- Mumbai’s diverse bird habitats face threat from rapid urbanisation.
- Some lesser known habitats have already been swallowed up by urbanisation while the impact on more popular habitats like Sewri is visible but yet to be determined through sufficient studies.
- Activists suggest bird habitats be developed as tourist attractions and builders incentivised to protect avian biodiversity.
Many popular and lesser known bird habitats in Mumbai city are facing a threat from urban infrastucture work, while some have managed to survive despite the urban landscape closing in.
Naturalist and writer-photographer Sunjoy Monga estimates that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has lost about 75% of habitat landscapes in just over a quarter of a century, with the most shocking and large scale devastation witnessed in just the past 7-8 years in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). “Urbanisation, not just in Mumbai, but anywhere does constantly influence the ecological dimensions, including its effect on avifauna. The most threatened urban habitats include the wetlands (these come in various designs and dynamics, from coastal and brackish to inland freshwater) and the openland pockets of grass and scrub. Since habitats usually have many niche species of birds, its loss reflect prominently in their numbers, appearances and vanishings,” Monga said.
The citizen science website for birders, ebird.org, lists about 52 birding hotspots in Mumbai. Many of these are lesser-known and already being swallowed up by urbanisation.
A lake at Seven Bungalows, in the western suburbs of Andheri, which used to be a thriving bird habitat is now lost completely as a Metro Yard has come upon it. Another wetland nearby, the Lokhandwala lake, is now facing threat from dumping of concrete debris that’s part of construction waste.
The vast campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Powai, once a popular birding spot, has been curtailed due to many new buildings coming up and more restricted access owing to enhanced security, points out wildlife biologist Anand Pendharkar. “Similarly within the once-huge campus of Bhavan’s College (Andheri), the shrubs and marshlands have given way to new institutions and green lawns replacing the grasslands affecting the bird species there. Places like Malabar Hill too used to attract birds, but it isn’t the same now. The city used to have a wealth of all kinds of bird habitats be it the coastal birds, marshland birds, mangrove birds, wetland birds, etc. But now with open spaces within the city being considered as wastelands, they are being lapped up with urban projects, thus pushing the birds out of the city,” laments Pendharkar.
Tarzon Lake at Charkop that initiated many into the world of birding, has also been lost due to construction work, possibly for a private project. The place which has a landlocked hillock with a lake alongside, was popular as it attracted both the freshwater and the marshland birds. As Charkop expanded, the marsh kept getting reclaimed and shrunk and the newer construction has further depleted it. Tarzon is now closed for public access. “Encroachments and human settlements closing in have affected quality of birding at Charkop. We have similarly lost the birding along Dahisar river due to mushrooming of slums and encroachments,” observes birder Gopal Jhaveri.
A study by a team of BNHS experts in October 2020 has found that 85% of bird population had displayed negative effects of increasing anthropogenic habitat cover, like decreasing species occupancy, in the wider Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR).
Director of Vanashakti Stalin Dayanand feels that there seems to be a marked reluctance in protecting bird habitats especially the coastal wetlands that attract maximum avian diversity. “Why can’t the government incentivise builders to retain biodiversity of wetlands rather than allowing 100% development on it. Also, why can’t these habitats be developed as tourist hotspots to generate revenue and to protect its biodiversity? There can always be a balanced development.”
Under construction at Sewri Creek
The most recent and prominent example of adverse impact of urbanisation on bird habitat has been the construction of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) bridge that crosses over the Mahul-Sewri Creek, threatening the flamingo habitat there. The bridge, which is expected to traverse 9.6 km on the sea, 7.9 kms on shallows and mudflats and 4.5 kms of land could alter the birding habitat at the creek, for both resident and wintering birds in the mudflats, shallows and mangrove forests of the area.
According to a 2015 study by BNHS, 150 bird species were recorded in the Mahul-Sewri area.
