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Delhi’s Asola wildlife sanctuary faces ecological damage as crowds swell

Jan 15, 2024 10:17 PM IST

The explosion in visitors has alarmed experts who worry about how it could possibly undo the restoration work at this vital green lung of Delhi

Mohammad Faizan is on his way to Neeli Jheel with three friends. The lake, around 16km inside the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in south Delhi, has emerged a popular eco-tourism attraction over the past year. It has artificial waterfalls, landscaped gardens and that great modern-day magnet -- selfie points.

Visitors at Neeli Jheel at the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary in New Delhi on Sunday. (Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)
Visitors at Neeli Jheel at the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary in New Delhi on Sunday. (Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)

It takes Faizan nearly 30 minutes to park his Maruti Swift Dzire: the unpaved trail to the lake is chock-a-block with other vehicles, and the parking lot at the lake can only accommodate 50-60 cars — far from the number of visitors on this sunny Sunday afternoon in an otherwise cold January.

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According to Delhi forest department officials, on typical weekends, the sanctuary — home to leopards, striped hyenas and golden jackals — hosts up to 500 visitors a day. The number is likely an underestimate — wildlife experts who frequently visit the sanctuary say the figure is closer to 1,000 per day on weekends.

One major reason for such large crowds could be the low price of entry —tickets are priced at 10 (entry for children below the age of 5 years is free), while it costs another 10 per recording device (including smartphones).

In February 2023, Delhi’s environment minister Gopal Rai formally opened the eco-tourism spot near Neeli Jheel for visitors. A few months before that, Delhi lieutenant governor VK Saxena had inaugurated four artificial waterfalls at the lake, along with a 4-km long trekking trail, as part of a larger eco-tourism plan for the area.

To be sure, the sanctuary has always been open for visitors, though till late 2021, the entry fee was 500 per person.

As Neeli Jheel is around 16km inside the sanctuary, most visitors are obliged to drive their private cars. To be sure, the sanctuary does have some golf carts to take visitors to the lake, but there are only 10 such vehicles, they do not set off from the sanctuary gate till they are full, and they have no windows — which means that the 16km journey to the lake on a dusty, unpaved route can be quite tedious.

The explosion in visitors to the sanctuary has alarmed wildlife and ecological experts who worry about how it could possibly undo the restoration work at this vital green lung of Delhi.

Asola Bhati was declared a sanctuary in 1991, and the 32.7 sqkm area is part of the southern Ridge — an extension of the Aravalli hill range — that forms an important wildlife corridor from Sariska in Rajasthan to the Capital.

The sanctuary has an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of around 15.55 sqkm (as declared by the Union ministry of environment and forests in 2017), which prohibits activities such as mining, quarrying, and discharge of effluents, and regulates construction and felling of trees. Activities permitted include rainwater harvesting, the use of eco-friendly transport, and the use of eco-friendly fuels.

A two-year mammal census carried out by Sohail Madan — former centre manager of Asola, who was part of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) — and his team between 2019 and 2021 revealed 17 different species at the sanctuary, including a healthy count of mongoose, golden jackals, and civets. Camera traps also captured eight different leopards, a striped hyena, hog deer, nilgai and blackbucks. Around 249 bird species have also been sighted at Asola over the years, which includes birds such as the pallid harrier (Circus macrourus) and the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).

Surya Prakash, a zoologist and birder who has been visiting the sanctuary for over two decades, said the area has seen a huge change after the price of admission was slashed.

“There is no restriction on the number of vehicles, with 200 to 300 cars every day not only leading to noise pollution, but air pollution too. At the same time, littering takes place ,” said Prakash, adding that sightings of animals such as the golden jackal and spotted deer along the main trail has drastically reduced as a result.

“Even if an animal is spotted near this trail, visitors stop their cars and step out to click pictures. Seeing a large number of visitors invariably makes the animal flee,” Prakash said.

The zoologist also noted that the perfectly manicured lawns along the lake have led to a drastic reduction in the number of birds and butterflies in that area. “We used to see a lot of birds, such as the white-capped bunting, munias, rosefinches, and the blue rock thrush near Neeli Jheel, but the area has been landscaped completely. Similarly, butterflies are not being seen, because only ornamental flowers and plants are grown there now,” he said.

Experts believe that a “carrying capacity” — the maximum number of people allowed at any given time in an area — needs to be defined for Asola to restrict the number of visitors and vehicles entering the sanctuary to maintain ecological balance.

“In a sanctuary or an animal reserve, it is important to have a carrying capacity defined, which at present has not been done for Asola. This means there is no cap on the number of visitors at any given time and so, many vehicles are entering simultaneously, which can lead to disturbances in animals’ habitat,” said Sohail Madan.

According to Madan, there have been some attempts to define a carrying capacity for Asola, but the process is still in the works. “We see this already in place at locations like Jim Corbett or Sariska, where only a limited number of vehicles – with permits — are allowed. Similarly, there is a maximum cap on the number of visitors,” he said.

HT visited the sanctuary on Sunday afternoon, but managed to enter only after a long queue at the ticket counter. A register was maintained, with each visitor asked to share the registration number of the vehicle they were taking inside, along with the total number visitors in each vehicle. Thereafter, a handwritten slip was handed over to the visitors, “allowing” them to go on ahead in their vehicle.

Visitors to the sanctuary can also log on to the Delhi forest department website and buy tickets online, so the queue at the ticket counter is not a true reflection of the actual number of visitors on any given day.

“I came here after watching an Instagram reel, which described the sanctuary as a hidden gem of Delhi. I saw a video of the lake and how scenic it looked, so we thought of having a picnic here,” said Achal Gupta, 32, who came with his family from Noida.

Inside, despite signage asking visitors to not take their vehicles on certain trails, there is no monitoring, and there are no guards to ensure compliance.

Rhesus macaques were visible near the trail where the vehicles were plying, and a bevy of spotted deer saw at least five vehicles stopping to click pictures, with some visitors trying to enter the forested patch for a better view, causing the deer to flee.

Faiyaz Khudsar, scientist in-charge of DDA’s Biodiversity Parks programme, said that sometimes, just the sound of vehicles can be enough to make an animal flee. “This is why in protected areas, the number of vehicles allowed is defined and pre-registered by the forest department, and only a handful of these are allowed. No diesel vehicles are allowed either. It is important to have such restrictions in place,” he said.

HT reached out to the forest and wildlife department, which said it was planning to curtail the number of vehicles to 20 in the near future.

“We have observed that a lot of vehicles are entering inside. We plan to bring down the permitted number of vehicles in a day to 20, but this will be done once we have enough electric golf carts available,” said Suneesh Buxy, Delhi’s principal chief conservator of forest and chief wildlife warden.

The LG House, when contacted, said the sanctuary was being run and maintained by the Delhi forest department.

The Delhi government did not respond to HT’s queries for comment.

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