Amid the densely-packed bustling urban settlements of Delhi and Gurugram, one would expect a jaunt far from the city to catch a glimpse of wildlife. But a new survey of the remnant Aravalli forests of Gurugram, Faridabad and Delhi conducted in 2019 revealed that they harbour an astonishingly rich diversity of wildlife with relatively high densities of mammals in non-protected areas.

Forming a critical wildlife corridor, these contiguous forests, including Mangar Bani, a sacred grove near the Gurugram-Faridabad highway, need immediate protection to ensure wildlife can thrive in this region. One of the most degraded forests of India, Haryana’s Aravallis has suffered rapid deforestation. Frequent instances of human-leopard conflict have occurred in the region and need proper management, notes the WWF-funded report, that has been reviewed by Mongabay-India.

“We were surprised to see that so many species still exist in these forest remnants in the Aravallis – especially rare species of the Aravallis such as honey-badger, Indian fox, ruddy mongoose, hyena, and grey langur (although at extremely low density),” said ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin, a senior fellow at the non-profit Centre for Ecology Development and Research. “Having such rare species in their natural habitat so close to the city can be a huge asset for recreation, research, and school learning.” Shahabuddin also noted that “diversity tends to crowd around forested perennial streams in these semi-arid habitats”.

In India, wildlife exists in many rural landscapes, said Vidya Athreya, a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who was not involved in the survey. She is pleased to see an “increasing focus on the biodiversity of rural landscapes.”

Plagued by rampant deforestation due to mining and real estate encroachments, among other threats, the Aravalli hills have lost considerable forest cover. From 2012 to 2020, the Aravallis of Gurugram alone have lost more than 10,000 acres of Natural Conservation Zone, part of the greenest area of the city’s forest cover.

Ecologically rich region

Stretching diagonally from southwest Gujarat to Rajasthan up to Delhi and Haryana, the 700-km-long Aravallis are the oldest mountain range in India. The rocky terrain of the hills hosts tropical dry deciduous forests. Similar tree species are found in the Aravallis of Rajasthan and Haryana. “But Rajasthan Aravallis are more rugged and reach taller heights,” explained Shahabuddin, who guided the study.

Haryana Aravallis are more disturbed due to proximity to densely populated urban centers they have lost a few tree species typical of this area, she said. Shahabuddin notes that “even biologists consider the Haryana Aravallis as an ecological desert, overgrown with Prosopis and degraded in many parts”.

Sunil Harsana, an environmentalist and researcher who has been working in the Haryana Aravallis over the past decade, installed camera traps in 2013, which revealed the first pictures of leopards in the region. In 2017, a study by the Wildlife Institute of India in collaboration with the Haryana Forest Department reported the presence of 10 species of mammals in Haryana’s Aravallis.

The report was the first detailed record of ecological characteristics and wildlife presence in the region, said Paridhi Jain, an author of the report. In fact, camera traps for the study had for the first time detected the presence of sambar in Bhondsi in Gurugram district, signifying that “the area still harbours important wildlife species and warrants immediate protection”, said Jain.

The report pointed out that high priority conservation should be given to Mangar Bani and raised concerns over decreasing human tolerance to wildlife among residents in the region. “It is tragic that in the fragile landscape of the Aravallis, ecological habitats of species are scarce and declining rapidly,” lamented Jain, who is now a project associate in conservation at the United Nations Development Programme.

Asola Bhatti Sanctuary

In the latest study, Harsana surveyed mammals in a 200 sq km-area covering the Gurugram Aravallis, Mangar Bani, Faridabad Aravallis, and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary during the winter and summer of 2019. He used direct sightings for mammals that are easier to spot, such as nilgai, jackal and black-naped hare. For shy and nocturnal species such as leopards, striped hyenas, jungle cats and Indian foxes, he used telltale signs such as pugmarks, dung pellets, scat, scratch marks and tracks.

