Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

February 27, 2014

Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1986 with the notification of 4707 acres of community lands of the villages of Asola, Shapur and Maidangiri as the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary. To this were added the 2167 acres of Bhatti that were notified in 1991. The sanctuary comprises the semi-arid forest area of the northern-most extension of the Aravalli Hills that form the ‘ridge’ area on the southern boundary of Delhi.

The decades of unregulated mining:

The first challenge to the  scub-forests of the Aravali ridges that once extended all the way to Alwar in Rajasthan, came with the building of Delhi as the new Imperial Capital of British India. Open-pit mines were set-up to provide sand and rubble for building the sprawling new city and the material was transported by the Imperial Delhi Railway.

The pace of growth of the new Capital picked up in the 60s and the quarry area now encompassed the entire Aravali hill region in the Bhatti revenue area in Delhi as well as the Surajkund-Faridabad area of neighbouring Haryana. The mining was controlled by a mafia of unlicensed contractors who exploited the area by unscientific and unregulated mining for mineralized quartzite (Badarpur bajree) and stone. In the hey-days of the 70s and 80s the Bhatti Bajree Mines employed at least 4000 labourers who toiled under inhuman and unsafe conditions. The bajree was excavated manually and transported from the dangerously deep pits in sacks on the backs of mules and donkeys.  Deaths due to mining accidents were common. The Bhatti Bajree Mines were taken over by the Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation in 1975 that, however, left the actual mining operations in the hands of the very same contractors and merely collected octroi by establishing checkposts. The foundation stone for a 145 acre housing project for the mine labourers was  laid by Sanjay Gandhi in December,1976. Most of the labourers came from the nomadic Od Tribe,that originally migrated from Sindh and West Punjab. The Ods are traditionally engaged in earth-digging and masonry work and have dug ponds and canals for centuries. The Kumhars formed the other large community amongst the labourers. The Od ‘village’ comprising the tenements built for the workers along with schools, a veterinary centre and a police post was originally named ‘Bhagirath Nagar’ after the mythical ancestor of the Odhs. As per the folklore, Bhagirath had vowed not to drink water twice from the same well. He accordingly dug a new well each day and continued to do so until he failed to emerge from a well being dug by him. The Bhagirath Nagar was later renamed ‘Sanjay Colony’ after the death of the late benefactor of the Odhs. Indira Nagar and Balbir Nagar were two other colonies set up for the quarry workers over an area of 22 and 65 acres respectively. The mines were mostly owned by the Gujjar landlords.

After decades of rapacious exploitation of the area and neglect, a sad incident on May 31st, 1990  involving the death of seven quarry workers in a pit-side collapse, made the Government sit up and address the problem of unregulated mining. The Bhatti Bajree Mines were finally closed by the Delhi Government in April, 1991 with the notification of the area as a Wildlife Sanctuary. It, however, took ten long years to bring the mining it to a ‘complete’ halt. Well, almost complete!!

Degraded land at Bhatti

The History:

It is difficult today to visualize that the dry, despoiled area of Badarpur, Mehrauli, Asola, Anangpur, Surajkund and Bhatti was not always so. That these ancient ridges of the sloping Aravalis, this rugged undulating land and the dried-up nallahs that once drained the area into the mighty Yamuna actually bore a shroud of forest that was rich in wildlife. That this area was home to the earliest settlements of hunter-gatherers. But this is what the archaeologists tell us from the discovery of pre-historic sites in the hilly area on Delhi-Haryana border at Surajkund, Anangpur, Badkhal, Chhatarpur etc. Excavations in the Qutub area have revealed that a temple complex existed in this area during the post-Gupta and Pratihara period. The area then came under the reign of the Tomar Kings. The mighty Tomar fortress, Lal Kot, was built near Mehrauli in the reign of the Anang Pal II, in the middle of the 11th century. A tank, Anang tal, has also been excavated near the fortress. This area was the original Delhi, Dhillika, if the historians are to be believed!! This was before the rule of the Chauhan Rajpoots who expanded Lal Kot to create a still more formidable fort, Qila Rai Pithora. And then came the rule of the Slave Dynasty.

The ‘Gazetteer of the Delhi District’ published by the Punjab Government in 1883-84 offers a glimpse of the general topography, the flora and fauna and state of ecology in the region towards the end of the 19th century. Some sections that pertain to the thinly forested hills that today comprise the Ridge and the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary are reproduced for the readers:

” The Delhi district, is the central of the three districts of the Delhi division, and … consists of a long narrow strip of country running along the right bank of the Jamna. Its greatest length north and south is 76 miles; its average breadth is 18 miles…The tract thus limited, though exhibiting none of the beauties of mountainous districts, possesses a considerable diversity of physical feature, and in parts is not wanting in picturesqueness. This it owes to the hills and to the river. The former, which at the southern end join on to the hills of Mewat and so meet with the Aravalis, at the other start from the river at Wazirabad, four miles north of Delhi, and skirting the present city on the north-west and west, stretch away nearly due south to Mahrauli. Before reaching this place, however, they branch out into two halves, one going full south, the other sweeping round in a curve to the south-east to Arangpur, whence again it turns south-west, and uniting with the other branch below Bhati, holds on southward to Kot, and so out of the district into Gurgaon. But though the main direction may thus be described, there are here and there irregularly shaped spurs which break the continuity of the range, and at the same time greatly extend its area.

The irregular oval enclosed by the branching halves above spoken of is really a plateau of a light, sandy soil, lying high and dry, but with a very useful general slope to the south-east. Here in different places are earth work dams aggregating several miles in length, made to catch the drainage …The hills of Delhi, though not attractive in themselves, give a pleasant view across the Jamna, and in clear weather allow, it is said, even a glimpse of the Himalayas. Their surface is generally bare, supporting little or no vegetation save a stunted kikar (Acacia Arabica), or karil (Capparis aphylla), or the small bush of the beri (Zizyphus nummularia) which, with its prickly thorn, is so inhospitable to the foot traveller. The surface of the ground is sprinkled with thin laminae of mica, which shine in the sunlight like gold. The stone, which juts up from the ground here and there, is hard and often sharp-edged. Water of course lies very deep, and irrigation by well almost everywhere impracticable. A moderate pasture is obtained by flocks of sheep and goats herded by Gujar boys. This tribe has appropriated almost entirely the hill villages, as they suit their pastoral traditions, and pastoral traditions are less repugnant than a settled husbandry to thieving, a habit universally attributed to the Gujar. The highest point of the range probably is near Bhati – 1,045 feet above the sea and 360 above the Jamna railway bridge at Delhi. The breadth varies greatly. At Arangpur it is not less than ten miles, while towards the northern end the hills dwindle into a mere rocky ridge, only a few yards broad…”

The geological structure of the hills of Delhi is described in the Gazetteer as follows, “A core of quartzite with more or less vertical bedding, and the associated rocks as far as they are exposed on the flanks of the ridges, indicate advanced metamorphism.”

The Gazetteer also gives a brief account of the mining in the hills – “The noticeable minerals … of the district (Delhi) so far as known are stone, crystal, kankar and chalk; though it is said the quartz-like formation of the hills renders the existence of gold not impossible and the known presence of crystal at Arangpur has been recently alluded to as favouring the probability.  The quartz-like kind of stone is hard, and not easily worked, except for uses not requiring delicate shape. It is seen at its best in any of the old buildings round Delhi, where it fitly harmonises with the sombre dignity of the Pathan style. For the Agra Canal a considerable quantity was used, but for the new Delhi Branch the softer and more malleable Agra stone has been preferred… The only place where crystal has been brought to the surface is in the limits of Arangpur, a hill village about two miles south of Delhi. A mine here was first started, it is said, a hundred years ago by the Raja of Ballabgarh, who spent a good deal of money in getting out and sending for sale a supply of the mineral. Most of the pieces, however, were small octagonal blocks of no great commercial value, and after this one attempt the Raja gave up the enterprise and closed the mine. After the Mutiny a Khatri of Delhi took a contract for working it; but after spending some Rs. 1,500 in trying to find the crystal, gave up the attempt and his contract also. The locality of the mine is rather inaccessible; it lies to the south-west of the village, which itself is a collection of huts, at a considerable distance from the main road. Dr. Thompson, in his report on rock crystal mines says that “the crystal does not occur in its primitive position, but in a secondary deposit of silicious breccia, very highly impregnated with iron; each crystal is cased in a sheath of haematite. As we go downwards the rock becomes less ferruginous, and lower still is met with in pieces of pure quartz, embedded in a matrix of almost pure white clay.

The Eco-restoration:

An Eco-Task Force (ETF) was created by the Delhi Government in year 2000 and was entrusted the task of restoring the natural ecology of the badly ravaged area of Bhatti mines. It was a wasteland with deep gully erosion and over 200 excavated open pits. The ETF, through its decade long awe-inspiring effort involving plantation and protection of lacs of saplings of indigenous trees and other restorative works has today succeeded in restoring a rich-green cover to this once devastated area.The  greening operations of the task force have subsequently been extended to the ‘Asola’ part of the Sanctuary.

Thick Scrub Forest, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Thick Scrub Forest, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The deep pits created by the decades of excavations for stone and sand have been converted into a series of beautiful lakes with clear blue waters. The lakes have sandy beaches and are bounded by spectacular cliffs that were created by the years of mining. The ‘Nilli Jheel’ (The Blue Lake) is the largest and most spectacular of the Bhatti lakes, and can easily be called the Hidden Jewel of Bhatti. A ‘kutcha’ motorable track leads till this lake from the Shani Dham Gate and the lake is located at a distance of 5 KM from the gate.

Jeep track to  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Jeep track to Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Wooden gate on track to  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Wooden gate on track to Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The lake has clear, sandy beaches at its two ends that are frequented by picnickers.

Jewel of Bhatti, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Jewel of Bhatti, Nilli Jheel, (The Blue Lake) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Clear blue waters  and white sands of Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Clear blue waters and white sands of Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February) - The Jewel of Bhatti

Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February) – The Jewel of Bhatti

Rock cliffs, Nilli Jheel at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock cliffs, Nilli Jheel at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock-slip, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock-slip, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The other lakes of Bhatti are equally beautiful and can be accessed from the Nilli Jheel through winding trails that pass through the thick scrub-forest. The closest is the Lake Peacock that has a narrow, shallow, ribbon-like channel (the tail feathers of the peacock), a nice sandy beach and some beautiful sheer cliffs that are home to a large number of Black Kites.

Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The ribbon-like channel of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The ribbon-like channel of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite flying against the rocky cliffs of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite flying against the rocky cliffs of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite in flight - Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite in flight – Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite on a stroll on the banks of Lake Peacock!! Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite on a stroll on the banks of Lake Peacock!! Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The other lakes of Bhatti are best accessed from the Surajkund-end of the Sanctuary. A track leads to the lakes from the Surajkund-Badkhal Lake road near Manav Rachna University.

The first lake lies near an old banyan tree that is a prominent landmark for the locals. A path branches off at this point and heads north for the large Gujjar village of Anangpur. This lake is home to a large army of macaques that sustains itself on the bananas and other offerings brought in by the steady stream of the devout who come in search of salvation! The Tramp has chosen to name this lake the Vaanar Jheel’, after the monkey hordes that inhabit its banks.

The first lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Vaanar Jheel, the first lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

The second lake on this track lies nestled in thick forest and is not visible from the main track. There were was a large flock of Spot-bills and Common Coots swimming and fishing in the secluded safety of this hidden lake.

The second lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

A hidden lake on the Surajkund-Bhatti track

The Tramp encountered a man living alone in a shanty on the ridge overlooking the lake and the surrounding forest from the north. He squatted on the edge and showed no curiosity in the Tramp even as his mongrel growled menacingly at the ‘intruder’. He offered no explanation for this solitary existence. Was he a sentinel posted by the mining mafia? Or was he engaged in something more hideous?

View from the ridge, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

View from the ridge, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp failed to figure out a way to reach the third major lake, the  thorny scrub surrounding the lake being virtually impenetrable.

The fourth lake on the Surajkund track is comparable in size and beauty to the Nilli Jheel and is a favourite with the day trippers approaching from the Surajkund-end. It is reportedly an incredible 250 feet deep and has been christened the ‘Gehri Jheel’ by the Tramp. The Tramp spotted some adventure cyclists taking a break on the wide sandy beach of this lovely lake, enjoying the fresh breeze and the ripples it produced in the beautiful blue waters.

Gehri Jheel,the largest and deepest lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Gehri Jheel,the largest and deepest lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Adventure cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The fifth lake lies close to the Gehri Jheel, on the opposite side of the track and is secluded behind a thick forest cover.This calm, secluded lake is bounded by yellow-ochre cliffs and its waters are an algal-green and not the sparkling blue of the Nilli and Gehri Jheels. This lake was also abound with the yellow spot-bills in early March. A Little Cormorant sat sunning its wet wings after a swim, on a large rock.

Secluded lake- Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Ochre lake- Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The sparkling blue waters of the Bhatti Lakes  are rich in fish and aquatic plants and are growing increasingly popular with the winter-migratory birds. The Nilli Jheel also has a resident “Giant” Turtle that rarely surfaces, Bhatti’s version of the Loch Ness Monster!!

Spot-billed Ducks, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Spot-billed Ducks, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shoveller, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shoveller, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shovellers, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shovellers, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Tufted Duck,  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Tufted Duck, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Common Coot,  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Common Coot, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Great Cormorant, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Great Cormorant, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Little Cormorant, Bhatti-Surajkund Lake, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Little Cormorant, Lake Ochre, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The creation of the lakes have led to an improvement in the ground water recharging in the Bhatti area. The Nilli Jheel provides water to the adjoining farmhouses that is pumped through a series of storage tanks. Over time the indigenous trees like Sheesham, Dhak, Siris, Amaltas and Peepul have found their way back to this dry Aravali forest.  The Tramp also spotted some interesting wild-flowers hidden under the all-pervasive, thorny kikkars.

Little Glory (Evolvulus alsinoides), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Little Glory (Evolvulus alsinoides), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White leadwort / Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White leadwort / Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Sida cordifolia, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Sida cordifolia, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gokharu kanta/ Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gokharu kanta/ Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Seed pods of an Indian Mallow, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Seed pods of an Indian Mallow, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

The scrub-forest is now home to the Golden Jackals, Striped-Hyenas, Indian crested-Porcupines, Civets, Jungle Cats, Snakes, Monitor Lizards, Mongoose, Black-naped Hare, Nilgai and Rhesus Macaque.  There have been reports of leopard visits as well. The population of porcupines, jackals, nilgai, and of course the macaques is particularly impressive.

The Delhi Gazetteer (1883-84) included a note on the wild animals of the Delhi district by one Dr. Kavanagh and the same is being reproduced for the readers to give a feel of the wildlife present in this region at the end of the 19th century:

Pig abound all along the banks of the Jamna, being found in the jhau jungle where there are no crops, and in the latter when they are high enough to afford cover. Foxes and hares are plentiful on the eastern bank of the Jamna, but do not seem to inhabit the western bank to the same extent. Black buck are found almost everywhere. Chikara abound in the range of hills which runs north-east of Delhi, being especially numerous at Bhunsi, Sinah, and the part of the-Ridge in this neighbourhood. Wolves are not plentiful, but they are to be usually found in the neighbourhood of the old cantonment, especially during the time soldiers are there encamped, at which time, I have seen them in numbers quite close to my tent. Jackals abound. Hares are found generally throughout the district. Peafowl are plentiful. Duck and snipe are plentiful in ordinary years but in dry years they are scarce. The nilgai is to be constantly found near the villages of Borari and Khadipur, and in my pigsticking excursions I constantly came across them in these parts. They are also constantly found at Bhunsi due east from the Ridge. Black and grey partridges are plentiful, the former being found principally in the high jungle along the banks of the Jamna, and in the crops when the season is advanced. The mongoose is very common, and so is the hedgehog. I have known the latter commit sad havoc in a garden in the Cantonments. Snakes of every kind are plentiful, the cobra especially so. The old Fort called the Kotla is infested with them, and it has been a common pastime for members of the garrison to go there hunting for them, especially in the rainy season or immediately preceding it. Leopards are found in the outlying villages. I have myself seen them at Tuglakabad. Para are abundant, especially in the neighbourhood of Borari on the bank of the Jamna, where in my pig-sticking excursions I have seen as many as, 40 or 50 in an hour. Mahsir, rohu, and batchwa are found in the river Jamna and at Okhlah in the Agra Canal, and the entire river is infested with muggurs, the gurryal predominating; but the snub-nosed man-eater is also plentiful. In that part of the river opposite the present rifle range they may be seen any afternoon in hundreds swimming about or basking on the edge of the water. Between the old Fort and Okhlah, they are equally numerous. Monkeys in some villages bordering on the shady avenues of the Western Jamna Canal are quite a nuisance. Within the past five years rewards to the amount of Rs. 908 have been given for the destruction of 10 leopards, 367 wolves, and 1,128 snakes. Ducks of various kinds are found in the ponds in the cold weather; snipe in several places in marshes; quail are not uncommon in the fields; partridges, both black and grey, are abundant, and kidan are fond of the fields of gram when the grain has not yet hardened.”

Nilgai Bull, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai Bull, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife sanctuary

Nilgai, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Indian Gray Mongoose,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Indian Gray Mongoose, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp quizzed  a Gujjar goatherd he encountered grazing his goats inside the Sanctuary area. He reported having spotted hyenas in the late hours on numerous occasions. The sand hill (tillah) overlooking the Lake Peacock was the favourite haunt of one of the hyenas. A hyena had killed by one of his goats some months back though the spunky Gujjar goatherd did not allow it to carry off its victim. If this man was to be believed a leopard (baghera) was also on the prowl in this forest and had killed several cows and other animals.

The Tramp spotted Hyena pugmarks and scat on the forest track.

Hyena pugmark, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena pugmark, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena scat, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena scat, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp also found the carcass of a nilgai female (or maybe a calf) near the rock-slip area of the Nilli Jheel. It had probably been killed by a Hyena or may be even a leopard. It was all but eaten up barring its outer fur coat. Its stomach had been ripped  open. The stink did not allow a closer investigation.

Nilgai killed by Hyena,Nilli Jheel,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai killed by Hyena,Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Asola Sanctuary is also home to a large variety of avian fauna including orioles, rollers, sandpipers, lapwings, coucals, peafowls, cuckoos, shrikes, sand grouse and the migratory water birds.

Peafowl, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Peafowl, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Brahminy Starling, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Brahminy Starling, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Rufous-backed Shrike, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Rufous-backed Shrike, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

India Silverbill (White-throated Munia), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

India Silverbill (White-throated Munia), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red-Wattled Lapwing, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red-Wattled Lapwing, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Pond Heron,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Pond Heron, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

White-browed Wagtail, Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White-browed Wagtail, Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp  seeks to educate his readers about the novel and highly successful Indian experiment of Ecological Task Forces.

The Ecological Task Force (ETF) Scheme was started in 1982 by the Ministry of Defence in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests with the objective of creating productive employment for ex-servicemen by involving them in the restoration of degraded ecosystems through afforestation, soil conservation and water resource management techniques. The idea was originally mooted in 1980 by the then Prime Minister of India, Smt. Indira Gandhi, who was advised by the renowned agro-economist, Dr. Norman Borlough to deploy the army to tackle the problem of eco-degradation of the Shivalik hills. As it was not feasible to involve regular troops, it was decided to raise specialized ‘Ecological Battalions’ of the Territorial Army that would provide employment to retired Army personnel of the region and would tap their discipline, training and industry to take up eco-restoration projects on a ‘war footing’ in inhospitable terrains. Under this scheme the ETFs of the Territorial Army prepare the ground for plantation of saplings by digging pits and erecting perimeter fences. Saplings of indigenous species are planted and a high survival rate ensured by timely watering and protection from damage by grazing, rodents, termite etc. Fenced nurseries are created for raising saplings.

Eco-Task Force Nursery & Quarters, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Eco-Task Force Nursery & Quarters, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Check dams are built and water bodies are created to check erosion and conserve water to meet the watering needs of plants and wildlife especially during the summer months.

Water body near Karni Singh Shooting Range Gate, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Water body near Karni Singh Shooting Range Gate, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Innovative low-cost techniques like pitcher-irrigation are evolved to conserve water and protect the saplings. The Forest department identifies the land for reclamation and afforestation and provides the saplings, fencing material and all technical and logistic support to the Green ‘Terriers’.

The first Ecological Task Force was born on 1st December, 1982 with the raising of 127 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) Ecological at Lansdowne with affiliation to the Garhwal Rifles. The Eco-Battalion did commendable work in afforestation of the Shahjahanpur Range near Saharanpur and the reclamation of mines in Dehradun-Mussoorie hills. The 128 Eco-Battalion was set up on 1st September, 1983 at the regimental Centre of Rajputana Rifles at Delhi to green the Thar desert. It was involved in greening of the banks of Indira Gandhi Canal in Bikaner. It also developed a lake at Amarpura that has become a sanctuary for birds. The 3rd Eco-Battalion, 129 IB (TA) Ecological was set up at the Regimental Centre of Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry at Srinagar on 29th June 1988 and it undertook watershed development work in Samba and afforestation of Bahu Jindra Mountains. In 1994 came up 130 Eco Battalion with affiliation to the Kumaon Regiment for afforestation in Pithoragarh area. The 5th ETF was the 132 Eco Battalion raised at Delhi with affiliation to Rajput Regiment on 9th October, 2000. The 5th Eco Battalion was entrusted the task of restoring the despoiled and gullied area of Bhatti mines and as discussed, has done a commendable job in the past decade. The 6th ETF- the 133 Eco Battalion was set up in 2005 at Himachal Pradesh that was plagued with the problem of frequent closure of hydel power plants due to heavy siltation because of denuded slopes in catchment areas. The 7th and 8th ETFs were created in Assam with raising of 134 and 135 Eco Battalions that have done commendable afforestation work in and around Nameri National Park and Balipara Reserve Forest in Sonitpur District and the lower Assam areas of Kokrajhar district respectively.

Entry Gates:  There are two entry gates to the Asola – Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary:-

  • The more easily accessed gate lies opposite to the Karni Singh Shooting Range on the Surajkund road that branches off from the Mehrauli-Badarpur road near the Tughlaqabad Fort. This is the ‘tame’ end of the sanctuary that is frequented by school kids for nature walks. The congested Sangam Vihar borders this end of the forest and the locals have breached the protective boundary wall at numerous places and use the green patch as a recreational area. The Tramp was surprised to encounter kids of all ages playing Gilli-Danda in this age of 20-20 cricket and online computer games. A friendly bunch insisted that they be clicked as they happily posed for a photograph.
Gilli-Danda Gang, area bordering Sangam Vihar, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gilli-Danda Gang, area bordering Sangam Vihar, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

  • The wilder end of the forest, the area that fell under the Bhatti mines is accessed through the gate that lies at the end of the Shani-Dham road that branches off from the main Chhatarpur road just short of the Hotel Tulip. The 4 KM long road gets its name from a temple dedicated to ‘Shani’ (Saturn). It skirts the western boundary of the forest and is bounded on both sides by the opulent Asola farmhouses that are owned by the rich and the famous.

Apart from the designated gates, there are a number of other entry points to the forest with tracks leading to the surrounding villages.

