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Leave the forests alone

Last updated on February 1, 2019

The sighting of wild animals in human habitations is increasing with every passing year. The question is: Are they invading territory or are we encroaching on their habitat?

 
On January 20, the usually quiet village of Sadullapur — located in a remote corner of Greater Noida (west) – became the centre of attention as a leopard entered the village that has a population of more than 5,000. “At around 10.30 am, my children came rushing into the house to tell us that they saw something in the lawn. When I went outside, I saw a big leopard staring right back at me,” says Jayant.
 
Sadullapur is mostly surrounded by stretches of vegetation and is near the hilly terrain of the Aravallis in Faridabad, just across the river Hindon. The authorities believe that the leopard was chasing a prey when it crossed the river, lost its way and entered the nearest human habitation.
 
“I was working on the field, when suddenly I saw the leopard on top of a roof, near a temple in the field, which is close to railway tracks and borders our village,” said Ajay Pal Singh, a local farmer. “From the railway tracks it must have entered a house nearby and maybe from there it jumped onto a water tank in the adjacent house and then entered the field, just 100 metres away from me,” he adds.
 
“It was running aimlessly on the field until it jumped over the boundary wall and went towards the stretch of farmlands beyond our village boundary, half a kilometre from the newly built farmhouses,” says Kishan Kumar, another eyewitness to the incident.
 
In the meantime, the villagers informed the village head Pappu Pradhan, who in turn sought help from the local Ecotech III police station. They informed the Uttar Pradesh forest authorities, who then rushed to the spot, but the leopard was nowhere to be found.
 
“We even showed them the paw prints but the authorities refused to believe us,” says Kishan Kumar, adding, “They thought that it was not a leopard, but a simple jungle cat.” The paw marks, surprisingly, were still there when Patriot visited the village on January 29, nine days later.
 
“The forest department and police were searching for it, when the leopard suddenly appeared from a small rice field. By then, more than 500 people had gathered to catch a glimpse of the leopard,” says Kumar.
 
One of the locals, Kuldeep, who is a constable with the local police station, was almost killed by the animal. “I was on the roof of a house, trying to capture the leopard on my mobile phone, when suddenly it fell on the field. When I jumped on the field to get my mobile phone, the leopard suddenly pounced on me out of nowhere and pinned me down,” says Kuldeep, who suffered an injury on his leg from the claws of the leopard, adding,
 
“It stared at me for a few seconds, until the crowd scared it away.”
 
According to a statement by the District Forest Officer of Gautam Buddh Nagar, they are not well equipped to capture animals of the nature of a leopard, all by themselves, which is why they sought help from Delhi and Meerut. When reinforcements arrived, a joint operation was carried out and the big cat was finally caught after being administered a tranquiliser shot at around 5.45 pm — almost eight hours later.
 
This was not the first sighting in the area. Since November 2018, there have been three confirmed sightings of a leopard in and around the area – within a two-kilometre range, which consists of a number of farmhouses, bungalows and housing societies under construction.
 
Gurugram’s reptilian problem
It is not just leopards that have made their way into human habitat. Sightings of reptiles, such as snakes — including pythons and cobras — and monitor lizards, are increasing with every passing year. According to wildlife expert and professional snake rescuer Anil Gandass, in 2018, he has rescued more than 800 snakes — including 40 pythons and 300 cobras. “The number is increasing every year. In the last 20 years, I have rescued more than 13,000 snakes and 4,000 monitor lizards from urban areas,” he says.
 
“These snakes are not just found in semi-urban areas but also urban areas. Last season, we got a complaint from DLF Phase III housing society of a snake in their kitchen,” recalls Gandass. “When we reached the spot, we found a 15-ft long Indian rock python coiled in their kitchen. It had somehow climbed a tree and entered through the kitchen window of the fourth floor,” he says.
 
In another incident, Gandass says, a python was caught from a farmhouse at the Gurugram Sohna border. “It was 15-feet long and weighed more than 30 kgs since it had just eaten a full-grown dog, which made it difficult to carry it” he says, adding, “We finally released it into the forests of the Aravalli.”
 
In addition to this, he has rescued 10 leopards who had entered the urban areas. So, why are so many animals coming out into human habitations? “We are encroaching into their natural habitat, so these poor animals have nowhere to go,” Gandass says.
 
The bigger picture
A large chunk of the Aravalli range runs through the Delhi-NCR region, encompassing areas like Faridabad and Gurugram. “Men are encroaching into Aravalli, which is the biggest forest cover in Delhi-NCR. So, it is seriously a big problem that is hampering the ecological balance,” says Verhaen Khanna, an environmentalist.
 
“It is because of poor urban planning that wildlife is coming out into the open. Building of private and public properties has been going on for the past two decades, and animals coming out into human habitations is a result of years of encroachment and illegal construction in the Aravallis,” says Dr Sohail Madan, a senior conservation officer at the Asola Bhatti Wildlife sanctuary. According to him, while this type of construction is no longer taking place in Delhi, it is the Haryana side of the Aravallis that is causing most mayhem.
 
According to a study by the Wildlife Institute of India, the Aravallis in the NCR region, also covering parts of south Haryana, is the mountain degraded most by man in India.
 
According to environmentalists, the degradation and illegal encroachment of Aravallis started mostly in the 1980s when the concept of privatisation of land rolled in, and more and more projects were developed both by the government and private real estate companies in the Aravalli forest covers.
 
