Few people are aware of a forest that spreads over 200 sq km within the crowded metropolis of Delhi NCR. It is a forest choked by the ever-present vilayati kikar (Prosopis juliflora), an invasive plant species that has ravaged the area’s native flora and fauna. It is a forest that the government scarcely acknowledges.
This forest is crisscrossed by old bridle paths that wind in and out of bush-covered slopes, villages, rocky cliffs, and narrow streambeds. Parts of it resemble a moonscape pockmarked by old mining quarries and abandoned villages. The forest blankets low-slung hills, which are surprisingly difficult to scale due to loose boulders and dense thorny vegetation. For most biologists, this is a forest hardly worth exploring.
But in the early morning and after dusk, when only a few people are about, a host of wild species bring this place to life. A ruddy mongoose brushes past rocky streamsides looking for small prey. A male nilgai rises on its hind legs to feed off a raunj tree. On most days, one can glimpse a golden jackal, almost like a mirage that never was. One day, I spotted pellets of the four-horned antelope, a species that has all but disappeared from the northern Aravallis. And the resilient leopard often watches its domain from atop an inaccessible rocky cliff, master of this remnant of forest precariously perched on the edge of suburban sprawl. Tree species such as the dhok (Anogeissus pendula), salai (Boswellia serrata), the raunj (Acacia leucophloea), date palm (Phoenix sylvestris), and kadamb (Mitragyna parvifolia) appear within this mosaic of vilayati kikar and native scrub forest. Many of these tree species are fast disappearing from the rest of the northern Aravallis due to insufficient regeneration.
This large expanse of thorny scrub and dry deciduous forest, to which most people would not ascribe any biological value, is located in the Aravalli Hills right along the Delhi-Haryana border. These forests form a continuous stretch in the Aravalli Hills of Gurgaon and Faridabad districts, and along with the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary, create a forest corridor of sorts, albeit bisected by the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway.
Along with a group of conservationists from Delhi and Gurgaon, I have been part of biodiversity explorations in this region since 2012. These explorations reveal something new and exciting each day. Our research has been ably anchored by Sunil Harsana, an environmentalist and researcher from Mangar village. Mangar village hosts the ancient Mangar Bani, a sacred grove protected by the local Gujjar people for religious reasons; it is the largest intact native forest in the region. Always interested in wildlife, Harsana was able to photograph a leopard and hyena using camera traps in 2013. Later, he recorded Indian crested porcupine, ruddy mongoose, and several other species near his village. In 2019, Harsana walked 81 km of transects, both in the summer and in winter, to comprehensively survey and map the mammals of the entire delineated forest corridor, with the help of a grant from WWF-India.
Harsana’s work has revealed the immense conservation value of forest remnants of the northern Aravallis and has inspired much conservation action. An astonishing 15 species of small and large mammals such as golden jackal, jungle cat, leopard, and honey badger call this home. While species such as nilgai, black-naped hare, and jackal are relatively easier to spot, the leopard, jungle cat, and striped hyena are far more difficult to see due to their nocturnal habits. Most mammals have been reduced to tiny remnant populations in this part of the Aravallis because of historical land use such as plantations, mining, illegal settlement, and fragmentation due to highways.
Detailed surveys of birds, along with e-Bird records, further underlines the biological importance of the remnant forests. A four-season survey of birds in 2018-19, undertaken by the researcher Misha Bansal, covering only Mangar village, identified 26 forest-preferring species typical of the northern Aravallis but rare in the rest of Delhi NCR. This list includes the Indian pitta, white-bellied drongo, common wood shrike, grey-bellied cuckoo, cinereous tit, black-headed cuckoo-shrike, brown-capped pygmy woodpecker, yellow-crowned woodpecker, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, and king vulture. Our analysis also shows that some of these bird species show the highest frequency of sightings in and around Mangar Bani compared to other woodland habitats in Delhi NCR, such as Asola-Bhatti, Sanjay Van, and JNU campus.
In 2021, Harsana and I continue to research the remnant forest patches to locate sites where there is healthy regeneration of native trees and shrubs, as shown by the presence of seedlings and saplings. We are also exploring the ecological factors driving such regeneration in the landscape (or the lack of it), such as topography, soil type, and anthropogenic uses. Initial data reveals that much of the healthy tree regeneration occurs on inaccessible slopes where grazing and fuelwood collection pressures are abating and along streambeds where soil moisture is relatively high. Active interventions like planting and protecting native species and their seed sources, removing vilayati kikar, and involving local people in forest protection and water conservation activities, can go a long way in restoring at least some of these sites. Harsana has already initiated such activities within his own village.
While we have been able to develop a good understanding of the ecology of this area, the administrative status of this forest corridor is currently a patchwork, a situation that currently does not inspire hope for its long-term protection. A large part of the forest is erstwhile village commons that was privatised starting in the 1980s. Increasingly being sandwiched between the growing cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad, and Delhi, the escalating real estate prices are motivating more and more private landowners to sell to real estate agencies and commercial users. Further, less than half of the area is notified under the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA, 1900), which is treated as a “forest” as per Supreme Court orders. The remaining forests have not been given legal status as “deemed forests”. Despite overwhelming evidence of its biological importance, even Mangar Bani is awaiting formal recognition as a forest. Asola-Bhatti is the only part of this landscape that is formally a “protected area” (PA), but our surveys indicate that by itself, this PA may not be ecologically viable. Frequent changes in land use norms make forest conservation even more difficult, such as the recent takeover of village commons in Gurgaon District by the Gurgaon Metropolitan Development Authority.
The survival of this biodiversity mosaic for the future is conditional on keeping the relentless suburban sprawl of Delhi NCR at bay. Providing parts of this corridor the status of a Community Reserve or a Biodiversity Heritage Site, with co-management by local residents and the forest department, is the best option for long-term conservation. In the past, wildlife has thrived alongside the farmers and pastoralists of these hills because of their tolerance of wildlife and the risks that wild mammals pose to their lives and livelihoods. Gurgaon city residents have also begun to recognise the critical values of this forest tract, not just for wildlife but for the water security of this entire metropolis. The groundwater aquifers on which Gurgaon and Faridabad are dependent have lately receded under the pressure of over-extraction and widespread mining, to the extent that several major lakes have dried up, just during the last decade. Haryana, a state with less than 3.5 per cent area under forest cover, can scarcely afford to whittle away these forests that provide water security, absorb air pollution and even moderate extreme weather, in one of India’s most crowded metropolitan areas.