  • The most popular entry point to the sanctuary, especially for the Surajkund-Bhatti lakes is the forest track that leads off from the Surajkund-Bhadkal Lake road near the imposing campus of the Manav Rachna University. The track is jeepable but large boulders have been placed near the first lake to block ingress of cars deeper into the forest. Bikers and adventure cyclists, however, make their way till the Gehri Jheel that is a popular picnic spot for the nature lovers.
Cyclists at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Cyclists at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Monkeys of Asola-Bhatti WLS: A curious experiment has been undertaken at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in the past few years. The Delhi High Court in response to a petition filed by the New Friends Colony Residents Welfare Association directed vide its order dated 14th March, 2007 the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to capture monkeys and rehabilitate them inside Asola Wildlife sanctuary. Initially, some 15,000 monkeys were brought in for resettlement. ‘Feeding points’ for these simian guests have been created all over the sanctuary, by building 30 cemented platforms that are raised on pillars. The daily feed of raw fruits and vegetables sourced from the Azadpur Subzi Mandi is brought in trucks and is piled onto the platforms. One can spot large troops of monkeys feeding at these points.

Feeding shelter for monkeys, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Feeding shelter for monkeys, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The stray cattle from adjoining villages and the nilgai also gather under the platforms to pick up the ‘crumbs’ that may be dropped by squabbling monkeys. The annual expenditure of Delhi Government on the vegetables and the chickpeas (Chana) is reportedly in the region of Rs.3 Crores. The monkey population has quite obviously exploded due to this unsustainable and unnatural rehabilitation arrangement and has become a menace to the areas around Bhatti. It is hoped that as and when the natural fruit-bearing trees come up through the afforestation drives the monkeys will be weaned back to their natural diet through foraging.

Wild red berries, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red berries of Kankera tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Ber tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Ber tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Fruit of a Bistendu tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Fruit of a Bistendu tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

In the meantime, the eco-warriors employed by the Eco Task Force engaged in restoration of the degraded forest land have to bear the brunt of attacks by the simians and have to protect the saplings from damage. The Tramp found the sight of that sorry looking lot of social outcasts – the red-faced monkey hordes, the emaciated cattle and the nilgai with their shaggy grey-brown coats feeding despondently on their daily dole of vegetables, rather eerie, if not post-apocalyptic.

Monkey Feeding Platform, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Monkey Feeding Platform, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Other Challenges:

The Sanctuary needs to be zealously guarded against encroachers who threaten to nibble-off the forest in the periphery. The areas around Anangpur village and along the Surajkund- Badkhal Lake road are particularly vulnerable. The Tramp was particularly shocked to encounter a large marriage palace having been set-up inside the sanctuary area opposite the campus of Manav Rachna University. More such encroachments have reportedly taken place around Anangpur.

Encroachment of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Encroachment of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

A lesser-threat is from the illegal mining that still continues on a small scale. The Gujjars from the adjoining villages,particularly Anangpur, reportedly use camels for smuggling stone and bajree out of the area at night. A leopard reportedly chased-off a party of late-night miners, angered at their reckless destruction of his habitat.

A Case for a Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary:

The forests comprising the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary are only the northern-most fringes of the denuded Aravalli hill range. The semi-arid, scrub forests of the Aravalli hills continue in pockets further south into Faridabad and Gurgaon and indeed all the way to Rajasthan in the South-West.

Aravali Forests of Delhi and Haryana

Aravali Forests of Delhi and Haryana

It could be possible at some point of time in future to conceive a ‘Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary’ that could be formed by merging the entire Aravali forest from Tughlakabad in the north till the Damdama Lake to the South and the Bhonsi forest to the South-West. Wildlife corridors could be created to link the Mangar and Bhondsi forests in the south to this sanctuary. This thick scrub forest with idyllic water bodies and nature tracks would serve as an oasis in the unforgiving urban desert of NCR.

Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary

Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary

The Mangar Forest:

The Tramp decided to check out the  scrub forest of Mangar area that forms a natural southward extension of the Asola-Bhatti WLS. The two swathes of  Aravalli forest are divided by the high speed Faridabad-Gurgaon toll-road that has effectively fragmented the habitat of the wild-life living in these forests. Wild animals often fall prey to road accidents while trying to negotiate the high speed roads that bind the Asola-Bhatti forests.

Jackal killed in a roadside accident, Surajkund-Pali road (March 2014)

Golden Jackal killed in a roadside accident, Surajkund-Pali road (March 2014)

The northern portion of the Mangar forest that abuts the Asola-Bhatti area has over time been almost entirely colonized by the thorny vilayati kikar. The rugged Aravalli landscape has been rendered even more savage by the decades of unregulated quarrying that left ugly gashes cut deep into the hill-sides to create sheer cliffs and unseemly craters.

Rugged terrain of kikar forests around Mangar

Rugged terrain of kikar forests around Mangar

The mining also devastated the natural forest cover in the area and paved the way for the spread of  the perinicious kikar that neither supports wildlife (avian or terrestrial) nor allows the resurgence of the indigenous flora.

