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By Mayuri Phadnis, Pune Mirror

Pune’s second airport may lock horns with wildlife

Stretch in Purandar taluka being surveyed by authorities is home to the threatened Indian grey wolf species; any construction there would seriously jeopardise wildlife protection on the stretch, say environmentalists

The much-mulled-over Pune International Airport may well be trespassing into wolf territory. For, officials are now surveying some villages in Purandar taluka — home to flagship species like the Indian grey wolf, which is already threatened in the area — to zero in on the site for the proposed airport, making environmentalists rather anxious about wildlife protection on the stretch.

On Sunday, the state authorities visited Pargaon Memane in Purandar taluka for the second time after a preliminary survey on September 3. Other sites looked at during a previous survey were the nearby Waghapur and Rajewadi. “Our group of 10 people has been studying Waghapur, Chaufula, Pargaon and Memane sites since 2010. The area has a healthy population of breeding wolves. Two active packs have been monitored by us and the number of individual wolves seen and photographed since 2010 is somewhere around 25 to 30. In the current year, we have observed 17 different individuals divided in two packs in the vicinity,” shared Mihir Godbole, a city-based wildlife enthusiast who works in tandem with the forest department for conservation of the species. They are also in the process of seeking legal opinion to safeguard the wolves’ habitat.

People who have been studying the wildlife species in the area state that it is also rich in grassland species that are fast disappearing from our country. “Apart from wolves, the area also has a healthy breeding population of chinkaras, hyenas, foxes, jackals, toddy cats and hares. Besides, it is also home to a rich variety of birds, reptiles and amphibians,” added Siddhesh Bramhankar, another wildlife enthusiast working for wolf conservation. Chinkaras and wolves belong to Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, along with the tiger, for which conservation efforts are the highest in India. Moreover, the habitat of these animals is already shrinking with urban encroachment. Now, an airport in the vicinity would cause even more problems for these species.

The forest department also admitted that areas like Waghapur hosted a strong population of wolves. “We have had meetings with environmentalists regarding management of the wildlife here. However, the airport is also of national interest and, hence, important. We have so far not received any official documentation. Once that happens, we will see what we can do,” informed B PJadhav, sub-divisional forest officer of Bhor, under which these areas fall.

However, Ashwin Vaidya, yet another wildlife expert from the city, warned, “The whole area will be taken over by airport construction. Also, parallel development such as building of housing schemes, malls and warehouses that come with the bargain will destroy huge chunks of habitat, leaving no space for the wildlife. It will also pollute the water sources. Some of the areas are corridors for wildlife movement. If these get destroyed, it would restrict animal movement, leaving the existing population in pockets.”

The environmentalists feel that in case the administration decides to use this area for the airport, despite its vulnerable wildlife situation, it should at least have a strong mitigation plan for peaceful coexistence of man and animal. The green activists have been advocating a sound wildlife management plan on the stretch for long, regardless of the proposed airport in the area. “There is already a need for protection from hunters who hunt for bush meat like porcupines, monitor lizards, hares and so on. Besides, plantations on the grasslands are also destroying the habitat. At present, unmonitored wildlife tourism is on the rise, causing much disturbance to the native species. With so many encroachments, conservation measures are crucial in the area,” stressed wildlife enthusiast Sonali Phadke.

In fact, green activists feel the problem lies in the fact that grasslands are not given their due importance. This attitude of looking at these grasslands as wastelands has earlier claimed several species like the cheetah and the Great Indian Bustard from India, with the former going extinct and the number of the latter being restricted to less than 200 in the country.

“Eighty per cent of the grasslands have vanished as they are still considered as wastelands. However, these are unique ecologies with endemic species. Wolves are on a level playing field (Schedule 1) with the tiger. Why then is one species being given preferential treatment, while the other is ignored? Development and wildlife need to co-exist and planning should keep in mind the ecological balance,” said Indrajit Ghorpade, founder of the Deccan Conservation Foundation, who has worked extensively on the preservation of grasslands.

Speaking to Pune Mirror, a senior officer from the district administration, who was privy to information about the probable locations of the airport, gave a customary clarification, saying, “These are just probable areas; nothing has been finalised yet. Once the area has been finalised, these things will be looked into.”

█ We have had meetings with the environmentalists regarding management of the wildlife here. However, the airport is also of national interest and, hence, important. We have so far not received any official documentation. Once that happens, we will see what we can do

– B P JADHAV, Sub-divisional forest officer, Bhor