udalguri elephant
Representative image

Encroachment on forest land

Vana Mahotsav was started in India in 1950. Keeping in mind the shared inter-linkages between forestry and agriculture, the then union minister of agriculture, KM Munshi, embarked upon this idea to create awareness on conservation of forests and plantation of trees among masses of this largely agricultural country.

Also read: Smugglers on the prowl in Assam jungles in search of juvenile elephants

However, in recent times the underlying objective behind celebration of this week-long festival seemed to have lost its relevance.

Without proper conservation of forests, simply growing trees cannot be a substitute for altering shared habitats. Forests perform critical ecological functions.

In cities they are important green spaces supporting a variety of life including birds and animals and water recharge. Shrinking of dense forest cover has led to the crisis of wildlife management in the state.

Also read: 61 Assam elephants transported outside remain “trace-less”

Protected areas that include the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests have suffered extensively over the years. Reserve forests have now being pooled with exotic tree plantations such as rubber or teak plantations which have very limited value for endangered biodiversity.

Assam Project on Forestry and Biodiversity Conservation

Feasibility report states that apart from carbon sequestration, logging will progressively be implemented. There are also plans for new fuel-wood plantation. Converting chunks of natural forests into monoculture industrial plantations would devastate local ecosystems.

‘This is indeed scary because the natural eco-systems are complex and sensitive, where each species has a role and is symbiotically dependent on other species. Removing 95-98 per cent of species for growing 1-2 species may result in the fast degradation of the delicate ecosystem.’

Also read: The dead man who sold his elephant in Assam

This was stated in a press release signed by Mubina Akhtar, secretary Kaziranga Wildlife Society; Moloy Barua, president Early Birds and Nitul Sibnath, working president of Aranya Suraksha Samity.

The leading nature organizations of the State jointly addressed a press meet at the Guwahati Press Club on Monday expressing concern over the prevailing state of affairs in the management of forest and wildlife in the State.

Encroachment of forest
Representative image

While reserve forests constitute 66.58 per cent of the State’s total classified forest cover, un-classed forests constitute 33.42 per cent of the State’s total forest area.

Unfortunately, a staggering 3,396 sq km of the 300 plus reserve forests across the State is under encroachment officially.

  • More than four lakh people have settled illegally inside 20 wildlife sanctuaries and 271 Reserved Forests.
  • In Sonitpur district alone 892 sq km of forested area is under encroachment.
  • About 782 hectares of the 78.64 sq km Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary is under encroachment.
  • The220 sq km Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary has lost over 85 sq km of its forest are to encroachers.
  • Seven RFs of Kamrup –Garbhanga, Hengerabari, South Sarania, Gotanagar, Jalukbari, Kalapahar and Fatasil are under large-scale encroachmentposing grave threat to the urban biodiversity. About 80 per cent of the 70 hectare Kalapahar RF has almost been cleared.
  • Organized encroachment has threatened to wipe away the Manas Resesrve Forest, to the west of the newly created first addition of Manas National Park.

It has been alleged by local environment groups that not less than an acre of the forest land has been cleared each day. Encroachment has been intensified in the RF since the last one year.

Destruction of this important forest patch between the river Aie and the river Bhur has reached such an alarming proportion that it has been feared that the whole RF may vanish by next year unless the BTC administration curb this menace with strong hands. About 53 villages sprang up inside the Manas National Park over the last 23 years.

Forest areas under Chirang, Kolmou and the Kuklung Range have declined drastically. Along with encroachment, illegal logging and poaching continue in the National Park.

Rapid decline in forest cover is not only going to seriously impact biodiversity but also stands to impact climatic conditions with irreversible catastrophic consequences.

The organizations have demanded that the State government – if at all it is serious of protecting what is left of our forests – to act tough on illegal settlers and ensure that there is no fresh encroachment on forest land.

Deepor Beel

Migratory birds in deepor beel

Deepor Beel, as the very name suggests, is a traditional refuge of the elephant and has been protected as a wildlife sanctuary.

Continuous encroachment has already reduced this once 4,000 hectare wetland shrunk into less than 500 hectre area!

It has been reported that a high level meeting chaired by the state chief minister recently has come up with plans of constricting the protected area boundaries of the Sanctuary to its half for tourism-related activities.

The sanctuary, in order to remain alive and perform some definite ecosystem services, needs more a conservational approach.

The Railways during a submission before a Bench of the National Green Tribunal, has stated that there were consultations between the Forest Department and the Railways at the Ministry level to evolve a solution on the ways to meet the expenditure for construction of a tunnel to lay the rail tracks over the Deepor Beel stretch on the forest land as a long-term solution for free movement of the elephants.

If the scheme materializes then there would be more shrinkage to the wetland. In such a situation it is expected of the state government not to go with projects that may further shrink the area of the wildlife sanctuary protected for the mega faunas.

Illegal elephant trade

Elephant was declared the National Heritage Animal in the year 2010, but the condition of elephants – both wild and captive is miserable.

In Assam alone, wild elephants continue to die from poaching, poisoning, electrocution, in trenches of tea gardens and industrial structures, and a mounting number of fatalities on railway tracks.

All the elephants in Jagannath Temple in Ahmedabad have sore feet and nails are also badly infected.

On the other hand, smuggling of captive elephants has taken the form of an industry in the State. The Tinsukia district has become ill-famous for illegal-elephant trade. A racket involved in the capture of sub adult or juvenile elephants for the sole purpose of smuggling has become so strong that they brazenly advertise their ‘business’ under the very nose of the State Forest Department.

What is more shocking is that the transportation of these elephants by the racketeers is simply unimaginable without the permission of the competent authority!

Despite a Supreme Court order of May 4, 2016 that directs that the ‘persons who are in possession of the elephants shall not transfer the elephants outside the State nor shall they part with the elephants by way of their transfer in any manner’, transportation of elephants has continued.

‘Leased’ elephants have never returned to the State. Since 2003, more than 400 elephants have been smuggled out of the state under the nose of the forest department. Local NGOs in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts allege the involvement of forest officials in the illegal trade of elephants.

The three organizations have also strongly demanded the State Forest Department to come out with the present status of all the elephants that were ‘leased’ out to other states in recent years and demand the State Government for instituting a high-level inquiry into this clandestine trade as well as to rethink the ‘lease’ of the mega fauna owing to its precarious position.

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