While the Maharashtra government is moving forward with the Mumbai Metro-3 car shed project in Aarey Colony, a forest area in the city, environmentalists warn that not only leopards, but a host of other animals and birds face the threat of losing their habitat and lives.
Apart from leopards, a wide range of species of flora and fauna is found in the Aarey forest, an 1,800 acre area termed as the city's 'green lung', located in suburban Goregaon and adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP).
This rich urban forest is a biotope that houses some newly-discovered species of scorpions and spiders, besides being a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, amphibians and mammals.
Forest department sources said that camera-trapping activity was undertaken at the car depot site, which revealed that this particular area is home to at least five leopards. Besides them, some jungle cats, mongooses, monitor lizards and other animals were also captured on camera.
Founder of Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW), Pawan Sharma, said, "If tree cutting process for the car shed is started by the government, it is possible for leopards to shift to some other area in the SGNP, but what about several other animals? They will lose their habitat and ultimately their lives." Many small animals and lesser known species would directly get affected due to the construction activity and deforestation, he said.
In Aarey Colony and the SGNP, around 80 species of birds like Asian paradise flycatcher, spotted owlet, peacock, hornbill and night jars are found. Then it also shelters around 85 species of butterflies, including swordtail, common blue bottle and oak leaf. It is also home to several amphibians like bullfrog, toad, tree frog, fungoid frog, and 51 reptile species, including Indian rock python, monitor lizard and skink, among others, Sharma said.
Five varieties of scorpions, 22 of spiders and 20 types of mammals, including leopard, deer, mongoose, wild boar, langur, macaques, civet cat, rusty spotted cat, bats and squirrels, are also found in this area, while around 30 types of wild flowers are also spotted here.
"Aarey is a biodiversity centre located right in the middle of the city. Most of the animals found here will end up losing their lives during the removal of trees and the construction activity for the car shed," he added.
Wildlife biologist Anand Pendharkar, the CEO of SPROUTS, a wildlife conservation organisation, said, "Endemic creatures with small home ranges and which are highly locale-specific such as some species of scorpions and spiders described only from Aarey may permanently be lost, or go locally and globally extinct." Other ecologically important creatures such as frogs, dragonflies, turtles, and grassland and riverine flora, which are vital to maintain the life-giving potential of the Mithi river, will be permanently destroyed, he said.
"Also, territorial creatures such as leopards, monkeys or snakes don't easily change their location and are likely to return to their original spots in the proposed yard, leading to increased human wildlife conflicts," Pendharkar added.
According to Sharma, in human-animal conflict, only human beings are not affected, but the wildlife equally gets impacted by human activity. Before taking up any development project in a forest area, which serves as a habitat for wildlife, a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment is important and it must be done throughout the year.
This exercise will reveal the number of species that will be affected directly and indirectly, he suggested.
"Developed countries are now growing forests and moving towards sustainable development, whereas we are destroying our green patches," Sharma lamented.
After coming to power last month, the Eknath Shinde government had directed the state administration to submit a proposal on building the car shed in Aarey Colony, instead of Kanjurmarg which was chosen by the previous Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) dispensation.
In 2014, the Metro-3 car shed was first proposed at Aarey by the then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, which was challenged by local NGO Vanshakti in the Bombay High Court, with a plea to prevent cutting of trees in the area.
Devendra Fadnavis, who succeeded Chavan, went ahead with the same site. But green activists had vehemently opposed the cutting of trees in Aarey for the car shed.
After the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance came to power in 2019, the then CM Thackeray had reversed the decision, shifting the Metro-3 car shed to a site in the Kanjurmarg eastern suburb, but it was embroiled in a legal dispute.