The map shows contiguous study area in the Aravalli Hills of Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon Districts in the state of Haryana. Map courtesy: Sunil Harsana

The survey yielded 15 species of mammals – including the northern plains langur, honey-badger, Indian fox, jungle cat, and ruddy mongoose – with the largest number of species recorded in the Faridabad Aravallis, followed by the Gurugram Aravallis, Mangar Bani and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Encounter rates were 30% higher in the Gurugram Aravallis and Mangar Bani than in Faridabad Aravallis and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.

Mammal diversity and abundance in the nonprotected areas of Gurugram Aravallis and Faridabad Aravallis was comparable or even higher than in the formally protected Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.

Interestingly, the density of the endangered leopards and striped hyenas, as suggested by the encounter rates, was double in the Gurugram Aravallis compared to the Faridabad Aravallis and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a protected area.

Camera trap image of a striped hyena in the Haryana Aravallis. Photo credit: Sunil Harsana

Sanjay Gubbi, a wildlife biologist at Mysuru’s National Conservation Foundation, said that encounter rates do not represent the true densities of wild animals. “A better measure,” he said, “would be abundance as densities of leopards in smaller areas ends up being particularly high.”

Leopards and other large carnivores have been found to use nonprotected areas in other parts of India. In a camera trap study published in 2013, Athreya of WCS-India and her colleagues found a relatively high density of leopards and striped hyenas in an unprotected human-dominated agricultural landscape in western Maharashtra.

Human-leopard conflicts

Paridhi Jain, an author of the 2017 WII report, says that from their study on the land use and landcover utilisation patterns, they “learned that species are forced to use human-dominated areas like agriculture, settlements and industrial areas, which results in human-wildlife conflict and several types of negative interactions”.

The present survey noted frequent conflict situations involving leopards in the region although the reasons need to be investigated. Over the past five years between 2014 to 2019, two leopards were killed by speeding vehicles on the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway, one was electrocuted and another three died in conflicts with humans. Harsana, who lives in Mangar village, says locals fear that wildlife, especially leopards, is increasing in the area and that they will enter human settlements and attack humans.

In a study published in 2020, researchers carried out a GPS field survey in the conflict sites of Gurugram, Mewat, and Faridabad district, which revealed that forest cover continually dropped from 1996 to 2018 while agriculture and settlements have increased.

“Aravalli and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary are very close to each other, and animals can easily use any corridor to move from Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary to Aravalli,” said Neha Yadav, lead author of the study. She notes that the Aravallis are not yet a protected area, and “human settlements are also increasing in a steady mode, resulting in encountering and conflicts.” The Aravallis are becoming drier due to low rainfall, and as a result, animals are forced into human settlements for food, Yadav points out.

Indeed, studies from the Indian Himalayas and Nepal have found that leopard attacks on humans and livestock tend to be high during the dry season. A 2021 study on radio-collared leopards in a human-dominated landscape in northern Bengal revealed that during the dry season, leopards selected sites closer to tea plantations and forest patches, but avoided protected areas. The cats preferred habitats close to the water sources while resting and travelling.

The local community lacks a broad level of awareness of wildlife, said Harsana, observing that in some cases, rumours can threaten wildlife and that government apathy for the conservation of wildlife also plays a major role.

Conflicts can be better managed if local communities are more aware, he said, suggesting the appointment of village-level departmental rescue teams. Compensation needs to be in line with the level of damage, and the process to obtain it should be easier, he added.

A 10-month-old female leopard killed on Gurgaon-Faridabad highway. Photo credit: Sunil Harsana

Athreya says that situations in nonprotected areas are different from protected areas and solutions lie more in the human dimension than animals. “There needs to be more such focus and engagement with the important stakeholders of this region for decreasing conflict,” she stressed.

According to Gubbi of NCF, “any unnatural deaths of leopards should be brought down as it can have a serious impact on the population”. He adds that “mortality due to vehicular accidents, electrocution, snares all seem to be on the rise in India, hence need to be curtailed for the long-term sustainability of leopards especially outside protected areas”.

Human-leopard conflicts in India are rising due to the loss of habitat, increased developmental activities in leopard habitats and lower tolerances of communities towards wildlife among other reasons, notes Gubbi.