A popular habitat for flamingos, the region had witnessed a decline in the number of flamingos in the winter months of January and February, 2020, according to a report by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which is studying mitigation measures of the Sewri habitat due to the impact of the upcoming Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) project. According to their status report submitted to the Mangrove Foundation, in January 2020, 4,395 flamingo numbers were found at Sewri mudflats as compared to 13,813 in January 2019. Similarly, 4,106 flamingos were found in March 2020 as compared to 60,733 in March 2019. The study also found that it was not just the flamingo but the number of other water birds spotted at Sewri had reduced from 8,305 in February 2020 as compared to 15,365 in February 2019. The BNHS survey report on monitoring and mitigating the impact of MTHL on flamingos and other Avifauna from October 2019 to March 2020 that was submitted to the Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra, also noted that the wader population at the construction site had declined.
“Though the birds are getting accustomed to the construction, the construction could still be impacting the overall population of waders. If this impact is temporary or permanent can be inferred only after five years of post-construction monitoring. The impact of disturbance on the population of birds also depends on the availability of an alternative habitat,” the report noted.
The BNHS regularly surveys the bird habitat at Sewri and hopes that the birds would return once the construction work is over, as it happened during the building of the Airoli bridge when the habitat was temporarily disturbed, points out Rahul Khot, assistant director with the BNHS.
Though the BNHS is non-committal about the impact of the infrastructure project on the birds flocking there, the birders are already feeling the impact. Visitors have been denied access to the Sewri jetty since 2018 due to the ongoing construction work.
“Apart from the construction work, Sewri had also become a hub for breaking huge ships thereby resulting in oil spills that harm the mangroves and subsequently the birds that frequent there,” said Sachin Rane, founder of NaturalisT Foundation, which conducts nature educational campaigns and trails.
“The BNHS has been roped in to do a decade-long (2017-2027) study to recommend conservation/mitigation plans for bird habitats along the proposed MTHL for the project, before, during and after the execution of the MTHL for which they are to receive Rs 32 crores and the Mangrove cell has already granted Rs 12 crores towards this,” informs Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forests of the Mangrove Cell, Mumbai. The MMRDA is building the MTHL, which has granted funds to Mangroves Cell, which has in turn roped in the BNHS to study mitigation measures for flamingos and other waterbird habitats along the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link.
Bhandup Pumping Station gains popularity for birding
Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS), another popular birding site in the Mumbai metropolitan area, recorded 128 bird species in 2020 till November 30 on ebird.org. The BPS, an amalgamation of both wetlands, marshlands, shrubs and even creek water birds is now being developed as a dedicated space for birding.
A ticketing scheme was introduced last November at the Bhandup Pumping Station site. The BPS is one of the entry points to the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary. In the month of November 2020, the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary’s main entry point at Airoli received 547 visitors and generated a revenue of Rs 1,01,416. While for the same period, the entry point at the BPS received almost double, with 1195 visitors and earned a revenue of Rs 1,05,650 even though the ticketing had started only on November 5, 2020.
Opinions are however mixed about the introduction of the ticketing scheme.
Zoology professor Clara Correia says that with guards posted at strategic places in BPS, it will now mean a safer experience for women visitors like her, who otherwise get warned against venturing there alone, and for others with their costly camera or binocular equipment.
Anand Pendharkar, who has been organising birding camps for marginalised school children through his SPROUTS Environment Trust, says that it’s unfair to cordon off nature and natural birding points. “This is just another way to cordon off yet another public space from the marginalised to make it a place for the elite privileged class. Such a ticketing system blocks out those who can’t afford to pay and thus denies them the opportunity to appreciate nature,” he said.
“The idea is not as much to generate revenue but to regulate entry between sunrise and sunset and develop the place primarily for birding. We plan to introduce basic facilities like toilets and drinking water, display signboards, to conduct nature trails along with guides and operate boats by the local community. There are also plans to extend the existing Airoli Jetty to facilitate more boat rides, funds for which have already been sanctioned. Guards from the Maharashtra State Security Corporation will be deployed for patrolling the open spaces,” explains Tiwari of Mangrove Cell.
Banner image: A black-winged stilt in a polluted creek next to Lokhandwala lake. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.