DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, June 28 - At a time when rapidly-dwindling elephant habitat has hogged global attention, Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve � Assam�s prime pachyderm habitat � is being pushed to the brink by coal mining, logging, and encroachment.
Significantly, the elephant reserve created in 2003 also comprises the State�s last remaining rainforests that shelter wide-ranging fauna such as the tiger and six other species of wild cats, six primate species, including India�s only ape hoolock gibbon, over 350 bird species, including State bird white-winged wood duck, reptiles, insects and rare orchids.
�Vast tracts of the elephant reserve that comprises several dozen reserve forests (RFs) and proposed reserve forests (PRFs), besides the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, have been lost due to rampant illegal logging, rat-hole mining and organised encroachment. A section of corrupt forest officials are also responsible for the sorry situation,� a forest official wishing anonymity told The Assam Tribune.
He added that deforestation had been most in Doomdooma Forest Division, followed by Digboi and Dibrugarh.
He said that legal opencast mining by Coal India had also done irreversible damage to the forest belt across the Ledo-Margherita area. �If the British could do underground mining over a hundred years back, why cannot Coal India do the same today to prevent forest loss? Coal India also did illegal mining at Saleki PRF without obtaining forest clearance for years,� he said.
During a visit to the elephant reserve, this correspondent witnessed large-scale rat-hole mining and deforestation in the forests.
According to Devajit Moran, secretary of NGO Green Bud Society, loss of forest cover inside the elephant reserve is widespread and little is being done to reverse the trend.
�Rat-hole mining has been rampant in around a dozen RFs and PRFs under Digboi Forest Division which also accounts for two-thirds of the wildlife sanctuary. Deforestation due to illegal logging and encroachment is widespread as is illegal sand and stone mining in the Burhidehing and the Dirak,� he said, adding that poaching of wildlife is also rampant.
Moran said that the forest department should prioritize according protection to the remaining forests because much of the forest loss was irrecoverable, with human settlements and cropland replacing the jungles.
According to official data, illegal coal mining has been reported in Compartment No. 2 of Namphai RF, Tinkapani RF, Tipong RF and PRF, Tirap RF and PRF, Lekhpani RF and Saleki PRF � all under Digboi division. Conservationists term it as an underestimate.
A top forest official said that action had been initiated against some forest officials of Digboi division for dereliction of duty in connection with illegal mining. �We do field inspections and inquiries from time to time to check such illegalities, including illegal coal mining, and the reports are also submitted to the authorities concerned and the State government for requisite action,� he said, adding that many seizures of coal, vehicles and machinery had been made.
Once spread over a contiguous belt of 937 sq km, the elephant reserve is governed under four divisions in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar districts. The forests also link the Dehing Patkai with Arunachal Pradesh forests, providing a large stretch of elephant habitat.