Tags: india | park | leopard | conervsation

India Debates Conservation Of 'Leopard' Park

Wednesday, 11 Nov 2009 10:33 AM


MUMBAI, India — For a long time, the leopards of Mumbai's Sanjay Gandhi National Park faced not only poachers, but also encroachment by some 165,000 slum-dwellers as India's bustling financial capital spilled over into the endangered forest's borders.

The battle to conserve the park, which is one of the only national parks in the world located inside a city’s borders, has raged for years. It has landed several times before the Mumbai High Court, but court orders have brought few effective responses.

Taking a new approach, a local non-profit is appealing directly to the city’s residents, in the hopes that they will apply the pressure necessary to yield changes from the government. By inviting people to help plant 50,000 new trees and shrubs on a degraded piece of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Gaia Conservation Foundation, a group started by three 20-something Mumbaikars, hopes that more city dwellers will be inspired to enjoy, and, more importantly, fight for their green space.

“The cumulative benefit of the park is huge, but people just don’t know about it,” said Agastya Chopra, a Gaia co-founder.

Tree planting schemes are neither high-tech nor innovative, but may receive renewed attention when December's Copenhagen Climate Change Conference discusses schemes to pay developing countries to restore their forests and reduce emissions from deforestation.

In a sign that it is boosting efforts to slow deforestation, India announced in September that it had more than doubled the forestry budget to $1.79 billion to promote tree-planting and strengthen its forestry departments. A fifth of the subcontinent is covered in woodlands, and city parks are deemed crucial to air quality.

In Mumbai, a city of almost 20 million hemmed in by water on three sides, the protection of Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a forest often nicknamed “The Lungs of Bombay,” has historically butted up against the need for space.

The 104-square-kilometer park, which takes up nearly a fourth of the city, houses two lakes that provide a bulk of Mumbai’s water supply, as well as a population of leopards that has dwindled to between 10 and 20, and hundreds of different birds and plants.

“The park is like an oxygen factory for Bombay,” said Debi Goenka, leader of the non-profit Conservation Action Trust (CAT), which sued the state government in 1995 for failing to protect the park.

At the time, slumlords typically leased government-protected parkland to slum-dwellers and paid police to look the other way, CAT claimed. When the group sued, it found some 33,000 slum structures, each housing about five people, behind forest boundaries.

The group won two court orders directing the state to clear the park of squatters and businesses, which included a pig slaughterhouse. Since then, the forest department says, the park has largely rehabilitated itself.

“The reforestation happened automatically when it was left alone,” said P. N. Munde, the park director, noting that nowadays encroachers only trespass on 1 percent of the parkland.

Conservationists, however, remain skeptical about the extent of improvements and point out that the park is still tightly surrounded by urban life, including slums and a Bollywood film studio.

“The forest department is caught in the middle of implementing court rules and political pressure,” Goenka said.

By publicizing the park’s plight, Gaia now hopes to subject the government to a new type of pressure.

“You have to get the people of Bombay out there, make Sanjay Gandhi National Park so big that the government can’t ignore it,” Chopra said.

While she hadn’t heard of Gaia, Priya Choudhury, 35, said she would be entirely supportive of any effort to conserve and enhance the park she visits weekly with her two children.

“I bring my boys here all the time, there’s no noise and traffic,” Choudhury said. “It’s so nice to walk 15 minutes from home and you don’t feel like you’re in the city anymore. They love to play in the forest.”

Ultimately, however, tangible changes can’t come without government participation, added Gaia co-founder Vikram Gupta.

The state could, for instance, advertise the park as a tourism destination for treks and safaris. A program that rewards India to plant more trees, known as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), could also encourage the government to begin its own tree-planting project, he said.

“You don’t see any kind of conservation initiative in the park, while in Brazil they’ve really promoted the Amazon,” Gupta said. “I’m quite hopeful that REDD will come into play, maybe the government could get paid to protect Sanjay Gandhi National Park.”

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