Wasteland to Wonderland

The various ecosystems prevailing in the Yamuna river basin had been researched and studied and what they now did was to replicate these in various modules in the park.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published: February 12, 2012 10:46:55 pm

How a devastated patch of land was turned into the bountiful Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi

Way back in 2002 or 2003,when I first visited the area that the Centre for the Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE) of Delhi University had been given by the DDA to develop into a biodiversity park,north of Wazirabad,I thought it was one of the most harebrained ideas of the new millennium. The area — 157 acres — was not degraded — it was devastated,the sort of place where you would test to destruction battle tanks. Huge mounds of sandy earth and mud,a few spindly bushes and trees,that’s it. Here,they wanted to develop a park which,according to their mission statement,was “to serve as a repository of biodiversity of the Yamuna river basin,with ecological,cultural and education benefits for the urban society and having conservation values.” Talk about being ambitious!

What I hadn’t taken into consideration,was that a deviously cunning and scientifically clinical battle plan was going to be put into action,devised by Professor CR Babu of Delhi University and his team. Ironically their first major enemy was the soil itself,ferociously saline,sandy and hostile. But then there were plants they knew about,grasses and legumes,which leach salt from the soil. Eventually,the soil was made more amenable to supporting flora. Now the rest of the plan could be put into place. The various ecosystems prevailing in the Yamuna river basin had been researched and studied and what they now did was to replicate these in various modules in the park. Today there are 20 such modules ranging from grasslands and acacia woodlands to wetland communities and tropical thorn forests. Two rain-fed water bodies were created,a winding shallow water body and a large deep water body.

Word must have got around the animal kingdom: Here at last was a place,where there was food,water and shelter. Good food too. In the large water body for example,a menu of aquatic plants,which ducks thrive on was provided,so the ducks came in droves every winter (over 5,000 this winter).

Back in 2002,there were four species of mammals,going up to 18 last year,including the civet (which,it is thought may be earmarking its territory),wild boar,and porcupine. In the beginning,there were 27 species of birds; last year,the tally was 189. Insect species shot up from 39 to 298. A free-flying butterfly conservatory was set up and as many as 60 species of butterflies have been recorded.

It’s a two-way street because the presence or absence of a particular species is often an indicator of the prevailing environmental conditions. For example,the jewel in the crown of the park as far as migratory ducks go,is the flamboyant red-crested pochard; a bird that is particular about clean water. Over 200 have come this year and this is the only water body around Delhi that they visit. The presence of the dark-and-light-blue pied paddy skimmer dragonfly is another such indication.

Apart from conservation,education is high on the park’s priorities. Groups of schoolchildren (more than 5,000 last year) and college students are regularly taken around the park by members of the staff. The interpretation centre itself is a place you can spend an hour or more easily. Certainly,the park is a wonderful place to introduce children to migratory birds; you can stand at a vantage point at the edge of the large water body and pick off the species one by one right in front of you. A hide for photography and observation has also been set up,but you will need a minimum of two mouse-quiet hours there to reap the benefits. It takes the ducks about half an hour to forget that they saw you creep into the hide and not creep out. But then they’ll drift up close,dozing and murmuring and you can appreciate their colours and conversations properly. The park is not open to the general public,but if you’re dead keen,you can call them up and ask when it is convenient to visit,so they can arrange for someone to show you around.

Some birds,of course,have come to stay. (There are around 350 types of fruit-yielding plants after all!) The wild grasses provide seed-feed for flocks of squeaking red munias and silverbills,which will nest in thorn bushes. Cormorants and darters (five pairs,this year) raise their young on trees growing on the islands in the water body,and there are many nesting sites for locals such as bulbuls,babblers,white-eyes,green pigeons,sunbirds,barbets and parakeets,amongst others. The shikra is probably the most common raptor here and the natty black-shouldered kite can be encountered quite often.

A tour through the medicinal garden can be an eye-opener as plants (some quite common) that can cure everything from heart-disease to baldness are pointed out to you. It makes you realise what a big debt the pharmaceutical industry owes to flora. Also,it makes you tread warily while out in the wilderness,lest you step on something that can save you from a heart attack!

To an untrained urban eye,a walk through the park may be like a walk through a wilderness full of wild tangled high grass,untrimmed bushes,often thorny,wayward bamboos and scraggly trees. But everything has been planted with a purpose; for a scientific reason. And once nature takes root,it is allowed to flourish.

Of course,there have been problems. The neighbours have been noisy,especially during the wedding season and Diwali,scaring away the birds with loudspeakers and crackers. Construction is rampant around the park,closing in on it from all sides. A couple of years ago,after a heavy monsoon,there was a water-logging problem.

Even so,the park is still a work in progress. To get an updated brief,I shanghaied Dr Faiyaz Khudsar,its director and an old friend. Enthusiastic and ebullient as ever,he took me around,showing me new schemes that were being implemented and telling me about plans. They are already improving and broadening the “shallow” water body,giving it a more natural and less landscaped look. Phase two of the project,which involves 300 acres adjoining the Yamuna (and which will be connected by a corridor to the current site) is to have a much larger water body,for larger waterbirds,such as geese and cranes.

Dr Khudsar said,even bureaucrats were beginning to appreciate what had been done here. It was,I thought,the same story as the Metro,put the right people in the right place,don’t interfere and they’ll get the job done.

Now if they can replicate this for the National Zoological Park,Sanjay Van,the Hauz Khas lake (which,was stinking the last time I visited) and the filthy ponds on the Ridge and other water bodies around Delhi; that would really be something.

Ranjit Lal is an author,birdwatcher and animal lover

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