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Apr 18, 2018

How Locals are Saving Delhi’s ‘Death Valley’

How Delhi locals are overcoming fear-mongering and illegal mining operations by venturing outdoors, volunteering and ensuring that a hidden swimming hole in Delhi's backyard, the Asola Sanctuary, remains pristine and blue.

Though most of us will never act on it, I believe at some point we all have an impulse to go away. What happens when that impulse becomes an inner directive?

Upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on Google maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Marc’s impulse to leave his country had landed him in India almost 14 years ago. Having been brought up in the Pacific Northwest, he spent most of his time outdoors. He loved scouting the unknown, and trying new things. He often speaks about his time spent exploring the backcountry in the state of Washington. Spending days around lakes while searching for life outside of our own species excited him the most. He’d often pick still water mollusks and bring them home.

Having resigned to a life in one of the most polluted cities in the world for the last seven years, Marc and I lamented the lack of outdoor activities. Most people living in Delhi seemed to be more interested in going to the mall rather than exploring the outdoors. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t in our culture and was new to people, it occurred to me that there was also a lack of education and appreciation.

We had spent most of the winter and spring going to Sanjay Van – a forested area within the Aravalli range. The boulders in Sanjay Van had widened our perspective on the scope of an outdoor scene in Delhi. But as soon as we felt the sweat from Delhi’s unforgiving heat, we felt the need for a body of water. The closest city we could have thought of was Rishikesh, however, the presiding thought of a 6-hour long drive made it less compelling.

Is Asola Wildlife Sanctuary a Mirage? Too Good to be True?

On the contrary, and on one uncomfortably hot Saturday, Marc stumbled upon Asola Wildlife Sanctuary on his phone; a forested region scattered over the south of the city of Delhi, along the Haryana border – the Faridabad and Gurgaon districts. A ride just 40 minutes away from where we lived. The search had also led us to sources across forums with fear mongering reviews where a moniker such as “Death Valley” was intermittently used to describe the sanctuary. While Marc appeared least concerned I couldn’t get over my preoccupation with Faridabad being one of the most crime-ridden cities around Delhi. Furthermore, whenever I spoke to others about it, I was repeatedly asked to err on the side of caution. However, upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on google maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt.

Come Saturday, Marc had already made up his mind whereas I was a bit apprehensive in the beginning and kept reminding him of the dangers of visiting such a place. It wasn’t until a 45-minute ride and then, walking for another 20 minutes on the deserted trail, that my perspective on Asola began to change. Although I was still a bit skeptical, the seemingly endless relief from having found a swimmable lake in Delhi had renewed not only his sense of appreciation for the capital but mine as well.

Signs of Wildlife All Around Us

Following our hike on the rutted track, we immediately registered the first sign of fauna around the region. Seven-inch-long hollowed quills made us cognizant of the presence of Asiatic porcupines in the region – an animal I thought existed only in North and South America. Peacocks and peahens were a common sight and so were blue bulls. What wasn’t common was the sudden appearance of a hyena that went off the trail as soon as it became wary of our presence.

Illegal Mining’s Lasting Impacts

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt. As I walked further out to a banyan tree, a gentle warm breeze swept over me and I began to follow up on my findings prior to entering the sanctuary. Once an illegal mining operation facility, Asola had been amongst the most coveted regions for construction businesses avariciously excavating red sand, stone, and other minerals. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Government decided to put an embargo on the mining operations and declared it a wildlife sanctuary. Over time, the deep-pits around the sanctuary have filled up with water and have morphed into lakes with an ecosystem healthy enough to sustain life.

Upon reaching the blue lake, we were surprised to spot a clear body of water. The oasis appeared so blue in colour that I was mesmerized. Unfortunately, we found beer bottles and pollution strewn across the beach. Marc was visibly upset and immediately began cleaning.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: 21 Marine Sanctuaries That Are a Step in the Right Direction.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Launching Operation Clean Up

We started visiting every week. The blue lake, despite its deadly reputation, was popular amongst the local kids. Soon enough some of the kids spotted us cleaning the shore and decided to volunteer. It wasn’t long before we had a group to ourselves where we discussed ways in which we could clean the beach. Within a short span of time, our objective was clear; before we left to put up with our own challenges, we had to clean the shore for at least 30 minutes. And thus, with each visit, our pile of garbage kept getting bigger and bigger and the local kids who we’d befriended became more sensible in their approach to the environment.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Why We Fear “Death Valley”

“This lake demands a sacrifice every year.”

