GUWAHATI, Aug 1 � The rising incidence of straying wildlife in the city - often resulting in conflict situations with humans - has remained a disturbing concern that has failed to elicit any serious mitigation effort from the Government, the Forest Department in particular.
While a leopard met with an accidental death in a well in a residential area on Tuesday, a python was rescued from inside a bathroom in another locality the next day. These incidents undoubtedly indicate a healthy presence of a wildlife within the city precincts that has a number of forested hills � including dozen-odd reserve forests and a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, the wildlife is being pushed to the brink with human settlements and industrial activities denuding much of the once-pristine wildlife habitat.
The Forest Department's lackadaisical response to the grave issue should be evident from the fact that the Gauhati High Court on Wednesday asked the Forest Department and the Government to form a fresh core committee to go in-depth into the raging man-animal conflict and initiate practical mitigation measures � both short-term and long-term.
Of particular concern should be the spurt in straying of leopards from the surrounding hills of the city. The phenomenon has been common but has worsened in recent years. Over the past decade a number of leopards have been caught and many killed by unruly mobs. Not just leopards, other species such as leopard cats, civets, etc., too have been among those recording a high incidence of fatality in the conflict.
The city has 18 hills right within its municipal area, with a substantial portion of the hills being reserve forests. Unfortunately, the hills have witnessed rampant loss of forest cover triggered by large-scale encroachment, illegal logging and earth-cutting with the authorities looking the other way. Eviction drives on the reserve forests on the hills are invariably met with stiff public resistance, with the political parties and different influential organisations lending their weight behind the encroachers.
�Encroachment on the reserve forests located in the hills has worsened in the last decade, to the extent that very little remains of what was once a vast expanse of jungle sheltering diverse wildlife, the leopard being a familiar resident. As leopards are highly adaptive animals, they can stay in close vicinity of human settlements and often prey on dogs, goats and poultry,� a forest official said
Notwithstanding the worsening man-animal conflict in the city, conservationists rue the failure of the Forest Department in putting in place an effective redressal system, especially a quick-response mechanism that can take care of straying animals and keep them out of harm's way in the event of a conflict with humans.
�The recently-launched rapid-response system is hardly operative, as the phone number is non-functional now. Even earlier, when one would dial the number, he would normally be directed to call up the State Zoo DFO. On the whole, the mechanism is not serving its purpose,� Moloy Baruah of Early Birds, an environmental NGO, said.
Baruah was also critical of the authorities' handling of the man-animal conflict, saying that nothing had been done to identify the core leopard habitats and lessen the mounting anthropological pressures along those zones. �All these years, the areas where leopards have a greater concentration and which are also its breeding ground, should have been identified and preservation measures taken accordingly,� Baruah said.
While no official up-to-date data is available, according to an official estimate dating back to several years, the total forest cover in the hills was a meagre 13.60 per cent. Today it is bound to be even less � given the ongoing encroachment and earth-cutting on the hills. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests but much of even the reserve forest lies destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.
While there has been no authentic assessment of the number of leopards inhabiting the city hills, unofficial accounts point to the presence of 70-odd leopards in these forests.