As your foot trips over an exposed root and you reach out to steady yourself against a tree trunk, your hand brushes past a spider web, large enough to net prey heftier than the average housefly. Underfoot are masses of yellowed leaves, with their delicate ribs and veins beginning to show, and overhead in the canopy, you can hear the metronomic call of a coppersmith barbet. You decide to follow a faint rustling sound coming from a thicket to one side and as you part the foliage, you see a herd of cheetal, taller and sturdier than the Bambi image you had in your mind. You follow them, keeping a respectful distance, right up until they emerge onto a road that snakes through the forest. The deer cross over and disappear into the bushes on the other side and just as you’re about to follow, a cyclist — complete with helmet, elbow pads and knee pads — speeds past.
This is the forest primeval, interrupted. Here, inside Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), one finds the usual fauna of the jungle — deer, monkeys, cobras, vipers, peacocks, hornbills and leopards — sharing space with unusual fauna like joggers, cyclists, fruit-sellers, bhelpuri vendors and picnickers. After all, the SGNP has the unique distinction of being the largest tropical forest anywhere in the world to be completely surrounded by urban sprawl. It is flanked by the Mumbai suburbs of Borivali, Goregaon, Malad, Kandivali, Dahisar on the western side, Bhandup and Mulund on the eastern side, Aarey Milk Colony and IIT Bombay to the south and Thane to the north. It’s little wonder then, that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, receiving over two million visitors in a year.
At a time when India, and the world, reel from the impact of human-made chaos resulting in drought, floods and unbreathable air, green expanses like the SGNP assume greater importance. As Debi Goenka, who leads the Conservation Action Trust (CAT) points out, this forest is one of the two things that protects Mumbai from the fates of Delhi and Chennai. “Mumbai is a polluted city and what saves it from a Delhi-like situation is the sea breeze that helps to keep the air circulating and the fact that we have this forest, which acts as the lungs of the city. Think of what happened in Chennai and compare it to the Mumbai flood of July 2005. Can you imagine how much worse the situation would have been if the park hadn’t been there to catch a huge bulk of the rainwater? We would have suffered the way Chennai is suffering right now,” he says.
The importance of the SGNP to Mumbai’s well-being cannot be overstated. Atul Sathe, assistant director of education and communication at the Bombay Natural History Society, says, “This forest also acts as a catchment area for the two lakes of Vihar and Tulshi that partly supply water to Mumbai. Without it, the lakes would soon get filled with silt from the erosion of the surrounding hills. Forests also regulate temperature, encourage precipitation of clouds and help recharge ground water. The moment one enters the forest, a drop of 2-3 degrees in temperature is clearly felt.”
The SGNP also touches the lives of Mumbaikars in other ways. Tribes such as Warlis and Mahadeo have historically lived in the forest and even now, there are tribal hamlets inside the park. For those who live around SGNP, it is a place to go to for exercise, recreation and meditation. Kanheri caves, the two millenia-old Buddhist rock-cut structures found inside the park, is popular with tourists — pilgrims, history buffs, families with children that need to be kept constantly amused and couples who seek out the more secluded caves for a measure of privacy. Hundreds of trekkers, bird watchers, lepidopterists and photographers visit over the weekends and help to keep track of the park’s rich biodiversity that comprises nearly two dozen mammal species, about 250-300 bird species, about 150 butterfly species, several species of reptiles and amphibians and thousands of other insect species, not to mention the large variety of medicinal plants that one can find there.
It’s a wonder that this forest has survived this long. Over the decades, as urban expansion pressed it on all sides, the forest has shrunk. But that’s not the only challenge, says chief conservator of forests, SGNP, Vikas Gupta. “The encroachment issue is well-known and poses a huge challenge. But we’re also fighting other problems such as littering and dumping of debris in the forest. We’ve regularly been busting illegal liquor dens in the forest as well.”
Other issues have threatened the relationship between citizens and the park as well, including the treks that the forest’s leopards made into human settlements outside the boundaries of the park. Leopards were caught on security cameras as they padded through parking lots and housing society compounds and the result was an anti-leopard panic in the city in the early 2000s. There were numerous cases of human-leopard conflicts, which peaked in 2003 with over 20 people dead or injured. Vidya Athreya of Wildlife Conservation Society, India, recalls, “Housing society members would demand that the leopards be trapped and removed from the vicinity and they railed against the SGNP for ‘allowing’ leopards to come out and prowl through the city.”
The SGNP dealt with the issue by forming a citizens’ group. Volunteers set up meetings to educate residents about the habits of leopards and how they could help reduce the conflict. “We informed people that leopards have peacefully co-existed with human beings for centuries and that they only attack when they feel threatened. We encouraged them to call the helplines that we set up and to avoid mobbing the animals. We also held media and police workshops because their co-operation was essential in containing panic,” says Athreya. Instances of conflict went down significantly and the tide of negative press turned.
In folklore and myths, the forest is often a metaphor for the unknown, home to our most primal fears, while civilisation is where we feel safe, where we seek refuge in the company of fellow humans. The modern world has inverted some of these notions. Surrounded as we are now by noisy, over-bright concrete jungles, retreating into the deep silence and darkness of a forest has become therapeutic. For 26-year-old engineer Sudeep Naik, Saturdays spent trekking and birding in the SGNP are a great respite from an exhausting life. “I travel one hour each way to work. Every once in a while, when the constant rush and noise become too much, I have to get away to the national park. For a few hours, it helps me forget that I live in Mumbai.”