On one hand we had Asola, home to one of the oldest mountain systems in the world, and on the other, we had the familiar bad habits of those littering the environment. How much longer can it sustain itself without the intervention of those who understood its ecology? Who understood the importance of preserving an ecosystem that not only supports life in it, but around it. For far too long, its image had been smeared with irrational fears and superstitions. Over time, we learned that the moniker, “Death Valley” was mostly related to drowning where amateur or non-swimmers from the local village had accidentally drowned. One time, Marc, along with some local friends had to rescue an adult who had jumped into the lake without giving it a thought. Following his near-death experience, a conversation broke out and we overheard a person from the group saying, “this lake demands a sacrifice every year.” It was sad to register how deeply rooted our superstitions and irrational fears are and how much impact they have on our perception of our surroundings.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Having said that, so long as we can attempt to think beyond ourselves and be a little more considerate of our surroundings, our appreciation of nature will grow. However, it demands a conscious effort. The sanctuary itself has, over time, transformed into a healthy ecosystem and set the tone. Our obligation would be to expand upon it. While Marc remains committed to restoring the beach, more friends have joined the cleaning bandwagon. This paradise of ours that we have just set our foot in has sheer cliffs extending above the blue surface of the water. High rock faces are scattered all across the sanctuary along with several diving spots. A more ideal setting for outdoor enthusiasts or adventurers couldn’t have existed in Delhi’s backyard.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: How the Plogging fad turned into the missing piece in one of my life’s missions.

Feature image © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

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Environmentalism

Jun 28, 2018

Belize Barrier Reef No Longer Endangered UNESCO World Heritage Site

Many commentators from around the world have been praising 'visionary' steps taken by Belize to ensure that the Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second-largest after Australia's, is no longer considered a 'World Heritage Site in Danger' by UNESCO.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

According to a UNESCO report on June 26th, 2018, Belize has taken specific, important steps to ensure that the world’s second largest barrier reef system will be protected from oil exploration and other human activities.

As always, The Outdoor Journal contacted industry experts who know the oceans and coral better than anyone, to get their inside opinion.

Captain Paul Watson: Underwater photographer, award-winning film producer and ecotourism activist

“Belize has changed for the better in recent years. Recently, we were able to convince them to pull the flag and registration of a notorious pirate fish factory vessel, presently under arrest in Peru. I am encouraged that there is an effort to protect the unique and beautiful Belize Barrier Reef.”

“Back in 1998, I had to navigate through a passage on that reef in the midst of a storm, so I am quite familiar with how fragile this reef eco-system is. I trust that UNESCO is confident that Belize is seriously active in their protection efforts.”

You can follow Captain Paul Watson on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Jorge Cervera Hauser: Underwater photographer, award-winning film producer and ecotourism activist.

“It’s certainly uplifting to read that a reef is recovering, but that doesn’t mean there is not a long way to go. Something categorised as endangered means it’s very close to disappearing, and being removed from that category only means we can barely start doing something about it long term in order to really protect it.”

“Coral reefs everywhere in the world are being affected by many threats such as bleaching, acidification, plastic pollution, invasive species (such as the lionfish in Belize and throughout the Meso American barrier reef), and overload of scuba divers, especially in the most popular reefs. We need to take big steps fixing all of this before it’s too late, and ‘too late’ is long before it’s considered endangered.

A great example of this is Cabo Pulmo, one of the oldest coral reefs in the world and the most northern one in America. It’s a small but special place. What Sylvia Earle would call a hope spot. It was the local community that 20 years ago realised they were affecting the very same reef that provided them with a way of making a living through fishing. Before it was too late, the pushed for strict protection laws, turned it into a National Park, and switched over to sustainable eco-tourism activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving, but in the most responsible way possible through training, certifications, and strict diving schedules that take the heavy impact of divers off the dive spots. In those 20 years, biomass increased by almost 500% and the small reef has flourished and returned to what we think it looked like thousands of years ago.

Another good example is the Revillagigedo Archipelago, also in Mexico, that was recently turned into the largest marine park of America, covering 148,000km2 and it was done while it still is a pristine, almost untouched environment. The challenge there is to implement surveillance and law enforcement against illegal fishing in such a big and remote area.

If we protect these Hope Spots, and do it right, life will flourish around them and the ocean will start to slowly recover.”

You can read a profile of Jorge entitled “Far from Shore” here, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo Courtesy Brocken Inaglory/ Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Andrea Marshall: Co-Founder at Marine Megafauna Foundation, Principal Scientist at MMF Global Manta Ray Program and Science Coordinator at WildMe ‘Manta Matcher’.

“It is exciting news. It is so important for our oceans to safeguard critical habitats like these. More than ever, countries are starting to step up and offer comprehensive support to important ocean ecosystems, moving away from ineffective ‘paper parks’ and usingscience-basedd management strategies, to secure effective and lasting protection for these sensitive marine environments. I applaud Belize for their efforts and commend their approach to saving this important heritage site.”
“I have not dived in this location myself but scientists at MMF have collaborated on research in the region on whale sharks, and I am glad that when I visit one day, I might find a flourishing well managed park.”
You can follow Dr. Andrea Marshall on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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