New Delhi: On a sweltering hot and dry May afternoon when the mercury was touching 44.8 degrees Celsius, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park looked like any other vast wooded area.

However, just 100 metres away, where a dust trail leads to a mining pit, the scenery changed altogether. It was not just another wooded area. It was a jungle. The mercury dropped by at least 10 degrees. It was hot and humid with epiphytic orchids, ferns and mosses hanging from tree trunks. A cave in the pit was buzzing with a community of fruit bats, with some of the deadliest snakes such as the cobra visiting it to prey upon the unsuspecting chiropteran.

“But that’s not the only treasure we have. Now that the biodiversity park is fully functional, after almost 15 years since we started developing it from a scratch, several birds and animals that had once vanished from Delhi are gradually returning,” said M Shah Hussain, scientist-in-charge of Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

In 2016, birders had spotted the Indian Pitta in the park almost after a gap of 70 years. A year earlier, the pied hornbill was spotted in the park after a span of almost 40 years. Once abused for mining sandstone, mica and clay, the park has now turned into a haven for more than 900 species of terrestrial plants, 208 species of birds and at least 113 species of butterflies. Butterflies are often said to be bio-indicators of a healthy ecosystem. The park also has the highest density of snakes in Delhi.

Delhi’s Biodiversity Park

“Biodiversity parks in the city are a great indicator of the city’s health. The city of Delhi is growing so rapidly that it is fragmenting and destroying the natural habitats on which many species depend. A biodiversity park helps in boosting the ecosystem and helps in the well being of each species, no matter how small. A healthy ecosystem will be able to sustain a wide variety of life forms,” said Nikhil of Delhibird, a group of birders.

While Delhi has seven biodiversity parks – Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Aravalli Biodiversity Park, Neela Hauz, Tilpath Valley, Kamla Nehru, Tughalakabad and South Delhi – only the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and the Aravalli Biodiversity Park are fully functional. The rest are still in their various stages of evolution.

“The Yamuna and the Aravallis are the two main lifelines of the city. But much of the biodiversity which once existed along these two have been lost due to human activities. The main aim of the biodiversity parks is to bring back these lost forest communities and the vanishing biodiversity,” said CR Babu, professor emeritus and head of the Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystem (CEMDE) at Delhi University.

The Yamuna Biodiversity Park – Delhi’s first biodiversity park – has also been immensely successful in bringing back what the city had once lost from the river’s flood plains. Once a barren land dominated by weeds and salt-loving bushes, the 15-year-old park is now home to more than 1000 species of plants and animals and resembles a multi-layered forest dominated by mixed, moist, deciduous forest communities.

In 2016, the park had hit the headlines when a leopard was spotted there. The park now boasts of the largest heronry of black crowned night herons and at least two to three hog deer, which had vanished from the floodplains.

“At a time when we are losing trees in the surrounding, these biodiversity parks are acting as micro lungs for the city. The tree cover in these parks provide refuge to the native flora and fauna of the capital,” said Dipankar Ghose, director of species and landscape division at WWF India.
But it is not just about bringing back the greenery and the biodiversity. Experts said biodiversity parks are natural forest ecosystems with multi-layered canopies, comprising hundreds of species of trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses presenting various landscapes from marshy areas, to grasslands and stratified forests.

“Just from the litter of leaves that fall on the forest floor you can get an idea about the amount of carbon that is sequestered. Biodiversity parks acts as a sponge which not just recharges ground water by preventing runoffs during the monsoon, but also makes sure that the nutrients are recycled. The water which comes down in the form of canopy leaching goes straight into the ground, enriching the soil,” said Faiyaz A Khudsar, scientist-in-charge of the Yamuna Biodiversity Park.

Why biodiversity parks are important

Unlike the city forests, which are just woodlands comprising a few species of trees and help to provide some clean air, biodiversity parks serve as natural reserves with established ecosystems that in the process of time become home to many species. The parks offer mosaic of microhabitats and more niche opportunities for a variety of species – from big mammals to small birds and even microbes.

“Just like a wildlife sanctuary these parks have various zones. While the innermost zone is the ‘nature conservation zone’ similar to that of a core zone of a national park with limited access, the next concentric ring is the visitor zone where visitors are allowed only with guided tours. The outermost ring is the recreation zone where people often go for morning and evening walks,” said Babu.

These dense green patches also help to bring down pollution levels, act as buffer against extreme temperatures by the process of evapotranspiration, particularly during the summer and even adds to the aesthetic value of the locality. According to estimates provided by the park authorities, more than 5,000 people visit these parks every day for morning walks, evening walks and even students on educational tours.

“Apart from dignitaries from within the country, every year international delegations come to see the parks in Delhi. While a few years back, a team of Swedish scientists had camped in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park to study the colony of bats, in August this we are expecting a team of Harvard University students who would be coming to see the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and Tilpath Valley Biodiversity Park,” said Babu.

Such is the importance of these parks in mitigating the damages that man has inflicted on the nature that even the high court and the National Green Tribunal has directed all state governments to come up with such biodiversity parks, on the lines of the ones in Delhi. While Chattisgarh has proposed to come up with more than 20 such parks, UP is coming up with at least 35 – 40 such parks. Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh are also following in Delhi’s footsteps.

“With development we have lost many things. But now with increasing awareness much is being done to save what we still have and bring back whatever we have lost. Biodiversity parks, sacred groves, the temples ponds are some of the treasure troves which we need to have and protect to save our biodiversity. These are the only way forward,” said B Meenakumari former chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority.