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Can paradise be reganed? The Assam Tribune, December 15, 2004

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The Assam Tribune, December 15, 2004
As the celebrated Kaziranga National Park prepares to commemorate its centenary year in a grand manner, few are aware of the fact that the Manas National Park too has a history as old as that of Kaziranga, and its hundredth anniversary coincides with Kaziranga’s, scheduled for early next year. By no means less endowed and less exciting than Kaziranga in terms of biodiversity (in fact, Manas’ biodiversity is richer), Manas has been relegated to the background ever since it was affected by the decade-long social unrest from the late 1980s that did substantial harm to its flora and fauna.

The significance of Manas lies on many counts. In addition to its being a National Park, Manas is a Tiger Reserve, a Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site. Declared a proposed reserve in 1905, Manas was upgraded to a Sanctuary in 1928 and then it attained the status of a National Park in 1990. A prime tiger habitat that harboured the country’s second highest concentration of the great cat till the late 1980s, it is one of the earliest Tiger Reserves of the country, formed in 1973. In view of its pristine natural eco-system representing the overall biota of the region, it was elevated to a Biosphere Reserve in 1989 under the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme. It was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1985 as a site of outstanding universal value. Regrettably, it is in danger of losing that status following the last two decades’ developments.

So far 60 mammals, 42 reptiles, seven amphibians and 353 bird species have been recorded in the Manas National Park. The vegetation of Manas has tremendous regenerating, self-supporting and self-sustaining capacity due to the high fertility index. Manas also forms a part of one of the largest conservation areas, with contagious habitats with forests of Bhutan (the Royal Manas National Park) in the north and the Buxa Tiger Reserve of West Bengal in the west. Some of the most endangered animals like pigmy hog, hispid hare, golden langur, etc., find a refuge in Manas. It is home to as many as 21 of the country’s 41 endangered Schedule I species.

The unique location of Manas at the confluence of Indian, Ethiopian and Indo-Chinese realms makes it one of the richest biodiversity areas in the world. Adding to the grandeur of Manas is its spectacular landscape with a variety of habitat types that support diverse fauna. Such a unique combination of biodiversity and scenic beauty has few parallels anywhere in the world, making it a paradise for nature-lovers. Now the question that haunts every nature-lover is: Can the lost paradise be regained?

The sprawling Manas Tiger Reserve (2,837 sq km), the core area of which forms the Manas National Park (519.77 sq km), provides the western and eastern buffer zones for the Park with 19 reserve forests administered by Kachugaon, Haltugaon, Aie Valley, North Kamrup and Western Assam Wildlife divisions. These encompass a total area of 2317.35 sq km spread over the districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari and Darrang.

But in reality, much of these forests remain on paper only, as they have witnessed widespread degradation over the last two decades. On the eastern side, Chirang, Kachugaon, Haltugaon, and Aie Valley have lost as much as 50 per cent forest cover. On the east, Kalingduar, Dadhara, Batabari, Subankhata, Daranga, Mora Pagladia, Barnadi sanctuary, etc., have suffered large-scale deforestation.

“There is tremendous pressure on the western buffer because of its Sal and other timber, and the eastern buffer too has been in a pathetic state,” Abhijit Rabha, IFS, Field Director, Manas Tiger Reserve, says. Only the northern boundary that runs along the Bhutan hills, forming a common boundary with the Royal Manas National Park, has been safe from human interference.

A direct fallout of widespread deforestation along the riverbanks in the Manas Tiger Reserve over the years is that the rivers have started to shift channels frequently, and the resultant floods have been disastrous. This was evident during this year’s floods as the Beki changed its course to flow through the Kalpani channel and washed away the bridge, snapping the Park’s main link with its headquarters and affecting a number of fringe areas. “Deforestation on the southern side of the Beki has a lot to do with the river shifting towards the east,” says Pranjal Bezbarua, a research scholar who has been studying the area for the last three years.

The entire stretch of the southern boundary of the Park is without any buffer and has been exposed to constant pressure from human and cattle populations. It is difficult to monitor the number of entry points that exist in this vulnerable border. Most of the 61 fringe villages fall in this southern periphery of the Park. The population of the villages is 53,821 (as per a survey conducted in 1997) comprising mostly the Bodo community). Agrong near Rabang is the only forest village in the Park. A most neglected village, it typifies the hostility of the fringe inhabitants to the Forest Department. It came within the Park’s boundary following an expansion of the Park’s area and was not relocated outside. Most of the people of this village are almost totally dependent on Manas, rendering it into a hub of activities inimical to the Park’s interest. “In existence since Independence, it is a most neglected village which is no one’s baby now,” Rabha says.

