The seasonal wetland has shrunk by over 37 per cent, from 67.59 hectares to 42.57 hectares, over the past two decades, says a study

Rapid urbanisation, impetuous management and extensive land-use changes in its catchment area over the past two decades seem to have taken a serious toll on the Sultanpur National Park.

The seasonal wetland attracts around 200 species of migratory birds from as far as Europe, Siberia and Central Asia besides being an important refuge for several insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammal species.

Satellite images of the park from 1989, 2001 and 2010 show that the lake area has shrunk by over 37 per cent, from 67.59 hectares to 42.57 hectares, over the past two decades. A joint study by the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University, and World Wildlife Fund-India, found that the lake shrunk mainly in the south direction. Other water bodies outside the park boundary have also shown a sharp decline of 78.31 per cent during 1989-2010.

“It was such a pleasure going to Sultanpur in the early 1990s and watching the huge number of birds, both migratory and resident, in the park. But things have changed drastically . The water level and the water spread have gone down visibly. It could be attributed to both natural and man-made reasons. A wetland is affected most by the activities happening in its catchment area. The land use has changed rapidly in the 5-km radius around the park boundary with 35.62 per cent increase in the road transport network thus reducing the area available for groundwater recharge and hindering the water flow to the lake. Though the built-up area has increased only marginally, more than 70 per cent of the fallow area outside the park has either been converted into farmland or put to other use,” said Ghazala Shahabuddin, one of the authors of the study.

Besides, the park seems to be a victim of reckless management by the Forest Department. Dr. Shahabuddin, along with author Ranjit Lal and bird-watcher Pratibha Pande, has penned a book about the park, Small and Beautiful: Sultanpur National Park. Dr. Shahabuddin argued that a walkway constructed around the lake for visitors and the brick wall around the park significantly obstructed the flow of natural surface water from surrounding agricultural areas.

The department replenished it with tube-wells for the first few years and then linked a canal to it. The canal water created other problems such as invasion of the lake by water hyacinth and African Catfish, which prey on the native fish. The trees planted to increase the green cover and nesting sites for birds also did more harm than good. A keen naturalist and butterfly-watcher, Dr. Shahabuddin lamented how the Forest Department in its bid to create a protected system played around with the lake bed and its surroundings, damaging all its elements of natural hydrology and water cycle.

“What was a natural wetland earlier, now seems more like a reservoir dug up to increase its water-holding capacity,” said Dr. Shahabuddin, adding that the steep incline created on the natural, gentle slopes had damaged the diversity of microhabitats as well as the seasonal diversity and made it more homogenous, both spatially and temporally.

“Surrounded by a brick wall, it now seems more like a zoo. Earlier grazing by livestock and fodder harvesting by the locals would keep a check on proliferation of grasses,” said Dr. Shahabuddin.

But all is not lost and the damage can still be reversed. If the original water flow is restored, like it has been done in the United States, which has some excellent wetlands inside urban areas, the original glory of the park can be restored. “There is a well-established field of Restoration Ecology, which involves recreating the natural hydrology, plant and animal diversity. The surrounding five to six villages should be involved in the restoration process by enhancing their emotional attachment to the park. There should be a system of grass collection at low cost or for free for the villagers. The farmers can be compensated for allowing free water flow to the park. Definitely no more civil works, such as construction of bunds and walls, should be allowed,” said Dr. Shahabuddin.

When contacted, the Haryana Forest Department maintained that all was well and the number of migratory birds and species visiting the park has actually gone up over the years. “Though no formal study has ever been done on the spread of the lake, it does not seem to have shrunk visibly. The number and species of birds coming to the park has also increased as per our estimates,” said District Forest Officer (Wildlife) K.S. Khatkar.

(The study referred to in the article was carried out by Kaushani Mondal, M.A. Environment & Development at the School of Human Ecology of Ambedkar University, under the supervision of Dr. Shahabuddin and Dr. G. Areendran)