What is common to the Chinese pangolin, Nepal cricket frog, Bengal monitor lizard, Assamese cat snake, Eurasian moorhen, Asian elephant, Terai cricket frog and Ganges river dolphin?
They share space with an estimated one million humans in Guwahati, Assam’s principal city and the largest in the northeast, along with 327 other species of fauna recorded so far. Very few of them are caged in the Assam State Zoo that occupies 30 hectares of the 620-hectare Hengerabari Reserve Forest referred to as the city’s lungs.
According to city-based wildlife biologist Jayaditya Purkayastha, Guwahati redefines the term “urban jungle” with 334 and counting free-ranging faunal species living in the green spaces within concrete structures.
The 328-sq km Guwahati and its outskirts have 18 hills, eight reserve forests, two wildlife sanctuaries and a Ramsar site (Deepor Beel) besides the Brahmaputra river flowing past its northern edge. This stretch of the river has a few Ganges river dolphin, which has the status of City Animal.
Mr. Purkayastha and members of Help Earth, a green group, have over the years recorded 26 species of amphibians, 56 reptiles, 36 mammals and 216 birds. They had as a foundation an almost two-decades-old study by Manoj Nair, then an Assistant Conservator of Forest at the zoo.
Mr. Nair had recorded 238 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles besides 610 species of flora in the Hengerabari reserve forest. These, he had specified, were not the zoo’s captive animals.
“We have more than 1,100 captive wild animals belonging to 107 species, of which 52 are highly protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. Our captive animals include exotic species such as giraffe, hippopotamus, macaw, Gaboon viper and some birds,” said Tejas Mariswamy, zoo’s director.
“There have been reports of animals exploring human habitations during the COVID-19 lockdown. This has never been the case with Guwahati where people have co-existed with arguably the widest range of fauna despite human-animal conflicts such as the lynching of a leopard a few day ago,” Mr. Purkayastha told The Hindu.
His specialisation in herpetology triggered the initiative of documenting urban wildlife rather than ‘conventional’ areas such as the Kaziranga National Park. Among the reptiles, he has recorded 10 species of turtles, 18 of lizards and 30 of snakes.
“Six of Guwahati’s resident snakes are venomous, three of them [krait] strictly nocturnal while the monocled cobra is around wetlands. Thus, the snakes we see in the city are most likely to be non-venomous, providing services such as rodent population control,” he said.
Wildlife specialists are worried that Guwahati has been following the global trend, which projects the urban area on earth to triple between 2000 and 2030.
“Our innate obsession with big and colourful creatures makes it hard to recognise the small and less charismatic species. The common Asian toad, red-eyed frog, tokay gecko, Salazar’s pit viper, Indian roofed turtle, bar-headed goose and oriental turtle dove — among Guwahati’s citizens — need to survive as much as their larger neighbours like the elephant, gaur, leopard, Bengal fox, dhole and Indian flying squirrel,” Mr. Purkayastha said.