Celebrating Wildlife Week….and then again weeps the elephants….

The year 2001: the world has just stepped into the new millennium. The place: the Nameri National Park on the northern bank of the mighty Brahmaputra river. The incident : 31 wild elephants died within a span of two weeks. One could almost hear the cries of weeping elephants.

Such incidents reflecting the struggle for space between the humans and the animals is common worldwide, but considering the State of Assam and the northeastern region, the entire scenario of the man-elephant conflict can be visualized as a situation that the Barak Valley on the southern bank of Brahmaputra underwent within the past ten-fifteen years. Years ago, this valley had a sizeable population of elephants, which as per the writings of Raman Sukumar in his book titled The Asian Elephant –Ecology And Management was reported to be 100-150 elephants in the wild. However, this population gradually diminished and in the year 1993, a census carried out by the Assam Forest Department reported the presence of only 18 elephants. In the 1997 census , only seven elephants were reported and today , the Barak Valley has no elephants. The situational equation is very simple : the entire elephant population of the northeastern region are heading the Barak way.

The habitat of the Asian Elephant covers a large and continuous forest cover , since the animal is basically a forest dweller with regular migrations as a part of their lives. But the rate of disappearance of the forest cover of the northeastern region is absolutely alarming- more than 1000 sq km of forest area being destroyed annually, as reported by the National Remote Sensing Centre. This is exemplified further by the fact that within a span of 12 years the Meghalaya forests declined from 33.1 per cent to 18 per cent while Arunachal Pradesh lost about 334 sq km of dense forest.

Family of Indian elephants, Elaphas maximus, with two calfs crossing a path, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India.
Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong Landscape [Source: JustGiving]
Considering the more compact areas on the north bank of the Brahmaputra ie. In the districts of Sonitpur and Darrang, the elephants here would move along the various reserve forests such as the Nonai, Rowta, Mazbat, Dhekiajuli, Batasipur, Sonairupai, Chariduar, Balipara, Nameri National Park, Pabhoi, Biswanath, Borgang, Behali etc.  forming a continuous Bhutan-Assam-Arunachal Pradesh belt. However, in recent times this belt has been fragmented by the human settlements/ encroachments and the elephant have lost their traditional migration routes and, hence, are seen to wander elsewhere. Human encroachments besides breaking the continuity of the forested areas have also resulted in massive deforestation causing widespread destruction of the elephant habitat , forcing these gentle creatures to come to the nearby villages and also to the towns of Tezpur and Biswanath Chariali damaging homesteads and destroying standing crops, thus resulting in the so-called conflict situation.

In order to overcome this conflict situation, these elephants are frightened with crackers , chased with loud noises and larger tamed elephants and are even stopped by using electric fences, deep pits, etc. These anti-depredation measures are but a temporary solution wherein huge amount of money is spent to no avail, since nothing can stop these hungry homeless elephants from raiding crops and straying into human settlements.

Source: Twitter

Apart from the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, the forest cover of the rest of Assam  is also diminishing with the vast forest lands being transformed into agricultural lands, villages and unauthorized habitats of a section of people in direct contravention of the laws laid down as per the ideology of the National Forest Policy  and the Forest Conservation Act , 1980, etc. The National Forest Policy passed in the year 1988 attributes the serious depletion of the forest cover to the relentless pressures arising from the ever increasing demand for fuel, fodder and timber, inadequacy of protection measures , diversion of forest lands to non-forest lands without ensuring compensatory afforestation and essential environmental safeguards and the tendency of looking upon the forests as a revenue earning resource. It also exemplifies that the forest land or land with tree cover should not be treated merely as a resource readily available to be utilized for various projects and programmes , but as a national asset which requires to be safeguarded for providing sustained benefits to the entire community. In spite of such grand working principles the regulating authorities fail completely because they fail to recognize that the extinction crisis and the massive loss of biodiversity should be universally adopted as a shared responsibility, which in turn will reduce the loss of biodiversity within species, between species and the ecosystem. It is seen that instead of sharing responsibilities to solve the problems, here the various concerned authorities are playing the blaming game and ultimately concludes that it is the fault of the system. But what they fail to question is that who constitutes the system. Who has created these systems and who are working within these systems?

