Tale of Guwahati: A City’s Biodiversity
Text & photos by Dr. Jayaditya Purkayastha
It is estimated that the urban population of developing countries is growing at a rate of five million people per month. Roughly 70% of the global population is expected to be urban by 2050, and the total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030. During the past 50 years, the population of India has grown 2.5 folds and the urban population five folds.
But are these urban landscapes really without wildlife? It depends on how we define wildlife. For most, ‘wildlife’, the term itself sets the mind where we start thinking of a place covered all around by tall elephant grasses, with tall trees in between accompanied by many big illustrious, self imposing mammals. But, is that all? Indian Board for Wildlife defines wildlife as “The entire uncultivated flora and fauna of the country”. Now we see that anything that we have not sown or reared is a part of wildlife, from the smallest ant to the huge banyan tree. Our innate obsession with big and colorful creatures makes it hard to recognize small and less charismatic species.
In a state like Assam, where the whole wildlife conservation story revolves around Indian One-Horned Rhino, the mega mammal myopia is to be expected where we find it hard to look beyond big and charismatic mammals. Whatever is the case, nature will not discriminate between its children and every organism is thus endowed with a special role and place in the ecosystem, however tiny it may be. Recent SARS-CoV2 outbreak emphasizes this very point where the most genetically advanced animal was overwhelmed by a mere 65–125 nm COVID19 corona virus.
With the increase in human population across the globe, there is a rapid decline in forest cover. In India, around 25% of the geographical area is under forest cover, but there is a continuous decline. Now, these green covers are giving way to concrete jungles. Guwahati, the economic hub and the gateway of Northeast India is no exception to the rule. But as we see, Guwahati is not completely devoid of wildlife.
Ecologically, when one species is exterminated from a particular geographical area, there becomes a void which again is filled up by some opportunistic species. These organisms now can competently share these urban cities with us giving rise to what we call as ‘urban wildlife’. To notice one of such kind, we even need not go out of our houses. It’s our overlooked tailed inmate, the house gecko. These lizards not only share our home but also help us by feeding voraciously on different types of insects including mosquitoes. The densities of these geckoes are much higher in human settlements because of one of the finest creation of Thomas Alva Edison, the electric bulb. We light bulbs, the bulbs draw insects and the insects draw geckos which feed on them. Beautiful relationship!
Coming back to my city, the Guwahati city, a landmass with 18 hills, eight reserve forests, two wildlife sanctuaries, a Ramsar site along with the mighty river the Brahmaputra makes it a cherished place to live in. But we humans are not the only ones that cherish Guwahati, a wide range of biodiversity adores the city too. That is why they have made the city their home and co-exist with us.
When I began my research, my dream was to work in a protected area like Kaziranga and show off to my friends saying, I visit those places where no tourist is allowed to go, What a style statement it would have been! Most of the research and conservation activities of this region are primarily focused on protected areas. I won’t be far from true if I say we know more about Kaziranga than about our backyard biodiversity. The reason for our negligence is primarily because we take the urban biodiversity for granted and thus are oblivious of their presence. I still remember the first Rhino I saw in Kaziranga and that we drove 200 km to see.
Here, with urban biodiversity, there is no investment and I just have to open my window and I see the sparrow, the bulbul and what not. I know that easily accessible things fast lose their value, but it won’t be the same always, I promise. Sooner than we anticipate, these easy and leisurely sightings would be a thing of past as many metro cities of India has shown us. Data suggests that 8% of terrestrial vertebrate species on the IUCN Red List are imperiled largely because of urban development and 13% of endemics are in ecoregions that are under threat from urban expansion.
I firmly believe that the first step for conservation initiative is to know what exactly to conserve and in absence of a checklist, we will never know that. I believe that a checklist is the base of any conservation story. Back in 2011, when I started to catalogue biodiversity of Guwahati, my first groups of interest were the herps or more scientifically the group consisting of amphibians and reptiles.
A twin spotted tree frog
In the beginning, I was involved with rescuing of snakes and it felt like I was doing some heroic act. Whenever I caught hold of a snake, people looked at me with awe as if I was a superhero out of marvel comics. That recognition made me rescue even more snakes, many a time where rescue was unnecessary. Now, I firmly believe that in major portion of the cases where I rescued the snake, I made both me and the snake vulnerable. Active human intervention is required only when the snake or any other animal is in a position where rescue is the last option. For example, if the snake is stuck inside a room. Even then too in many cases it could be mitigated without handling the snake. The less is the touch, better it is for the snake and humans around. We just need to maneuver the snake out of the room back into the wild and rest is public relation skill, i.e. how to convince people to let snake stay in their locality.
