Thursday, March 05, 2009
Some thoughts on an urban forest: Kasu Brahmanand Reddy National Park, Hyderabad
One winter day, two years ago, two friends and I visited the Kasu Brahmanand Reddy National Park (KBR Park). It was early morning and bright sunshine was trying hard to dissipate the night’s chill. Oblique rays of sunlight sculpted the landscape into crisp textures, surrounding us with clarity rarely found in a large urban agglomeration, like Hyderabad. The park was alive with birds and one of my friends, an Englishman, could not restrain his amazement when he blurted, “they are popping from every bush, aren’t they!” Birds love such days. So do bird watchers! There were at least half a dozen types of warblers scrambling in the undergrowth or falling off the tips of leaves from the outer periphery of tree crowns. A pair of rufousbacked shrikes spoke in a muted sub-song. The ruby-eyed, silver feathered, blackwinged kite—master predator of open scrub and grassland habitats—swung up over the tree line, in one smooth arc, displaying grace and power and joy. Purple sunbirds fussed from branch to branch, one male, resplendent in iridescent purple, flashed red epaulets on quivering wings, as he displayed to a drab olive colored female. Avian music rose from the plants all around us, and filled the air with sounds of sweet exuberance. Such moments are generally experienced in wilderness areas. To be able to experience them within a large city is truly fantastic. Such is the charm of an urban forest!
Detailed and organized taxonomic surveys have not been conducted inside KBR Park. But ad hoc amateur listings of the flora and fauna provide ample evidence that it is a veritable storehouse of local Natural History. Frankly, these creatures have as much right to exist in their habitat, undisturbed, as we have to do so in ours. Their proximity and their presence enrich us. But it is the fashion of the day to evaluate the economic value of everything and not be satisfied by the mere existence of something. So I give some examples of how KBR Park, by its very existence, contributes considerably to our well being. It is a major green lung in our city, and it is free. The government need not spend a single Rupee in its upkeep, as it is natural, unlike parks like Sanjivayya Park, Indira Park and Public Gardens. The vegetation of this Park requires neither water nor fertilizer. It is self-sufficient, as indeed Nature herself is! It cleans the air and absorbs atmospheric, vehicular and sound pollution. It is a natural sponge during rains, preventing runoff, thus allowing water to seep into the soil and recharge subterranean rills. It is the catchment area for water bodies within the city, like Hussain Sagar and Durgam Cheruvu, which the government is promoting as major tourist sites. More ‘benefits’ of the Park can be listed, but these should suffice. How much, pray, is clean air and drinking water worth, to us, beleaguered and gasping that we are, for these basic elements of survival? The answer is obvious and it does not require wisdom to realize the worth of the Park. Just, common sense!
To preserve the nature of this unique Park, its atmosphere of an urban wilderness, there are certain dos and don’ts, which would normally form a management plan for the Park. Indeed, the drawing-up of such a plan should be the first action of the managers of the Park, the A.P. Forest Department. Surprisingly, a plan does not exist! I have been a regular, wide-eyed visitor of this verdant oasis and give below some observations and suggestions on the current management practices in the Park, with reference to the habitat and the public.
The most important physical feature of the Park is the wall that encloses it. But for this wall, the Park may not have been what it is today! Therefore it follows that the maintenance of this wall be a primary objective of the management. Any broken portion should be repaired immediately so infiltration, human as well as animal, is curtailed. Woodcutters and poachers wait for such opportunities and may actually cause damage to portions of the wall to ply their trade. A break in the wall opens the habitat for our mammalian commensals—pariah dogs and feral cats. Their accidental introduction into the Park will cause havoc with a fauna that has got used to the absence of such ferocious predators. Ground nesting birds will suffer drastically. The other points of entry for these creatures are the two gates to the Park. These are kept open at different times of the day and are so wide that a persistent dog can slip through easily. A simple “cattle baffler” of spaced out pipes laid over a pit in front of the gates, will prevent unwanted animals from getting into the Park. I have seen dogs sporting red collars, within the Park. These poor creatures have reportedly been collected from various parts of the city, castrated or spayed and released at random, by animal welfare organizations. Many are seen loitering on the roads, petrified and lost. Some fatally ill, since the operation demands rest, which they do not get.
Deadwood is an essential ingredient in the organic cycle of the Park. In it reside insects savored by woodpeckers. When it falls, insects and arthropods break it down so that it is absorbed gradually into the soil, replenishing nutrients constantly, in a classic cycle of self-sufficiency. This deadwood should not be removed from the Park.
As a policy, exotic flora and fauna should not be introduced into the Park. Every action should be scrutinized so that exotics do not inadvertently slip in. Lantana is rampant today and Parthenium gaining ground fast. Thoughtless acts like importing red laterite soil for repairing paths has resulted in the import of seeds of these exotics! The forest department should also stop planting trees within the Park. They should realize that it is a dynamic ecosystem where the results of such acts cannot be fathomed and generally result in the degeneration of the habitat. It should also desist from releasing animals like blackbuck, cheetal, etc., for the area is too small and will be over-grazed by these ungulates in no time. The unwitting transformation of a habitat cannot be part of any management policy. Safeguarding the uniqueness of a habitat, should.
Trails will deteriorate drastically due to the action of water. Sound engineering of paths through low-lying areas will solve the problem. Water will not be constrained to flow through narrow pipes below trails, and invariably washes away the soil around the pipes. In such places, small arch bridges would serve the purpose better. The number of trails should not be increased. Neither should their total length nor width. Of primary concern is the environment through which the trail passes. Minimum interference is the best management policy for any wilderness area
Management of visitors
Education is the best ‘use’ the Park can be put to. As an open-air laboratory of Natural History it provides ample opportunities for schools and other educational institutions for nature education. Concepts of nature study like water regime, soil regime, ecology, etc. can be taught with live specimens and in a dynamic habitat! The department should design and provide necessary educational material in the form of information boards, checklists of fauna and flora, life-histories of prominent species and/or Families, etc.
If the department decides to maintain a portion of the Park as a core area, open only for internal maintenance and special faunal and floral studies, this area should be strictly out of bounds for the public and should be ‘policed’ by the department. A wilderness area cannot be allowed to degenerate into a sports complex even in its buffer zone. Recreation within the Park should be restricted to pursuits related to Natural History only. But KBR Park has a unique problem. It is used by people for walking, in the morning and evening, for physical exercise. Under the law, this is an illegal act within a national park.
When a residential area was planned in Jubilee Hills, the government would have set aside enough land for parks and other recreational activities. If such areas exist, they should be developed and ‘walkers’ redirected to them for their perambulations. If they do not exist, where have they gone?
We cannot create wilderness areas like the KBR Park. It is an enlightened society that recognizes this fact and uses it to advantage, even if it means to let something merely exist!