Besides their traditional association, poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and underdevelopment of the fringe villagers remain at the root of the people’s dependence on the forests. Their dependence, which relates mainly to firewood, timber, thatch, cattle grazing, wild vegetables and fruits, fish and occasional hunting for meat, can be traced back to hundreds of years and is intrinsically linked with their traditional ethno-specific practices.

The poor economic condition of the fringe villagers and their dependence on Manas for fuel wood and animal fodder, the ever-increasing human as well as cattle population, the abysmal lack of awareness about the need to preserve a biodiversity hotspot like Manas, and the protected area restrictions that took away the villagers’ traditional rights on the forest, are the socio-economic factors that have had an adverse effect on conservation in Manas.

“Traditional rights of the forest villages were lost with the declaration of protected area. The restrictions imposed had a negative impact on the villagers who were already poor, and gradually they got more alienated. The manifold increase in human and cattle populations over the years contributed to the worsening of the conflict situation,” Rabha says.

Taking advantage of their poverty, gangs operating from outside often engage the villagers in large-scale illegal activities like poaching and tree-felling. Little effort has been made by any agency (both government and non-government) to better the lot of the fringe villagers or to create awareness about conservation. The concept of conservation through participatory development is yet to gain grounds in Manas, with the Kokilabari area being the notable exception. “A few joint forest management (JFM) committees have been formed here and there, but there has hardly been any sincere attempt to involve the people in the conservation process,” Rabha says.

Lack of development in the areas in and around Manas has been a major factor that has been having a negative impact on conservation. The prolonged social unrest and insurgency in the 1980s and the 1990s severely affected the development process in the region, besides weakening the law-and-order situation. ‘Taxes’ imposed by the militant outfit NDFB on the people are still prevalent in many areas. “The state of environment can be an unflattering account of the overall law and order of an area, and there can hardly be any better indicator of this than Manas,” says Rabha.

The poor security scenario at Manas is compounded by the constant friction between the fringe villagers and the Park authorities, which often assumes the ugly form of downright hostility and confrontation. Instances galore when seizure of illegally felled logs and nabbing of poachers led to violent retaliation from the local people. In many areas, the forest staff fears to lay their hands on illegally-felled timber because of violent reprisal from the offenders. In a recent case at Panbari Range, seized smuggled timber had to be released following violent public retaliation. Illegal timber mills continue to do business with impunity right under the nose of the forest authorities and the administration near the range.

In many cases, the illegal tree-fellers have been found to adopt innovative methods to carry on with their unlawful activities. One such method is to use women to pull the thelas carrying the timber. “Naturally, we hesitate to stop the women thela-pullers, as such an act is sure to be interpreted by the miscreants as laying our hands on the women. Such an incident actually happened,” a staff says.

The Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (entire Manas has come under its jurisdiction following the creation of the district last year) cites fund crunch as the debilitating factor slackening Manas’ development. “We are committed to develop Manas, as it is an area of unique natural heritage. But the failure of the State Government to release funds in time has jeopardised our efforts, as even the Central grants are routed through the State Government only,” Bishiram Narzary, EM (Environment), BTAD, says.

State Forest Minister Pradyut Bardoloi, while admitting that the release of funds has been delayed, asserts that efforts are on to improve Manas. “The fear factor is still affecting its rebuilding process, which will naturally take some time. As part of our restoration drive, we have posted some efficient officers and staff there,” he says.

But the ground realities in Manas belie any assertion from the authorities that they have played their part towards its restoration. Till date, no comprehensive plan has been put in place to address the ills plaguing Manas. All these years, it only reveals telltale signs of sheer neglect and apathy. Just a couple of examples should suffice. Most of lost camps and beats — so crucial to the Park’s security — remain as they were even after a decade, as is the road leading to this World Heritage Site that continue to languish in a state of perennial neglect.

The immediate task at hand for the authorities would be, besides the primary responsibility of ensuring foolproof security to the Park, to win back the support of the local people because any more alienation of the people is sure to have a disastrous effect on conservation. A participatory approach involving the fringe villagers in income-generating activities as well as conservation has to be worked out. To bear fruit, the efforts should go beyond the occasional department-level programmes aimed at reducing biotic pressures on the Park. It should be ensured that such efforts remain sustainable and offer the poor people the choice of more dignified opportunities so that they do not turn to demeaning practices like poaching, tree-felling, etc. The NGOs, in particular, can take the lead in this regard through better coordination with the forest authorities and the grassroots people. The All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), which is doing a commendable job at Kokilabari in creating awareness and checking forest crimes, should step up their activities in other volatile areas as well.

