Wildlife & Biodiversity

Proposed Mumbai metro project threatens Aarey’s complex ecosystem

Situated in Goregaon, Aarey is a biotope that gives refuge to scorpions and tarantulas, besides being a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, amphibians and the leopard

By Tiasa Adhya
Published: Monday 06 April 2015

Situated in Goregaon, Aarey is a biotope that gives refuge to scorpions and tarantulas, besides being a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, amphibians and the leopard

The leopard (left) and the Trapdoor Spider are among the innumerable species found in Aarey (Photo: Zeeshan Mirza)

A Mumbai-based urban community wants to resist the destruction of one of the last remaining green patches of the city—Aarey.

Aarey, situated in Goregaon, one of Mumbai’s suburbs, is famous among nature enthusiasts for being the green lungs of the city—a biotope that shelters new-to-science scorpions and tarantulas, besides being a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, amphibians and the leopard.

This Garden of Eden has been earmarked by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) and the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC) for constructing a metro car shed over an area of 28 hectares. This will lead to uprooting of 2,298 trees. According to MMRDA, 2,044 of these trees could be transplanted, but the rest of the 254 trees would have to be cut down.
While inadequate knowledge is dangerous, so is the habit of a simplistic way of looking at things. For instance, trees are just a unit of complex ecosystems. Even if we manage to successfully transplant trees outside, what happens to the layers of complexity in the habitat matrix that renders Aarey its veritable uniqueness?

Aarey was once a part of the deciduous stretch of forests, now restricted to the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park and hillocks. With the coming of the Aarey dairy co-operative, the thickness of the forests was broken up to create open ecosystems of grasslands, scrubs, marshes and water bodies, giving refuge to an interesting assemblage of species. The large open para grass fields are feeding grounds of Munias, Drongos and Egrets which have been cleared for the metro car shed. The drains that nurture these grass pastures are home to native fish species, crabs, shrimps and Checkered Keelback water snakes that are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, by virtue of being Schedule II creatures.

There are over 77 species of birds and just to lend colour to these numbers, we would like to mention that you will find the Hoopoe, Indian Roller, Grey Hornbill, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Rosy Starlings, Spotted Owlets and the Glossy Ibis, all in the heart of the city. A total of 34 species of wildflowers, 86 species of butterflies, 13 species of amphibians, 46 species of reptiles, several of these being listed under Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, and 16 species of mammals, including the elusive but ornamental and therefore, magnificent leopard, have been documented in Aarey. Leopards are said to stray from the adjoining Sanjay Gandhi National Park. However, camera trap exercise by local enthusiasts has shown the presence of resident leopards which are regularly sighted in the area.

Hence, there is definitely more to nature than meets our eyes. We all know it and Aarey has proved it to us once again. For recently, a rare and snake-like amphibian that lays its eggs near water bodies, was discovered from the interiors.

From the hundreds of micro habitats that are there in Aarey, tiny creatures rule, thrive and survive. The place has a staggering diversity of arachnids and scorpions. A new species of Trapdoor Spider (Idiops rubrolimbatus), Tarantula (Heterophrictus aareyeneis) and Scorpion (Lychas aareyensis) were hiding in the nooks of this complex ecosystem, waiting to be found out by the world of science.

What is more, species thought to have been extinct have been rediscovered from Aarey, like the Tarantula (Haploclastus validus) found after 110 years, or the Trapdoor Spider (Idiops bombayensis) also found after 110 years and even another tarantula (Pleasiophrictus millardi) rediscovered after 100 years.

Hence, hidden though they may be from the layman’s eyes, these micro-worlds are complex and dramatic. Ongoing research by Zeeshan Mirza and Rajesh Sanap, wildlife researchers associated with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, reports the presence of several undescribed species which include a lizard, spiders and various other species of invertebrate fauna. It is shocking then that the MMRC has blatantly refused to acknowledge such biodiversity.

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has decided to extend a loan of Rs 5,000 crore to Mumbai Metro, which is clearly a very big sum. However, JICA has strict environment norms that need to be adhered to and they are being deliberately kept in the dark. A look at the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report sent to JICA reveals some staggering facts. First of all, there was no mention of the duration and season during which MMRDA did their biodiversity survey. The report also states that the area under question has no dense forest. This is simply not true as the state forest department has a pending request to reclaim this land under their jurisdiction that was transferred to the state dairy department for setting up a dairy colony. Thus, a significant part of the metro depot land is dense forest.

The most laughable of all claims, so far, is MMRDA saying that though there are alligators inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, there are none outside. Alligators are not found in India at all. The only species of alligators found in Asia is the Chinese Alligator found in the Yangtze river.

This has instigated environment campaigners to inform JICA through a letter that Aarey is situated right next to the banks of the Mithi river and its catchment area. Destruction of Aarey could lead to increased downstream flooding in Mithi due to the disturbance of the water retention regime provided by Aarey. The place also acts as a buffer to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park where leopards still prowl in the dark. Take away this place and you are left with not only a handicapped next generation, devoid of the pleasures of calmness and tranquillity teeming with life, but also ousted and stressed leopards in Mumbai’s backyard. This can give rise to negative interactions between humans and wildlife.

The metro yard project, if cleared, will just be the beginning of the end for Aarey’s biodiversity. Once the car shed is completed, the result will be an extensive alteration of the landscape and the next follow-up project is also in the pipeline. It will be the creation of a meaningless zoo and a flyover. Maybe this is the right time to remind the motivated campaigners of Mumbai to remember the aftermath of creation of the Royal Palms, meant to be a harmless golf ground. But now a miniature city stands in its place, between the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Aarey Milk Colony.

For a world that is choked with growing consumption, it has become a cliché to talk about the depletion of natural resources, destruction of forests, extinction of species and even loss of vegetation due to human encroachment. Yet, clichés are just like epigrams for they are universal and undeniable truths.

Tiasa Adhya is a postgraduate student of Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore

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