Growing up in the western suburbs of Bombay (now Mumbai), the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) was the venue of my annual school picnic for many an academic year. But despite the annual visit to the park and its proximity to my parents’ home, as a school kid, I had no inkling (or for that matter, any education) about the ecological value of this national treasure.
SGNP is one of the few national parks in the world located within city limits. I’ve been told it is 35 times the area of NYC‘s Central Park but I think, the comparison is quite unfair – the SGNP is a naturally occurring forest, the latter a man-made park.
In a space-starved city like Mumbai, the SGNP is a refuge for the city’s inhabitants. You have to be at the entrance gate at 6am to see the incredible number of people who use the park for their morning run/walk or simply just to socialize.
Having lived away from India for a stretch of nearly 7 years now, every trip back to Mumbai has included a visit to the forests of SGNP. Home to nearly 600 species of fauna and over 1,300 species of flora, SGNP is best visited in the monsoons when the foliage is lush, the streams are gushing and the verdant hillsides are streaked with small waterfalls.
In recent years, however, I’ve not been able to make it to Mumbai or SGNP in the monsoons. But I have a few memories of the park from that time of the year – dark, brooding clouds casting shadows on the hillsides in the afternoon sun; mushroom-covered logs of wood strewn all over the damp, forest floor; me quite comically slipping off wet rock faces! Miraculously, I escaped unhurt….
The most remarkable aspect of the SGNP is that it has the highest leopard / carnivore density anywhere in the world (38 individuals in an area of 104 sq.kms.), in a city that has one of the highest population densities in the world. This unique cohabitation of humans and a big cat species, has garnered a fair bit of international attention, including that of the hallowed National Geographic, which thankfully has helped the leopard’s cause (I suspect)!
I’d be ecstatic if I spotted a leopard (from a reasonable distance of course!) but the creatures being nocturnal in their habits, are very difficult to spot during day time. I’ve had to make do with leopard droppings and their pee markings, along some of the trails I’ve visited in the park.
Most of my recent visits to the SGNP have been in the last quarter of the year, when the forest is dry and appears sparse as compared to its monsoon avatar. However, it’s much easier to navigate the various trails at this time of the year.
The SGNP website (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in) has lots of great information about the park and its flora and fauna. Sign on to the SGNP FB page (https://www.facebook.com/SanjayGandhiNationalPark/) for updates on upcoming treks and workshops. You may also contact the Nature Information Centre of the SGNP for a special tour request (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in/1127/About-NIC).
Also within the SGNP limits are the Kanheri Caves, a spartan (yet stunning!) cluster of Buddhist rock-cut caves, some which date back to the mid-3rd century BCE. There are a 100+ of these caves and the number differs based on which source you reference. However, all sources agree on the fact that the name ‘Kanheri’ comes from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, meaning ‘black mountain’, alluding to the basalt mountain from which the caves are carved. Once a major Buddhist centre, the complex is a protected archeological site today. Best visited with a knowledgeable guide.
The forests of SGNP also support two (of seven) lakes that provide potable water to Mumbai – Tulsi Lake (completed in 1897) and Vihar Lake (completed in 1860). The forests serve as a catchment area for these two lakes and play a crucial role in ensuring water supply to the city.
Both lakes can be clearly seen from Jambulmal, the highest point not just in SGNP but also in the entire city, located 468 meters (1535 ft) above sea level. Given the key role the lakes play in the city’s water supply, direct access to them is restricted and requires special permission.
The SGNP is revered as the ‘green lung’ of Mumbai. However, it is no match for the ever-increasing pollution and the rapid development in this bustling metropolis. Hopefully, Mumbai’s citizenry will continue to value this last vestige of forest, and preserve the city’s fragile and only connection to nature.
If you live in Mumbai or are visiting the city, consider adding the SGNP to your list of ‘places to see’. I wish you lots of luck with spotting the elusive Mumbai leopard!
I leave you with a few pictures of the fauna I’ve seen along the Shilonda Trail of the SGNP……