Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The state of Wildlife in North-east India - Review in Frontline

A habitat in danger

A guide to wildlife conservation in north-eastern India in the midst of insurgency, increasing immigration, and encroachment. By A.J.T. JOHNSINGH

NORTH-EASTERN India, at the confluence of the Indo-Malayan, Indo-Chinese, Palearctic and Indian biogeographic realms, is famous for its varied and rich biological and ecological values. It comprises the “Seven Sister States” of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and the Himalayan State of Sikkim. The region can be physiographically categorised into the eastern Himalaya and north-eastern hills, and the Brahmaputra and Barak valley plains. It is inhabited by nearly 160 Scheduled Tribes, speaking about 220 languages. Faced with problems of insurgency, increasing immigration and growing encroachment, the wildlife and the habitat of this region are in immense danger.
The State of Wildlife in North-east India, 1996–2011: A Compilation of News from the Protected Area Update, edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria who has been working with Kalpavriksh, and published by Foundation for Ecological Security, strives to give information on developments related to wildlife conservation in north-eastern India. For 17 years and running, the Protected Area Update (PAU) has studiously presented a consolidated account of India’s wildlife and protected area (PA) network. Based almost entirely on what the English media in India report on wildlife, it is a huge, valuable database with nearly 4,000 stories and news reports.
The news reports on north-eastern India have broadly ranged from those covering unfortunate and unexpected events involving armymen on hunting and wildlife souvenir collection expeditions, and tragic incidents of wild elephants killing about 260 people in Assam since 2001 and of 280 elephants dying mostly on account of human retaliation to ceremonial developments in the cause of wildlife protection.
Section I contains regional news, with reports on attempts to form an inter-State biosphere reserve, elephant and gibbon conservation, tourism, funds released for various conservation work, encroachment (which is a humongous problem), and population estimation of large mammals (which is a usually a hugely flawed conservation endeavour in the country). The table “Population Census of Important Wild Animals for the years 1997 and 2002” is full of mistakes; it lists 1,607 rhinos in Arunachal Pradesh and 5,246 in Assam with a note below saying that the count is only for the Namdapha Tiger Reserve, which is in Arunachal Pradesh. The fact is that the total rhino population in the country is less than 3,000. There is no information on leopards in Manipur, Meghalaya and Sikkim.
Mention has been made of Aparajita Datta, a former student of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and currently a scientist of the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). She heads the conservation programmes in north-eastern India and was the recipient of the 2009 Women of Discovery Award.
To get the best out of this book, one has to read through Section 2 (“Analysis and Perspectives”), which contains seven well-written articles. Mehak Siddiqui and Rajesh Reddi inform us that of the 516 news reports about the north-eastern region, Assam got the maximum coverage (404) and Tripura the least (4). Of the 516 stories, 275 were about five protected areas, all from Assam, and 138 (27 per cent) were on the world-famous Kaziranga Tiger Reserve. Many news items about Kaziranga were related to poaching, flooding and tourism. It cannot be denied that Kaziranga is the best in terms of conservation with its valiant guards protecting the rhinos and other wildlife at a time when the government is unable to keep away encroachers.
Sonali Ghosh, a young forest officer from the WII with a Ph.D. (on the fascinating topic of the Indo-Bhutan Manas landscape) from Aberystywth University, United Kingdom, writes about the importance of ‘bush meat’ (a term used in Africa) in the lives of the local people and explains how the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation programme could take off successfully.
Yashveer Bhatnagar, a student of WII and who now heads the snow leopard programme in India under the aegis of the NCF, writes about the potential for snow leopard conservation in Sikkim and Arunachal Himalaya. He believes that tigers and snow leopards could occasionally be coming face to face in the upper reaches of the Dihang Dibang Biosphere Reserve and Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, and concludes that the large free-ranging dog population maintained by the army is a serious threat to wildlife, especially the snow leopard. Defence forces do and can play a vital role in promoting snow leopard conservation. Anwaruddin Choudhury, who knows more about north-eastern India than anyone else in the country, has written about Karbi Anglong, which he rightly calls ‘the little-known wilderness’ in Assam. While carrying out his surveys in the early 1990s, Anwaruddin found the area to be extremely rich in wildlife. In a 10 square kilometre area in the Dhansiri forests, he saw evidence of a pair of tigers and a grown-up cub. He is worried about the future of Karbi Anglong because of the growing militancy, encroachment and rampant poaching.
The association of Nimesh Ved with Samrakshan Trust from 2002 to 2010 gave him splendid opportunities to understand the Garo hills. He rightly observes that the greatest threat to the area comes from coal mining and monoculture plantations. Poaching and tree-felling are also widely prevalent.
Neeraj Vagholikar of Kalpavriksh, who has closely tracked environmental governance issues with respect to large dams in north-eastern India since 2001, laments that the government has taken a casual approach to wildlife conservation by approving all hydel projects. To save prime protected areas, endangered species like river dolphins should be taken care of, he says. And to ensure the livelihood of the people living downstream of the proposed dams, sincere and sustained efforts should be made to check the planning and construction of ecologically damaging and unsustainable dams in the eastern Himalaya.
Neema Pathak Broome, a member of Kalpavriksh who has been championing the cause of community conservation through research, documentation and community mobilisation, writes that community conserved areas have emerged as a powerful new concept in the global conservation discourse. She gives several examples of such areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. The progress of community conserved areas in the north-eastern region, according to her, is primarily because of a higher degree of tenure security as compared to other regions in the country. She strongly and rightly believes that efforts should be taken to ensure that the existing territories are not alienated from the community in the name of development projects or creation of PAs. She believes that the tenure can be strengthened by the implementation of Scheduled Tribes and other Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006.
The book also features an article on the statistical overview of PAs in India, with State-wise data and details of funds released under Centrally sponsored schemes such as Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats, Project Tiger and Project Elephant. India with a large human and cattle population has established 664 PAs extending over 1,58,508 sq. km.—4.83 per cent of its total geographic area. There are 99 national parks, 516 wildlife sanctuaries, 42 conservation reserves and seven community reserves. Thirty-nine tiger reserves and 28 elephant reserves have also been designated. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has designated five protected areas as world heritage sites. Institutions and, if possible, individuals interested in wildlife conservation, should possess a copy of this book.
A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India.

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