“There used to be a large lake near Badkal in Faridabad. When the Surajkund Badkal road was being developed, it cut through the Aravallis and the lake was dried out so that the road could go over it,” says Dr Madan. “This lake was a source of drinking water for the wild animals and also acted as a natural rainwater tank. Once it dried up, the animals had to look elsewhere for water, and thus entered human habitation,” adds Dr Madan.
 
“People build houses and factories right in the middle of the forest area, since this land is free and they do not have to go through the hassles of negotiating for a legalised plot of land owned by the government. They hand some cash to the local land mafia and are done with it,” says Harsh Bhadana, who works for the NGO Save Aravallis.
 
In fact, according to a 2006 Supreme Court order, the state governments were strictly prohibited to pursue any kind of construction in areas designated as forests. However, the master plan 2021, formulated by the National Capital Region Planning Committee, declared 60,000 hectares of the Aravalli as forest, of which only 0.5% can be used for recreational activities.
 
However, according to the Punjab Land Preservation Act developed in 1984, section 4 and 5, no land in the forest can be used for construction, as it is to be preserved. However, according to the legal head of Save Aravallis, Jitender Bhadana, “powerful people are constantly flouting this and the government is protecting them.”
 
“Housing societies, like the Omaxe and Delight Gardens in Faridabad, have been built illegally. There is also a land where a Bharti Airtel project will be set up.,” alleges Harsh Bhadana.
 
In the last three years, there have been as many as 31 sightings of animals like leopards, , according to a research done by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). One of the biggest incidents was when a leopard got inside the Maruti Suzuki plant in Manesar in 2017 and was rescued by forest authorities 36 hours later in the boiler room of the factory.
 
“Leopards are unique creatures. They have the tendency to come around the edge of the forest areas in search for easy prey. Now, with more and more roads and human habitations in these forest areas, their sightings have increased,” says Dr Madan.
 
There have also been several accidents where animals crossing the road have been hit by a cars or trucks. On January 29, a ten-month-old leopard was killed by a truck on the Gurugram-Faridabad road. “We come across reports of some animal or the other being killed in such accidents. This results in the depletion of the animal population in the Aravallis and harms the ecological balance very heavily,” says Harsh Bhadana, adding, “This is probably the most detrimental effect of encroachment.”
 
People also tend to kill the animals that have ventured into their territory, for the fear of losing their lives. In 2017, when a leopard entered the Mandawa village in Haryana, a mob beat it to death. There have been so many cases where before I could reach, I found that the snakes had already been killed by the people because they were scared of it,” says Anil Gandass.
 
The problem is, according to Harsh Bhadana, that the Haryana government has still not declared most of Aravalli as a forest land. According to Jitender Bhadana, more than 12,000 acres of land is undeclared forest land, which is often tweaked to give permits for construction.
 
“This needs to be dealt with a heavy hand. The government needs to realise the importance of wildlife and declare the forests of the Aravallis as a wildlife sanctuary. So that let alone construction, even pulling a branch out of a tree would be considered a serious offence,” says Harsh Bhadana, referring to how the Okhla Bird Sanctuary was declared so by the Uttar Pradesh government because the area was being destroyed.

“The masses need to be educated about the importance of wildlife and how encroaching into their territory harms the environmental balance. The government and the concerned authorities should also look into this matter more seriously,” concludes Dr Madan.

‘Rescues are a real challenge’

Patriot spoke to Kartick Satyanarayanan, co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS (an organisation that has been rescuing animals that venture into urban areas), on how encroachment affects wildlife

1) Why do you think more and more animals like leopards are being spotted in urban areas in Delhi?
Leopards are naturally wide-ranging animals that are likely to stray into human settlements, owing to prey depletion in the fragmented forest blocks.

2) What are the hazards of human encroachment on animal habitat?
Human encroachment on animal habitat and commercialisation of forest land depletes the resources available for wild animals. Wildlife being vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures, often yields to human-wildlife conflicts, fragmentation of natural habitats and illegal wildlife trade. Hence, a comprehensive understanding of wildlife-habitat relationship is needed to better mitigate the escalated human-wildlife conflict.

3) Can encroachment lead to extinction of animal species?
Human encroachment can lead to local extinctions by forcing the wildlife to migrate to other suitable habitats. Hence, there is a need to develop a better landscape approach model for wildlife conservation.

4) How many calls do you get at an average for rescuing wildlife from urban areas?
The wildlife SOS 24-hour rescue helpline directly receives 15 cases of wildlife emergencies daily, on an average.

5) Can you please describe an incident where you rescued a wild animal from human habitation?
Just over a week ago, a seven-year-old male leopard was rescued from Sadullapur village, Greater Noida. A five-member team from Wildlife SOS’ Rapid Response Unit, along with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, successfully rescued the leopard and safely released it into its natural habitat to avert any major human-wildlife conflict situation. The shy, elusive nature of the leopard makes such rescues more challenging.

Trespassers not being prosecuted

As alleged by Jitender Bhadana, these are a few projects that have encroached into the Aravalli forests against whom he has filed petitions in the Court

  • A bungalow belonging to the chief of the Faridabad Electricity Board
  • A wine shop owned by local big shot Dharmu Katana
  • Delight Hotel, located in the Khir Area
  • A restaurant owned by ex-Haryana minister Mahender Pratap
  • An illegal housing colony by real estate bigwig Tejinder Bhadana
  • A housing society project, Sanskriti Greens
  • A 2-acre land in the encroached by local big shot name Sethi