GUWAHATI: – A total of 31,873.76 hectares of prime forestland belonging to 12 reserved forests, a national park and a wildlife sanctuary in the North Bank Landscape (NBL) under Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) continues to be under encroachment.
It is no coincidence that some of the worst man-elephant conflict points fall under the landscape in the four BTAD areas. Beyond BTAD, too, encroachment and deforestation have been widespread across the entire NBL area spreading along the north of the Brahmaputra and extending up to the eastern Himalayan foothills, covering the States of both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The developments have also eroded the contiguity of the NBL forests which – distributed among 19 districts of the two States – used to have a continuous belt providing secure refuge to a significant population of over 2,000 Asian elephants along with other important mammals, like rhino, tiger, water buffalo, pygmy hog, etc.
According to forest department’s data procured through RTI, the break-up of the encroached segments falling under BTAD is – Kachugaon RF (277.35 hectare), Chirang RF (18,061.68 hectare), Manas RF (213 hectare), Manas National Park-Bhuyapara range (1,600 hectare), Manas National Park-Panbari range (1,630 hectare), Dawdhara RF (46 hectare), Batabari RF (427 hectare), Dihira RF 368 hectare), Subankhata RF (343 hectare), Morapagladia RF (800 hectare), Daranga RF (3,845 hectare), Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary (400 hectare), Khalinduar RF (1,365 hectare), Bhairabkunda RF (155.20 hectare) and Rowta RF (2342.53 hectare).
Appalling as the figures are, conservationists view these as understatement, arguing that encroachments taking place in the past few years do not get reflected in the data. For instance, satellite imagery shows encroachment at Bhuyapara range of Manas National Park to have spread to 22 sq km.
“The official data which does not cover the latest encroachments is extremely disturbing in itself. This shows that the forest authorities have made little intervention over the years to check illegal occupation of forestland,” Niranjan Barman, secretary general of Green Manas which has been engaged in conservation in the BTAD areas, said.
Barman said that rampant deforestation was singularly responsible for the man-elephant conflict in the BTAD area which had extracted a heavy toll of both elephants and humans in the past couple of decades.
“Forest loss and degradation and the consequent land cover change have led to this raging man-elephant conflict. Unless forest cover is enhanced and corridors regained as a long-term solution, the problem is unlikely to ease,” he said.
A WWF-India study a few years back had noted how growing obstructions to elephant corridors in the proposed Neoli Hill reserved forest in Udalguri, which connects Khalingduar RF and Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary in the east and west and the Bhutan hills in the north, were causing a spurt in the man-elephant conflict.
“This area forms one of the most important habitats as well as a vital corridor for elephants which connects all these three important patches of forests very critical for the survival of the NBL elephant population. However, in recent years this area has undergone alarming degradation threatening the connectivity among the adjoining habitats,” Anupam Sarmah, coordinator of WWF-India’s NBL Conservation Programme, said.
As a direct fallout, the man-elephant conflict in the vicinity of Barnadi, Khalingduar and Neoli forest stretches has been pronounced over the years. Apart from being a known elephant corridor for east-west movement of elephants, the proposed Neoli reserve forest also serves as a buffer zone for the forest of neighbouring Bhutan.
Forest officials, while acknowledging the gravity of the situation, maintain that both short-term and long-term measures are being initiated to ease the problem.
“We have successfully done some much-needed habitat reclamation at Bhairabkunda, which has reduced the incidence of man-elephant conflict there. Efforts are also on to protect and regenerate some other critical habitat and corridors,” a forest official said, adding that as short-term measures, fire crackers and trained kunkis (domesticated elephants) are being used to ward off raiding wild herds.
“The villagers are also being educated on elephant behaviour so that they do not confront an elephant aggressively when it is sighted near human settlements. Compensations for crop and property damage are also being immediately released for checking retaliatory killings,” he added.