Flowers of the Vilayati Kikar (Prosopis juliflora) Mangar forests

Flowers of the Vilayati Kikar (Prosopis juliflora) Mangar forests

The trek through the kikar forest turned out to be a toturous affair with nasty thorns finding their way easily through the soft rubber sole of the jungle shoe.  The Tramp, however, did manage to find some interesting wild flowers and shrubs for his readers that were somehow managing to eek out an existence in those inhospitable rocky conditions, standing up bravely to the tyrrany of the kikars!

Karir flower (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir flower (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir leaves (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir leaves (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Tiny Pink Wild flowers, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Tiny Pink Wild flowers, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Mangar forests (March 2014)

Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Mangar forests (March 2014)

Wild flower,Mangar forests

Wild flower,Mangar forests

Wild mushroom, Mangar forests

Wild mushroom, Mangar forests

Thorny shrubs,Mangar forests

Thorny shrubs, Mangar forests

Flowers of Common Indian Nightshade, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Flowers of Common Indian Nightshade, Mangar forests (March 2014)

The inhospitable thorn forests hide a number of beautiful lakes, comparable in beauty to the Asola-Bhatti lakes, created by the gradual ingress of ground water into the deep craters excavated into the earth during the  days of mining. The Tramp negotiated a sea of thorns and a maze of narrow winding tracks to find the way to the beautiful sandy beach of one such lake. The rocks forming the sheer cliffs that hide the lake from view have a ‘glassy’ character and the rock edges are razor sharp much like sea-corals. The beach had thick strands of the kans grass and the Tramp spied a Coucal and some Stilts at the lake.

Mangar lake- view from North

Mangar lake- view from North

Mangar lake- view from South

Mangar lake- view from South

Coucal on the grassy banks of Mangar lake

Coucal on the grassy banks of Mangar lake

Black-winged Stilts, Mangar Lake

Black-winged Stilts, Mangar Lake

The Mangar village lies in a bowl-shaped valley to the south of the thorny kikar forest and the lakes. The drive along the metalled-road to the village offers a breath-taking view of the Mangar valley just before one descends sharply into the valley below.

Mangar village

Mangar village

As one drives into the village one is greeted by the ubiquitous wall paintings by a local artist with popular themes from the Hindu mythology. The road then traverses through the Mangar village that is unremarkable like any other village of Haryana despite its picturesque location.

Cow dung cakes, Mangar village.

Cow dung cakes, Mangar village.

Bansa flowers, Mangar

Bansa flowers, Mangar

The road then heads south towards the forested hills that are referred to by the locals as the ‘Bani’.  Mangar Bani is a thickly forested stretch of 200 hectares that falls within the villages Mangar, Bandhwari and Baliawas, a sacred forest that is home to the slow-growing, ecologically significant Dhau tree (Anogeissus pendula).

Mangar bani

Mangar bani

The ‘Bani’ or the sacred grove has a shrine dedicated to an ascetic, Gudariya Baba, who is said to have attained salvation in the forest. As per popular belief, it brings bad-luck to anyone who fells a tree in this sacred patch. This pristine forest showcases the indigenous flora of the Aravalli region. A veritable ecological oasis amidst the desert of kikar. Mangar Bani today faces threat from the development process under a newly approved Master-Plan and the eco-activists seem to be fighting a losing battle to save it.

Thick forests around Bani Dham, Mangar

Thick forests around Bani Dham, Mangar

It was close to sunset by the time I reached the sacred Bani. The woods were lovely, dark and deep! And inviting. I yearned to query the locals about the legend of the Gadariya Baba. To find out as to which of the several domed structures was the original shrine dedicated to the Baba. To identify and photograph the Dhau tree. But there was hardly any time left and I had to trek back some 8 KM  on the metalled road through the forest to reach the Gurgaon-Faridabad road where my car was parked.

I made my way into a rather gloomy looking walled temple complex at the base of the thickly forested hills. My attempt to befriend its caretaker met with little success and I was taken aback by his rude replies that bordered on being resentful if not outright hostile. He glared at me belligerently as I photographed his ‘pet’ blackbuck doe. I toyed with the idea of educating him that his misplaced love of wildlife was illegal and could land him in trouble but something in his eye warned me against it.

Blackbuck doe, Bani Dham (Mangar)

Blackbuck doe, Bani Dham (Mangar)

My sixth sense seemed to have warned me in time as less than a week later a group of birders from Delhi were assaulted by the resident ‘Baba’ of the Bani Dham and his cronies to vent their annoyance at the ‘prying ways’ of the city-bred nature enthusiasts!!

