In Pune, the beautiful road leading to the historical Sinhagad Fort was once fully covered by huge Vad (Ficus benghalensis) trees. As the city began to expand, this peri-urban area became one of the first hotspots for developing cheap urban housing. The length and breadth of Sinhagad Road could hardly suffice for the influx of traffic and the old Vad trees became the easiest victims. Amateur wildlife observers in Pune noticed a seasonal migration of Hanuman langoors — from their preferred route of Vad trees towards the hustle and bustle of the city. They were searching for food. Along with the langoors, several species of birds and roosts of fruit bats were lost to the pressures of a rapidly urbanising Pune.
This is not an isolated story of Pune. A number of cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Jaipur, Gurgaon, etc have seen tremendous growth. Sprawling malls, sky rises and traffic jams are the main features of this urban face. This so-called growth has, however, come at a cost of serious damage to urban flora and fauna.
In an urban ecosystem, several species and types of birds co-exist. A mix of species signifies not just diversity, but also the ecological role played by them collectively in the web of life in any ecosystem. The flight of typical forest species such as a Tree Pie or a long Kutroooo call of a Green Barbet at the traffic signal on Lodhi Road of New Delhi might surprise an outsider who is unaware of the historically nurtured greenery in Lutyens’ Delhi.
But over a period of time the green spaces and the species that thrived around most cities have declined. The most common perception is about the reduction in the number of sparrows. Same is the case with hunter birds whose numbers are dwindling in city surroundings. There could be several reasons behind this. First, the modern forms of construction do not have any scope for sparrows to nest and second, the loss of thickets in the urban areas where bulbuls, robins, etc could flourish.
If so many ubiquitous species have declined in the urban niche, then which species have replaced them? They surround us in abundance — crows, the Common Pariah Kite and Blue Rock Pigeons. The crows and kites are known to be hardy species, which can adapt to a variety of climates and can feed by scavenging and opportunistic hunting. Blue Rock Pigeons have possibly succeeded due to their adaptability to a variety of climates, enormous fecundity and the ability to roost and breed in tall constructions.
There is a similar increase in the population of other animal species such as stray dogs and rats. Both the animals are associated with the generation and management of waste. There is also an addition of Macaque monkeys in many cities like Delhi, Ghaziabad, etc.
As far as flora goes, the greenery in many urban areas is dominated by non-palatable species like Saptaparni, Vilayati babul, etc. Such species are poor in providing any complementary support to the local flora and fauna and to people as well.
These current trends in urban flora and fauna are suggestive of two important attributes of survival — opportunism and scavenging. The city provides ample nurture to any species, which has these two attributes. These species are also detrimental to human well-being — pigeons are responsible for breathing disorders, rats are an age-old vermin, stray monkeys are not only a physical threat, but are also carriers of diseases.
Urbanisation itself demonstrates the utmost form of parasitism — it feeds hugely on rural resources. A growing city’s appetite is typically met by sacrificing peri-urban agricultural land and associated livelihoods. Its drinking water is drawn from hundreds of miles away from large dams that drown scores of villages under them. The cheap human resource that forms the backbone of the city too comes from the villages. Once migrants land in cities, they have little choice of survival except to develop traits of opportunism and scavenging. They resemble the opportunist and scavenging species around them.
Social scientists have long argued that societies do not consciously chart their path of development; they evolve with the prevailing circumstances. India’s story corroborates Jared Diamond’s theory that societies indeed determine their pathways, leading to either destruction or survival. Given the choices we make today, time will determine what will prevail: cities that give people healthy habitats, or merely ruins with no sign of life — human or otherwise.
Yogesh Gokhale is a Fellow with the Forestry and Biodiversity Area of TERI The views expressed by the author are personal