Noted conservationist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, who is also the Deputy Commissioner of the newly-created Baksa district where the Park falls, says, “Sale of meat of wild animals like deer, civet, monitor lizard, turtle, various birds, etc., has been common in the markets across the district. But the administration is now initiating punitive measures to stop it. We have issued stringent notices to the gaonburhas (village headmen) and the market lessees to prevent illegal trade in animal products, which is punishable with both fine and imprisonment,” he says. The administration is also involving the Army in the conservation process. “Besides security purposes, we are engaging the Army in afforestation drives and have handed over vast expanses of degraded forest land to them,” he says.

Grassland management: While grasslands constituted almost half of the Manas National Park’s total area of 519 sq km area till some years back, recent satellite imagery and ground verification have confirmed that there has been a marked decline of ten to 12 per cent in the grassland cover, thereby reducing it to around 38 per cent of the Park area.

The invasion of Leea asiatica (Aathubhanga Ban) and Bombax ceiba (Simalu) is mainly responsible for the shrinking of grassland habitat in Manas. The invasion, again, has its roots in anthropogenic factors like resource exploitation, grazing pressure, man-made fire, etc.

Grasslands constitute a very important part of the Park, much of which is tall with rich diversity. Besides pigmy hog and hispid hare who are the two most endangered grassland dwellers, tiger, elephant, rhino, buffalo, hog deer, otter, Bengal florican, various partridges, peacock, etc., are also greatly dependent on the grassland habitat. Moreover, grasslands also act as corridors for movement of many animals.

This loss of grassland cover, though has not reached an alarming level as yet, is certainly a disturbing development that has the potential to cause a lot of harm in the future unless treated in a scientific manner at the earliest.

“Invasion of woody tree species is replacing grasslands up to fifty per cent in some blocks,” says Pranjal Bezbarua, a research scholar doing a project on the biodiversity status in the Manas Biosphere Reserve. Prof CK Baruah of gauhati University heads the project, while GC Sharma and Utpal Phukan are the two other research scholars. “In the riparian areas grasslands are shrinking due to succession,” he says.

Phyto-invasion by some undershrubs and tree species has quickened the shrinking and degrading of grassland in the Park. Significantly, such invasion is fast in the disturbed areas. The invasion of Bombax ceiba is a particularly disquieting phenomenon, as the species is fire-resistant. Early burning (late October to November, mid-December) is an effective tool for dealing with this invasive species because the seed-dispersal period of Simalu can be evaded through this. “Biomass sharing and minimising the effects of burning on the animals are the other benefits in this process,” Bezbarua says.

Late burning is for specific purpose, for which special care and monitoring is needed. Periodic burning has been the major method for grassland management in Manas. The normal procedure followed is to map the grassland area and demarcate the potential pigmy hog and Bengal florican habitat by cutting wide fire lines to form blocks of no less than two hectares. Simalu saplings are to be hacked off before they are four years old.

Grazing of cattle has been a persistent irritant in grassland management, as it can lead to a lot of undesirable invasion from weeds. “Supervision of mosaic burning when extended all over the grassland blocks, is difficult due to absence of beats,” says Rabha.

Research into the grassland ecosystem vis-à-vis the pigmy hog is on. “Pigmy hog and Bengal florican habitat can be easily restored just by stopping anthropogenic fire, domestic grazing and minimising the resource collection. In fact, the area can restored within a year,” says Bezbarua.

Floods are a natural tool for creating grasslands. “Floods create small sand bars that have the potential to become grassland areas in the near future,” he says.

Plant life is exceptionally rich and diverse in Manas, with 700 plant species, including new records, so far collected from the Biosphere Reserve. It may go up to 1,000 if the buffer areas, especially the Indo-Bhutan border, is properly explored.

The Park has very good patches of evergreen, semi-evergreen, and mixed deciduous forests with very rich diversity. A typical feature of the Manas vegetation has been its astounding self-sustaining and regenerating capacity.

Most plants in Manas have great medicinal and economic value, and are effectively used by the local people. Smuggling of medicinal plants on the western buffer has been a disturbing trend.

(Written under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowships)2,645 words – published on December 25, 2004

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