Aravali Hill Forest of Bhondsi-Gamroj:

South-west of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and west of the Mangar forest lies the forested area of Bhonsi and Gamroj in Gurgaon. These hills were heavily mined for stone in the 1990s until mining was gradually banned due to environmental concerns and the intervention of the Courts. Sh. Chandrashekhar, the former Prime Minister of India,  had set-up a Public Trust under the name of Bharat Yatra Kendra and it had received a large piece of village common land as donation from the Bhondsi panchayat in the 80s. While, the BYK had to eventually surrender most of the land donated to it yet it did help protect the 500 acre forest land that was managed by it for nearly two-decades. Considerable afforestation work was also undertaken in the area by the Trust. Today, the Aravalis in this part are having a reasonable green cover of scrub-forest that is home to the wildlife in the area.

Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj (Hill side reveals scars of mining)

Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj (Hill side reveals scars of mining)

Holes drilled into rocks, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj- The Scars of Mining

Holes drilled into rocks, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj- The scars of mining days

Water body, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Water body, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Black-winged Stilt, Aravalis-Bhondsi-Gamroj

Black-winged Stilt, Aravalis-Bhondsi-Gamroj

These forests are home to the slow growing ‘dhau’ in addition to the all-pervasive kikkar and thorny shrubs like hingot.

Hingot, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hingot fruit, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

The Tramp visited this forest in search of the Hyena pack that has reportedly ‘terrorized’ the villagers of Bhondsi and Gamroj who have their fields in the foothills. The fear seems unfounded as there have been no actual attacks on humans. The hyena is called ‘Jarak’ in the local language due to the clearly audible creaking sound of the bones that is produced when the animal moves. The hyenas have, however, killed numerous nilgai and also routinely poach on the village dogs and the poultry. The villagers avoid going to the fields in the foothills after dark. In fact, many have shifted to planting mustard in the winters as the wheat crop requires more frequent watering and the same has to be done at night, the only time when electricity is provided for the farm tubewells. The hyenas have, however, proved to be a blessing to the farmers as they have made the nilgai flee to the forests near Mangar.

The Tramp managed to locate the deep rock crevices that are believed to be used as ‘dens’ by the hyenas. There were nilgai bones and feathers of poultry birds scattered in the vicinity of the dens. The hyena scat is rendered white in colour due to the calcium in the bones of the prey eaten by it.

Rock-slip, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj -Hyena Country

Rock-slip, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj -Hyena Country

Nilgai bones outside Hyena den, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Nilgai bones outside Hyena den, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Carcass of Nilgai killed by Hyena, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Carcass of Nilgai killed by Hyena, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hyena scat, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hyena scat, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

 

References:

  1. Gazetteer of the Delhi District (1883-84)
  2. Battling for green Cover, Vijay Mohan, The Tribune, Saturday, 8th October, 2005.
  3. Excavations at Lal Kot 1991-92, B.R. Mani
  4. Tell us where to go, Anita Soni, Tehelka, July 15th, 2006

Filed in: Beyond Morni

About the Author ()

An environmental enthusiast who loves tramping through the hills in search of the picturesque.

Comments (14)

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  1. Sonal. Malhotra says:

    Good Job

  2. The most comprehensive article on Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary on the internet I have browsed through. I have been researching and exploring routes in and round the sanctuary area.

    Reading your blog as given me great insights. I learned a lot from your blog.

  3. Jyoti raut says:

    Thanks for detail narrative of your experience. This is useful while going to nature trails any place.

    • mukul says:

      could you plz expalin exactly how to reach the sanctuary from shooting range side via metro/etc??

  4. RAJU VERMA says:

    I have been there with my friends Rakesh Kumar and Santosh…….on 29th August 2015…on Raksha Bhandhan………

  5. nvn says:

    Good yaar, great information, welldone.

  6. Mukul says:

    Outstanding narrative. I wonder why the government does not make any effort to promote tourism in this area. I would like to take a group of friends in my group http://www.facebook.com/groups/roflncr on a hiking trip to these lakes. Can someone guide me on how to go about it?

  7. shashank says:

    Hi

    Great article. i want to discover place myself. Is roaming around this area alone safe? I want to discover whole Asola bhatti and mangar area, look for leopard and hyena pugmarks and other sign. i want to document there presence.

    • Mornee Tramp says:

      Hi Shashank
      It is advisable to enter the area only in a small group. Parts of it are rather desolate. Presence of pythons is reported by the locals and the cowherds go armed with a sharp weapon while moving alone with cattle. There are aggressive hordes of monkeys at the Delhi end of the forest- so keep a lathi with you to discourage them.
      Cheers

  8. Kunal Aneja says:

    Hi

    We are planning for an off roading Bike (Bicycle) Ride in a group. Is it advisable to enter this area. If Yes, what should be the right entrance spot, since there are many entrance points. We’ll b coming frm Faridabad.

    Thanks

  9. kapil says:

    nice article. Well researched

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