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02.02.2018

“Nature is silent,” says Dr M Shah Hussain, chief ecologist of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, “and needs an interpreter.”

We thought the hills were alive with the sound of music. But that is why this park, a smaller version of the biodiversity park of the same name in Gurgaon, is divided into a visitor’s zone, and a nature reserve zone which cannot be accessed without an escort. There is dedicated staff at the park who take visitors daily on tours around the protected section.

In 2005, Dr. Hussain and his team were transplanted by the DDA from the School of Environmental Studies in Delhi University to this large expanse of land nestled between Vasant Kunj, Vasant Vihar and Jawaharlal Nehru University. They cultivated these 692 acres, reclaimed from miners who had hollowed out the land for sandstone, quartz and mica. If you walk along the main trail today, you can still see silver and white specks in the soil, evidence of the mineral-rich rocks which drew the miners’ attention. Don’t touch, or not too much. “We can preserve this forest for a long time,” says Dr. Hussain, “if we limit human interference.”

This forest is different from others in the city with its desire to create a museum-like experience for visitors to the nature reserve. Visit while it’s still small, carefully run and focused on the science. See below a guide to treading lightly through this dream:

Trek Through the Forest: A three-kilometre walking trail runs between the two gates of the park. “If a person walks from end to end,” Dr. Hussain explains, “the path will take them through all the different landscapes of the forest.” From the quiet Poorvi Marg entrance, the land dips away into old mining pits on both sides of the path, fenced with barbed wire. Dry shrubland is occasionally interrupted with deciduous trees whose falling leaves, we’re told, provide “essential organic matter” for the forest, as does the organic waste, further down the path, of peacocks and nilgai. Mic drop(pings).

Keep your Shazam-for-plants handy: some of the forest’s rarest and most vulnerable plants have been planted along the path and covered with wire mesh “to protect them from porcupines.” The trail ends in a rose-garden filled with oriental magpie robins and bulbuls. In the absence of a Shazam-for-beasts, the good doctor advises us to carry a book on local fauna to identify species.

Visit A Conservatory Of Medicinal Plants: The gurd maar (loosely translated as killing sugar) plant fights diabetes; the green bark of arjun is “good for the heart,” (even broken ones); a close relative of the pepper vine called pipli is grown on a circular canopy for its fruit which is dried and used in various herbal remedies.

The long, dark leaves of wild garlic are made into chutneys with benefits for the heart. The pathar chat is a remedy for kidney stones. A host of cactii secrete a plethora of saps, each extracted to treat a different illness. The flame of the forest provides natural dye for herbal Holi colours. But the most precious blossom in this whole enclosure is the park officer who leads us through this maze of medicines, explaining each odd name and benefit as we go. You’ll be totally lost without her.

Flutter By The Butterfly Nursery: Past the bamboo gate at the end of the conservatory and down the amphitheatre steps is a house of wings. Three small water bodies, four hundred kinds of host plants, and a green house work hard to attract more than a hundred species of butterflies. Overcast January makes them shy, but come in season to meet the Grass Jewel, Striped Tiger, and Red Pierrot. Our park officer friend has many stories about their salt-licking, mud-puddling glory. “All four life stages of the butterfly – egg, caterpillar, pupa, adult – take place within the conservatory,” she says. Larv it.

Climb Into The Bat Cave: Further down into the mines is a pit that houses two small ponds, an orchidarium and a bat cave. Yes, Commissioner Gordon, it’s true.

The walls of the pit are covered with creepers, and it’s easy to feel like Alice as we creep lower into its cool, green belly. Seventy varieties of orchids are being tended by their gardener parents here; a few have even flowered successfully. To make their home, the bane of local forests, an invasive species called vilayati kikar, has been burnt till the wood is charcoal. Orchids are then grafted on to the deadwood protected against viruses by the charcoal.

Dr. Hussain explains that the reduced temperature of the pit offers the park’s managers a low-cost, low-effort opportunity to plant orchids which normally grow in the foot-hills of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. The depressions in the Orchidarium fill with rainwater for eight to nine months in a year which supports a wetland ecosystem of lichens, moss, algae and ferns, as well as frogs and dragonflies. “Dragonflies are a sign of a healthy ecosystem,” the park officer explains, “as they eat dengue-carrying mosquitoes.” (Has anyone told Arvind Kejriwal?!)

The Bat Cave, no surprises, is off-limits for everyone. “Even the slightest disturbance inside the cave could cause it to collapse,” the officer warns us. The bats live deep inside the mountain where it is cold even in the height of Delhi summer -- not a life lived in Wayne.

Traipse Into A Fernery: A side trail near the office leads to a mining pit with sharp slopes whose crevices provide an ideal growing place for ferns. The fernery is an important educational tool for Dr. Hussain who enjoys telling visiting students about a variety of plant life which has existed since the Jurassic age. A series of small mining pits have been converted into a conservatory and a showcase for ferns that perform the crucial function of weathering rocks by splintering them with their roots. The fernery and orchidarium in the park are the only ones in the city.

Watch More Birds: Dr. Hussain is proud to report that more than two hundred and ten bird species – almost half of the entire city’s bird diversity – is found at the park. Not Khan Market? “Unless one creates an environment that provides food and water for birds, they won’t come,” he says. Ah.

Migratory birds who breed in Siberia and winter in Northern India flock to the warmth of this park, as well as birds like the rare orange-headed thrush for whom this forms an ideal winter habitat. The secret to Dr. Hussain’s haven for birds is a forest floor ripe with insects. “Birds are god-made gardeners,” he believes, “who rid the ecosystem of harmful insects like termites and ants.” Come without binoculars and you’ll spot the Eurasian eagle-owl and the serpent eagle because of their large size. Bring the glasses, and discover flycatchers, warblers, cormorants, ducks and many more.

The park is also home to a small number of animals including palm civets, nilgais, jackals, Indian grey mongoose, porcupines, rufous-tailed hares, geckos, short-nosed fruit bats and “twenty-four species of reptiles.” If you’re extremely lucky, you might even catch a leopard-tailed gecko. Dr. Hussain says plans are underway to open more of the park’s trails to walkers. He’s also working on a house for rare cacti and an arboretum of rare trees.

Getting there: Enter from Poorvi Marg (Near Air India and RBI Officers Colony) on Vasant Vihar or near Madhya Pradesh Bhawan in Vasant Kunj. The main walking trail runs from one gate to the other. Entry is free. The gates are open from 9:30 AM to 5 PM. Closed on Sunday. The closest metro stations are Chhatarpur and Haus Khas on the Yellow Line. For educational visits, email: mshahhussain@rediffmail.com

Photo Credit: ms.barua

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