Sanjay Gandhi National Park is among the rarest of national parks, surrounded on three sides by one of the densest cities on the planet – Mumbai, India. An amazing array of flora and fauna exist within the park’s boundaries, providing aesthetic and cultural value as well as ecological benefits to the populous city. There may be no other place like it on Earth. Protecting this unique treasure has required local residents, grassroots organizations, and the park itself to strive for a balanced relationship between people and the rest of nature.

The population of metropolitan Mumbai is well over 12.5 million people. Sanjay Gandhi National Park is approximately 104 sq. km of unique wild lands located within the city of Mumbai and very near to a global biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats mountainous region. The national park covers nearly ¼ of Mumbai’s land area. It is a hilly area, ranging from 30 m – 480 m in elevation.

Many have suggested that the forested park acts as the lungs of the great city, reducing air pollution as it also supplies water and regulates local temperatures. The park is also historically and culturally important, with archaeological sites that trace back more than 2,000 years and more than 100 caves, many of religious importance. Efforts to protect the area began near the turn of the 20th century and continued into the 1970’s when the park assumed roughly the size it now maintains. In 1981, it was dedicated as Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

The park is perhaps best known for its leopards, and for the Bengal tiger that entered the northern reaches of the park in 2003. The wandering tiger was of great interest since a tiger had not been seen in the area for 75 years. Conservationists pointed to an enhanced natural corridor to the north as an explanation for the migration of the tiger, and “connectivity” began to enter local conservation discussions more frequently. Partly as a result of the tiger’s appearance, support for the protection and restoration of Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary to the north has since grown in importance as a critical migratory corridor to ensure long-term viability for Sanjay Gandhi National Park’s diverse wildlife.

The park supports amazingly diverse vegetation growth and varied habitat. Many endangered species of flora and fauna live here. There are as many as 1,300 species of plants, more than 150 species of butterflies, 40+ reptile species and nearly 40 varieties of snakes. Perhaps most impressive is the array of mammals – 40 species – and more than 250 species of birds that live within this urban protected area. Within SGNP, one can spot macaque monkeys, barking deer, spotted deer, mouse deer, four-horned antelope, striped hyenas, porcupines, flying-foxes, crocodiles, pythons, cobras and vipers. A recent camera trap survey identified 35 individual leopards within the park’s boundaries – in one of the largest cities on Earth.

While this abundance of wild nature exists today, the threats to this heavily visited urban park are many. Within the park, about 10 sq. km is easily accessible to visitors, and with nearly 2 million visitors annually, the ecological integrity of land adjacent to these public areas has degraded. The lakes and water sources in the park, while not a large percentage of Mumbai’s total needs, are as vulnerable and coveted as they are critical. The city-park interface requires considerable attention to ensure that the park is adequately protected. Today, many thousands of families and dwellings encroach upon and sometimes spill into the protected area as housing needs expand in the growing city. Human-wildlife conflict is also high near the boundaries and occasionally outside of them. Leopard encounters are particularly challenging and have resulted in several human fatalities over the past decade. Some leopards are randomly trapped and others are destined for captivity if their presence conflicts with humans.

Since SGNP typically has to defend and protect the park vigorously, it hasn’t been able to focus as intently on proactive conservation strategies. Land lost to development is almost irreversible, so the defensive strategy has been a necessity given the extreme pressures presented. Unfortunately, the array of entities operating within and managing the park and adjacent areas have not always been aligned and partnerships among agencies and NGOs have often been difficult to maintain, though they have improved in recent years.

The Bengal tiger’s appearance in SGNP in 2003 was important because it heightened interest in migratory tracking. Radio collars, camera traps and GPS tracking now capture the movements of some of the area’s leopards and contribute toward population estimates. In 2009, a leopard collared more than 100 km away was tracked as it wandered all the way down into the park. The appearance of the tiger and the journey of this radio-collared leopard have provided valuable support to those who have favored larger landscape corridor protections.

As we look to the future for SGNP, the two million annual visitors also mean two million opportunities to inspire and connect people to the land that supports and uplifts them – providing life to one of the great cities of the world. Leaders such as Shardul Bajikar – a project catalyst for WILD Cities – are sharing their passion for conservation with students, researchers, policymakers and visitors on nature walks into the park. What we know of nature is that it will thrive if given the chance. What we know of ourselves is that we are most alive when we feel the connection to the wildness of the world, and the wildness within.

Photo © Sanjay Gandhi National Park

Jon Mobeck is Director of WILD Cities and a fan of langurs.

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