Researchers discover a treasure trove of biodiversity in the foothills of Rajgad Fort
These new findings are a result of a 14-month-long faunal survey, in which for the first time, researchers have been able to identify baseline biodiversity across 2,100 hectares of Velhe’s forested slopes. A region despite immense cultural significance has been ecologically understudied
Mumbai: Just two hours away from Pune city, Velhe Forest, located in the foothills of the Rajgad Fort is home to 496-odd unique species, including 172 birds (representing 18 orders and 59 families), 105 butterflies and moths, 39 kinds of terrestrial bugs and beetles etc.
These new findings are a result of a 14-month-long faunal survey, in which for the first time, researchers have been able to identify baseline biodiversity across 2,100 hectares of Velhe’s forested slopes. A region despite immense cultural significance has been ecologically understudied.
Interspersed with agricultural fields and cut through by the Gunjwani River and several smaller streams and waterfalls, the region is also populated by nine villages, home to about 654 families, and had the lowest rank on several human development indicators out of Pune’s 14 talukas, per the Census 2001.
Besides several species of birds, butterflies, moths, terrestrial bugs and beetles, researchers also discovered 34 aquatic bugs, 30 aquatic beetles, 33 odonates, 19 mammals, 16 reptiles, 14 molluscs, 14 amphibians, 11 types of freshwater fish and 9 different spiders.
“We recorded 11 birds that are endemic to India and four that are part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species globally. The idea was to create a foundational document to guide sustainable management in the area, which has a growing tourism footprint,” said Leena Dandekar, co-founder, Raintree Foundation, which carried out the survey in partnership with Ahmednagar-based Biologia Life Sciences, which deputed a 14-member research team that used gridded surveys and camera traps for the exercise.
This was done between March 2021 and June 2022, covering all seasons in a year; in partnership with the Pune-based Raintree Foundation, as part of its Sustainable Landscape Management (SLM) programme. “It is a nine-year effort in which philanthropic funds are used to establish a model of economic and environmental well-being for locals, focusing on community-led conservation, gender, mental health, water security and other thematic areas,” said Dandekar.
Notably, the threatened bird species include the Critically Endangered Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus). A pair of this species was observed only once on the hill behind Merawne village. The Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga), listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, was spotted multiple times during the winter months around Sakhar and Ghawar villages, while the Near Threatened Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus) was seen on the grassy hills behind Sakhar village. In the open agricultural patches around Sakhar, the near-threatened Alexandrine Parakeet (Psittacula eupatria) made multiple appearances.
“The affinity of a particular species for certain micro-environments is something we encounter regularly. Many species were not only endemic to the Western Ghats, but also had limited geographic range within the study area. A much more detailed assessment is required to classify and understand the relationship between these ecological niches, and the baseline survey makes a strong case for it,” said Chitra Panikar-Vanjare, director, Biologia Life Sciences.
For example, researchers came upon a Humayun’s Night frog (Nyctibatrachus humayuni) in the study area, a species of anuran amphibian which is “extremely endemic” to the northern part of the Western Ghats, which was seen with egg clutches.
“So we know that it breeds in the area, but the next thing is to figure out which parts of the landscape it is using, why, and how to manage the area in a way that doesn’t endanger such endemic specimens. In the longer term, this could mean establishing green corridors in certain places, for instance, or preserving existing corridors.”
“Given that agriculture is also quite prevalent, is there any impact of pesticides on these ecological niches? How does the ecology in the upstream areas of the Gunjavne River differ from those in the downstream? How can the landscape be protected from anticipated development pressures? Those are the kinds of questions we hope to answer over time,” said Panikar-Vanjare.
Other notable findings of the survey include 104 butterflies and moths, including Maharashtra’s state butterfly, the Blue Mormon. Eight of these 104 species also happen to be protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). Among odonates – which includes dragonflies and damselflies – researchers noted the presence of the Indian-endemic Black winged bamboo tail, while certain species like the Southern Heliodor, Clear-winged Forest Glory and Black-tipped Forest Glory (which are found in clean streams) indicated favourable water quality in the study area. The Gunjwani River, meanwhile, also hosts a population of the Pethia sanjaymoluri, a ray-finned fish that is highly endemic to parts of Maharashtra.
Researchers also emphasised that out of 19 mammals identified, four are featured in the IUCN’s Red List, including the near-threatened rusty-spotted cat. The others include the bonnet macaques, leopards, and four-horned antelopes, which are classified as vulnerable.
Asha Bhong, assistant conservator for forest of the Bhor subdivision, said, “This survey underlines just how important the region is, and will be used to conduct awareness programmes and workshops among locals. Conservation and community go hand in hand. We are discovering things about the area which we had not known before.”