“If there are emergency conflict situations such as leopards entering human dwellings or similar areas such situations should be handled through improved capacity building for various departments including forests, police, fire and emergency, revenue, health and others to ensure circumstances are handled efficiently and smoothly,” Gubbi said.

Mangar Bani

At the boundary of the Gurugram and Faridabad district in the valley of Mangar village lies Mangar Bani (Bani means “small forest”), a 2.66 sq km sacred grove. For centuries, members of the Gujjar community revered the vegetation in the grove and abstained from cutting the trees.

As a result, the grove hosts the best-preserved native vegetation in the region and consists of remnant climax forest. In the absence of major disturbances such as logging, the species composition of trees in a forest remains relatively stable, which is referred to as a “climax forest”.

Apart from mammals, the grove boasts a rich diversity of birds. A year-long survey of birds carried out in 2019 by Sunil Harsana and Misha Bansal, a researcher at CEDAR, combined with data from eBird, found that the forests of Mangar host 219 species of birds in an area of only 17 sq km.

These included endangered vultures and species that have become rare in Delhi such as the grey-bellied cuckoo, crested bunting, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, Eurasian wryneck, crested serpent eagle, Indian pitta and red munia, among others. Forest specialists such as the Indian pitta, white-bellied drongo and common woodshrike were only seen in the riparian forests of Mangar Bani.

Mangar Bani is hugely significant because it is a superb example of a beautifully-conserved rocky hillside with an intact dhok (Anogeissus pendula) forest within the National Capital Region, said botanist Pradip Krishen and author of Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide.

“Any conservation-minded agency worth its salt would recognize it for what it is – a jewel in Delhi’s natural landscape, something we ought to do everything we possibly can to recognize and protect,” said Pradip Krishen.

Mangar Bani is the primary pathway for the north-south movement of wildlife, forming a critical “chicken neck,” explains environmentalist Chetan Agarwal, who assisted the latest wildlife survey. It connects Damdama lake in the south of Gurugram to Asola Bhatti WLS in the north. Signs of leopards have been spotted regularly in the valleys and paths of Mangar Bani, said Agarwal.

Mangar Bani, a sacred grove at the boundary of Gurugram and Faridabad district. It is the best-preserved native climax forest in Haryana’s Aravallis. Photo credit: Pradip Krishen

Ownership and protection

Historically, Mangar Bani and the surrounding hills of Mangar were village common-land and owned by the panchayat, Agarwal explains. But from the 1960s onwards, it was “dubiously privatised,” he said.

In June 2016, the government of Haryana notified 670 acres of Mangar Bani core and a 500m-buffer zone around it comprising another 1200 acres as a “no construction zone”. Currently, this is the primary legal protection for the grove, he noted.

However, Krishen said that the extent and ambit of protection are “not strong enough”. He believes a new notification can easily replace it to provide better protection. “The half-hearted and weak notification issued by the Haryana government needs to be superseded by a stronger enactment that protects it under the Wildlife Protection Act and extends the ambit several-fold so that it does not become an isolated and unviable ‘island’ in the middle of an urban agglomeration (as Gurugram creeps ever closer).”

While the Ministry of Environment and Forests had directed the Government of Haryana in 2012 to identify Mangar Bani and other areas as “deemed forest” as per the dictionary definition, this has still not been done, stressed Agarwal.

As a result, the hill forests of Mangar are yet to be formally recognised as a “forest” by the state. Such a move is imperative to boost forest cover in Haryana, which stood at a paltry 3.62% in 2019 – the lowest in the country – according to the India State of Forest Report 2019. The first step to protect Mangar Bani is to grant it forest status. This should be followed by bringing Mangar Bani back to public ownership of the panchayat or government, said Agarwal, adding that this is “essential to preserve it for future generations”.

Finally, the researchers suggest declaring Mangar Bani as a Biodiversity Heritage Site, which would give significant control to the community. “This is probably the last opportunity to carve out a viable corridor for wildlife in the Mangar-Bandhwari region,” warned Krishen.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.