A herd of elephants cross a road that passes through the flooded Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam, India, July 12, 2017. Picture taken July 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

Conservation societies nowadays talk about providing an interdisciplinary approach by combining science and technology with cultural and political understanding and it is this cultural and political understanding that is the root cause of all damage that has occurred and which will occur in the near future. In conservation the question of political and cultural understanding should not arise, because the extent of understanding is limitless and it will cross all barriers of destruction. In this region with utmost political understanding the people have been able to move and politically influence the concerned section of the government to allot the forest lands to be cleared and cultivated in the name of agriculture, fishery, rubber plantations , tea gardens etc. for their individual gains.

Moreover, the forest department to make the existing conditions even worse is rampantly allotting various sand and stone mahals in all areas along the boundaries of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The government should take up a policy that no such sand, stone or fishing mahals should be allotted at least within 3-4 km beyond the periphery of these national parks and sanctuaries. In fact, as per the Forest Policy the beneficiaries who are allowed mining and quarrying in the forest land and in land covered by trees should be required to repair and revegetate the area in accordance with established forestry practices.

Though the entire situation may seem grim and irreparable, everything is not totally lost. The policy that the environmental protectors must inculcate will have to be a ruthless one, especially in dealing with the process of habitat destruction , the massive deforestation and the unending encroachments. Basically, a will is required to fight these evils and remove it completely by first of all removing its roots, which is the root of the entire system. There should be no political forces involved and ruling political parties should not be a factor in determining the protection of the forested areas and this is only possible when able people like the scientists, the researchers, the foresters, various non-governmental organizations and the bureaucrats take up a united stand and work with a will to overcome all pressures that tend to build up against the protection of the environment. If this happens then saving the environment will not be difficult , as is seen in the case of Kaziranga National Park, which is one of the tremendous success stories in the field of conservation. Kaziranga shows that if a strong policy is adopted and put into force, then anything is possible, because Kaziranga was a mere 267 sq km in the year 1997 whereas now it can boast of an area of more than 800 sq km after its sixth addition. This is because the poachers and encroachers are dealt with an iron hand and all the rules are enforced so that the forest officials do not even hesitate to shoot the poachers if there is an encounter with them in the forests.

Source: The World Zoo: Asia

Another perfect example is the Orang National Park , not in the sense of wildlife protection but in the sense that it is a totally man-made forest. So, today if some of the degraded forests are cleared of its encroachments and converted into man-made forests, it is possible.  But this process of building up degraded forest land has been completely distorted and in the attempt to evolve green to the surroundings, the foresters are converting vast areas of lands into mono cultures such as teak, rubber, tea plantations which though being ample sources of revenue inherently fail to form a base for conservation , especially the conservation of the animal species. This northeastern region is in fact endowed with nature’s bounty to such an extent that if the people leave any barren land undisturbed for a certain period of time, simultaneously natural vegetation covers up the place in no time, but nature too has failed in the face of individual vested interests.

Source: APHerald

Attitudinal change is very necessary to bring about a conservation renaissance in this region. The Supreme Court rulings are ignored in this region and this is evident from the numerous wood-based industries, which are still rampant in and around the state with hand sawing being carried out full-fledged. In the past few decades, this region has lost most of its forested areas and also a major portion of its wildlife , and this is an extremely frightening situation in a region , which is one of the ‘biodiversity hot spots’ of the world. The need of the hour is urgent, ruthless implementation of protection measures, Forest Acts, policies so that whatever encroachments prevailing are done away with and no further encroachments are allowed in the near and distant future. The authorities concerned ie. The Forest Department, the various scientists, researchers, policy makers and the non-governmental organizations , should get down to the root causes of this massive destruction and refrain from framing further recommendations and policies and implement the existing laws without any political, cultural or personal influences to save this region from any further loss of the biodiversity because this loss has been aptly described by renowned ecologist Edward O Wilson as “… a folly for which our descendants are least likely to forgive us…”

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