Mumbai has already been setting records for urban wildlife preservation for decades, since the 104-square-kilometer Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), located within the city borders, was established in 1974. But the city surpassed expectations yet again on August 6th, 2015 with the creation of the Thane Creek Sanctuary. Thane Creek is located just east of SGNP, and includes 896 hectares of mangroves and a 794-hectare body of water. This area is home to over 200 species of native birds, including flamingos and threatened species such as the Greater Spotted Eagle. The flamingos have been coming to the creek since 1994, and every November, over 30,000 of these birds arrive to take care of their chicks until the adults leave the following May.
This sanctuary is a great step for Mumbai, the state of Maharashtra, and India as a whole, and it is also a perfect example of the decision-making process behind land preservation. Setting aside land for wildlife is always complex, and involves a variety of different stakeholders with different priorities and perspectives. Especially in a city as densely packed as Mumbai, where open space is very rare, there is always more than one entity vying for a specific use of a given parcel of land.
Environmentalists have been pushing for this sanctuary for five years, since the important bird refuge has faced human disturbances like fishing, development, and illegal dumping. However, the government only recently agreed to the proposal when it realized it could use the sanctuary as compensation for the nearby planned highway bridge between Mumbai and New Mumbai. This bridge, which will be called the Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL), will span 22km and will be the longest sea bridge in India. While the MTHL will cause significant habitat degradation to a place visited often by the flamingos, the birds only visit during low tide, whereas they come to Thane Creek all of the time.
The Bombay Natural History Society proposed moving the MTHL about 500-700 meters from its current planned location, but this motion was rejected. For now, the sanctuary has been established, and the planned bridge, when built, will damage some habitat downstream from the sanctuary. However, there is still a possibility that the Forest Clearance Authority may not approve the MTHL project.
Another group of people have been pushing back on the sanctuary proposal: traditional fishermen. Thane Creek is a popular fishing and crabbing site, and their activities have disturbed birds in the past. There will be no fishing allowed in the sanctuary area, but the Forest Department ensures that the sanctuary doesn’t include the area of the creek where the most fishing happens.
Despite the complex negotiations that went into the establishment of the flamingo sanctuary, this collection of crucial mangrove, mudflat, and water habitats will now be protected. The Forest Department has already conducted baseline studies and ecosystem assessments of the area, which will inform a Scientific Management Plan for the new sanctuary. The sanctuary will also be continually monitored and protected from serious threats like effluent discharge and sewage dumping.
Behind every new wildlife sanctuary, parcel of open space, or land preservation agreement, there are years of negotiations, decisions, and compromises. Some areas of Thane Creek will continue to be impacted by human activities like fishing, dumping, and development, and some areas will be protected and cherished through the new sanctuary. Here at WILD Cities, we know that every parcel of land set aside comes after a long decision-making process, and every square foot of wild space is a victory for wildlife, people, and the planet. Mumbai is setting a wonderful example for large-scale preservation of important wildlife habitats, right in the middle of a bustling city.
Writer: Emma Hutchinson is a communications specialist for the WILD Cities Project and a Stanford University student.