Sometimes, between the traffic and congestion, it’s hard to take a deep breath and notice the natural environment of Delhi, to see what’s changed as the city has grown or what’s threatened by that change. In fact, the Delhi region is one of incredible natural beauty, and biodiversity, if you stop and take the time to look. In honor of World Environment Day, an international day for awareness and activism to promote a healthier, more sustainable world, I Say Organic decided to take the time to learn about Delhi’s natural environment with a walk in Sanjay Van, a beautiful but overlooked green space in the heart of the city.
Dr. Ahmad, an environmental expert with the Bombay Natural History Society, led a huge group of enthusiastic environmentalists around the park. Between fun facts on Delhi’s natural environment, tips on natural health remedies, and some more sobering facts on how the environment is changing, it was well worth waking up for.
You might just look around and see green, but many of Delhi’s trees, shrubs and other plants are unexpectedly good for you. For instance, drinking the tea from 3-4 peepal leaves every morning can help lower cholesterol. Gooseberries, or Amla, are used to make liver medication. Everyone knows you can use neem tree oil for skin and hair care, as an insect repellent, and an anti-septic, but every part of the tree, from the leaves to the bark, have beneficial properties.
The Laburnam, or Amaltas tree, is known for its beautiful yellow flowers, but its long black seed pods are also known to ease a sore throat or swollen tonsils—in fact, they’re an ingredient in strepsil cough drops! You can also steep Amaltas leaves in hot water and drink the tea for a similar effect.
You’ve seen Kikar trees around Delhi—they make up over 80 percent of Delhi’s green belt, so they’re hard to miss. Kikar is a type of acacia tree, and the sap is used to make gum that can be used in famous deserts like gond ke laddu.
Unfortunately, the fact that Kikar trees are everywhere is also a problem. They release toxins that prevent the growth of other trees, shrubs, and bushes. That’s why the Delhi government is taking steps to curb their growth and give other plants more of a chance to thrive.
The walk wasn’t all about trees, of course. There are so many birds and insects in the Delhi region, and Dr Ahmed had lots to say about their habits and about the delicate relationships between animals that can keep the environment balanced, but which are also threatened by modernization.
The walk passed a pond that had shrunk over half its size to reveal it was a man-made structure—an old baoli, probably. Unfortunately, in it’s neglected state it was a perfect mosquito breeding ground. Historically, animals like dragonflies, which can each eat up to 200 mosquitoes a day, were an effective natural pest control. Unfortunately, in a changing environment there are fewer dragonflies and other “biological controllers” like lizards, so there are more mosquitoes.
More mosquitoes mean people are more likely to reach for the odonils and repellents to keep them away. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Ahmad, this is at best a temporary solution. Mosquitoes only live for a couple of weeks at a time, so over the course of a summer you might be bitten by a couple generations of these pests. Those short life spans means generations quickly build up immunities, so that you need stronger and stronger chemical repellents for the same job.
If the decline in dragonflies is a problem, the decline in scavenger birds like crows and vultures is a tragedy. The crow population is declining severely while the number of vultures in India, which was once as high as 8.5 crore, is now down to just 3,300. The main culprit is diclofenac, a veterinary drug used on dogs, cats, cows, and other animals, but which is deadly to birds. It took scientists a decade to trace this connection, but the results, especially for vultures, might be irreversible.
Luckily there’s lots of animals that continue to thrive around Delhi like the “Seven Sisters” birds, which live in groups of 7, 2 males and five females, all taking care of the baby birds as a community. Most people couldn’t believe that cicadas, those, loud, dramatic looking insects that make such a racket in the summer time take 17 years to mature, and only come up briefly—no wonder they’re so loud when they get here! It turns out there’s only place in India where these insects can’t successfully grow, in Kerala. The place is rightfully known as the Quiet Valley!
There were lots of other great bird sightings, from peacocks and woodshrikes amongst the trees to spot-bill ducks and cattle egrets on Sanjay Van Lake, a beautiful secluded water conservation spot. There is so much diversity in Delhi, and the more we know, the more we can do to protect the delicate balance that keeps the environment clean and healthy. So try taking an early morning walk to Sanjay Van, and see it for yourself!