Red-necked Keelback, a species of venomous snake
Over the years, I realized that the volume of snake rescue has increased, and I take most of it as good news. In past, most snakes that ventures out in human habitation were killed and as such were never reported or rescued. Now with the rise in awareness, more snakes are rescued than ever before, thanks to wildlife channels which helped to a great extent to generate basic awareness amongst masses regarding misunderstandings related to snakes.
Black softshell turtle hatchling
During my years of study, we recorded 26 species of amphibians and 54 species of reptiles from across Guwahati city. Amongst the amphibians, we have 24 species of frogs and toads and two species of Caecilian (an earthworm like amphibian). Amongst reptiles, there are 18 species of lizards, 30 species of snakes and 10 species of turtles. What may interest many is to know how many species of venomous snakes are there in Guwahati? The answer is six, and out of these six species, three species (krait) are strictly nocturnal with a very rare chance of biting a human. Another two species (green pit viper) are mostly forest dwellers and rarely come in human contact and thus we are left with the all dreaded monocled cobra. Monocled cobra being a species associated with wetlands, hardly ventures into city centres. Thus, we can almost be certain that the snakes we see in Guwahati in most likelihood are non-venomous and which provides service to us by keeping the population of rodents under control.
A common garden lizard
Moving from the creepy crawlers to the master of the sky’s is quite a big jump. Literally, it was for me too. Till 2013, I only knew eight to 10 birds by name, and never in my wildest imagination thought Guwahati to be home to more than 200 species of birds (its 216 species and counting). Bird watching is one of the best hobby we can have and a healthy hobby too! A late riser like me woke up to see the sunrise, what more can I ask for? Early morning birding (including long treks) sets the day, brings back an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle on track and is one of the best anti-depressants!
A Black-hooded Oriole
In the initial study period, each new day, Guwahati presented me with scores of species of birds new to me, and my joy knew no bounds. Water birds always interested me more: a surreal boat ride in Deepor beel or standing and gazing at birds on its banks. Not much running to do for a lazy fellow like me, as needed in cases of forest birds. Deepor beel was the reason of joy in my life many a times. From encountering the rarest snake such as Painted Keelback to those winter days when I could hardly see water at some spots of the beel which is completely beaming with ducks and waders.
Today, when I pass through Deepor beel, I feel a stab in my heart, as if I betrayed the wetland and perhaps I did! At its prosperous peak, the beel was a friend to many of us who are nowhere to be seen now. Fake promises, baseless initiatives, as if the beel sees it all and chose to stay silent as sometimes it is a matter of pride, where elders bear all the pain without even making a sigh to teach the generations to come, the true meaning of life.
This very Deepor beel opened its arms to the herd of elephants which mainly venture into this wetland from the adjacent Rani-Garbhanga hills for water and food. It is here, I saw a herd of elephant, lots of vehicles, a train all within an area of around 300 sq. meters. Deepor beel presents a raw image of development and wilderness coming in contact with each other.
It is here I fell in love with my kind, the mammals. That night, a very slow animal crossing the road from the adjacent hills to Deepor beel, I still remember shouting out “Sloth, Sloth”, just that I made a geographic distribution error of around 17000 km. Sloth is a South and Central American species and what I saw was a Bengal Slow Loris, the only venomous primate of the world. In this very place, I was fortunate enough to see Gaur, Golden Jackal, Jungle Cat and a Common Leopard all within a span of just 20 hours. This itself speaks volumes about the importance of Deepor beel for the sustenance of not only birds but mammal diversity of Guwahati as well. We recorded a total of 36 species of mammals from the Guwahati including the City’s Animal of Guwahati, the Ganges River Dolphin.
These urban landscapes are in fact, hotspots of evolution. The biodiversity here has to learn fast to survive in the human-dominated areas, a landscape which is ever-changing that too in a very rapid pace.
A Sparrow in a next box at author's residence
Time, tide and urbanization waits for none. If the species can leap to catch the fast-moving train of urbanization, it will have a ride of a lifetime, evolving as fast as the train itself, or will be slain by the merciless wheels of urbanization. Whatever be it, the value of urban wildlife is incomprehensible. When a child is growing up somewhere in Guwahati, his acquaintance with the wildlife is not established through the roar of a tiger but through the chirping of small birds. In the absence of this urban wildlife, there would be a void in his emotional spectrum and perhaps it will be hard for him to relate to wildlife. Without relation, there would be no love and we cannot conserve anything if we do not feel for it. In urban landscape emotion rules as these areas are not protected by law. Perception, participation and passion of inhabitants of Guwahati, is the key which can unlock the fate of this urban biodiversity, and secure it for the generations to come.
About the Author:
Dr. Jayaditya Purkayastha is a wildlife biologist and General Secretary of the organization Help Earth.