had in 2018 approved a detailed plan to set up a task force but it is yet to materialise. The force is meant to deal not just with encroachments and tree felling in forests but also with poaching. The plan was approved after the state Forest Department received a letter from the Central Government, seeking a status report on the formation of a task force to step up vigil in the Aravalli hills and curb poaching.

According to the plan, a 24-hour, toll-free helpline for residents will be set up to call and seek information on the rescue of distressed wildlife in the region. To stop poaching and crack down on unauthorised tree chopping in the Aravalli hills, check posts will be set up in forests. While 11 posts will be set up in Gurugram, Mewat and Faridabad will get 15 and nine posts, respectively.

Incidents of leopard rescue, death

In May 2018, a one-and-a-half-year-old female leopard was found dead with injury marks on its neck at Gairatpur Baans village. In October 2017, a leopard strayed into the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar and could be rescued only after a 36-hour marathon exercise by a wildlife team. Another four-year-old leopard was found dead in Bhango village next month, in the vicinity of Gairatpur Baans village. In March 2017, a leopard was rescued from Durga Colony, Sohna.

Aravalli range most degraded: WII report

A June 2017 report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, says that the forests of the Aravalli hills range in Haryana are the most degraded in India. They have been marked as a priority conservation area.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests data released in December 2017 state that the Haryana Government from 2014 to 2017 topped the chart in the country in diverting its forestland for non-forest activities. The state has diverted 7,944 hectares of forests for non-forest activities especially when it has the second lowest forest cover in the country.

Threat of desertification

The Wildlife Institute of India report also says that the Aravalli hills in Gurugram are the groundwater recharge zones for not only Gurugram but also for Delhi and Faridabad. It states that Gurugram and Delhi are looking at an imminent threat of desertification (desert from Rajasthan extending to the two cities) as the Aravalli hills range is already breached at 12 places in Haryana.

Wildlife habitat encroached upon 

Encroachments in the Aravalli hills, shrinking habitat and dried up water holes are forcing the wildlife to move out and venture into human habitat, as we are eating into their territory. Most of the summer has gone by and water holes are dried up. The state Forest Department does not have an Aravalli task force and check posts in place, which have been proposed for years. 

Water holes dried up 

A drone survey conducted between June and October last year to enlist encroachments in Aravalli hills brought a sweet surprise with the sighting of over 20 species of wildlife, including leopards, porcupines, civet cats, snakes, hedgehogs, rhesus macaque, peafowl, hyenas, jackals, mongoose, jungle cats, monkeys, deer, nilgai, a variety of birds, snakes, monitor lizards and other reptiles such as Indian rock pythons, and cobras. There are at least 22 artificial water holes in Bandhwari, Sohna, Raisina Hills, Faridabad, Gwalpahari, and other areas. However, locals and environment activists insist that they are grossly inadequate in number and remain dried up most of the time. Local villagers had recently flagged the deaths of antelopes and peacocks owing to water scarcity but no official confirmation was ever provided.

Need to declare area as sanctuary: Environmentalist 

}We have lost a major part of the forests that were green lungs of the National Capital Region. This may be the last bit of wildlife and still there is no concern to save it. With the current variety and population of carnivores, this area should be declared a sanctuary. We need to take a cue from states such as Rajasthan which have managed to revive wildlife. Ironically, leave aside conservation Haryana till date has no dependable number of wild animals. — Jatinder Bhadana, environmentalist

Though mandatory, no wildlife corridor exists

The Union Environment Ministry has made it mandatory to have wildlife corridors or passages wherever infrastructure development is planned through eco-sensitive zones or forests. There are specific guidelines to build wildlife corridors if any linear infrastructure project is planned to cut through forests or eco-sensitive zones. Unfortunately, Haryana does not have any such proposal. This, even after the Wildlife Institute of India has clearly stated that there are many wild species in the area and a good population of leopards. — Vaishali Rana Chandra, Environment activist

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