DIGBOI/MARGHERITA, July 20 - Notwithstanding the State government�s announcement to upgrade Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to a national park, conservationists assert that it is the expansion of the 111.19-sq km sanctuary that will test the authorities� sincerity.
The tiny sanctuary is part of a much larger contiguous habitat of rainforests (937 sq km) � officially classified as Assam Valley Tropical Wet Evergreen Forest � that extends to the three districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar. Not the entire belt is linked today, as the forests have endured destruction and fragmentation.
According to sources in the forest department, the final boundary demarcation for the sanctuary�s expansion would take some time, given the elaborate procedures involving public hearings, settlement of forest villages, addressing issues of coal and oil leases, etc.
�Yet, rest of Jeypore reserve forest can be included immediately in the national park. In fact, it is a must, given its extremely luxuriant tree cover and diverse wildlife. Significantly, this contiguous area is free from coal and oil stakes,� an official said.
Conservation activist Mridupaban Phukan, who has done extensive documentation of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary and the elephant reserve, said that Jeypore RF comprises 110 sq km of which only 24 sq km are inside the sanctuary.
�An area of 86 sq km can easily be added to the sanctuary, besides the 30 sq km of the adjoining Dilli RF that borders Arunachal Pradesh. The best part of Jeypore is still lying as RF. Similarly, a sizeable area can be incorporated from the 275-sq km Upper Dehing West Block RF,� he said.
Phukan was critical of the forest department for the sorry plight of both the sanctuary and the elephant reserve. �The forests have been vandalised for long, thanks to the abysmal protective mechanism. The prevailing security in the sanctuary is deplorable, making it vulnerable to different illegal activities like rat-hole mining and poaching,� he added.
Many of the nearly 50 species of mammals found in the sanctuary were documented at the Jeypore area during a camera-trapping study conducted by wildlife biologist Dr Kashmira Kakati during 2007-2009.
�The importance of Jeypore RF can hardly be overemphasised. It was for the first time in the world that seven species of cats, including the tiger, were recorded from just one site. Many of our RFs, therefore, deserve more research and conservation attention,� she said.
Jeypore is the area where one can see Assam�s State tree � Holong � at its magnificent best, towering over 50 metres. It is also a major habitat for elephants and hoolock gibbon, India�s only ape.
�The Dehing Patkai forests have many unique aspects, not the least it being the last vestiges of our rainforests and the wide-ranging fauna � many of which are endemic to these rainforests � they shelter. The government�s thrust on keeping a large tract as reserve forests for revenue-generating productive purposes hindered the creation of a larger wildlife sanctuary in 2004,� another forest official said.
He added that rampant deforestation due to coal mining � both legal and illegal � besides illegal logging was eroding vast tracts of the reserve forests, frustrating the objective of sustainable use of forest resources.
�The present size of the sanctuary is too small to cater to its diverse wildlife, especially elephants. The animals naturally use the contagious forested areas. A national park with a sizeable area can help eco-tourism too, serving better the goal of sustainable development,� he said.
The presence of a sizeable elephant population in the Dehing Patkai range and also the tiger � not to mention its importance as the best refuge of white-winged wood duck, Assam�s State bird � further buttresses the claim for expanding the proposed national park.
A national park would also help long-term wildlife conservation by ensuring undisturbed contiguity with the Arunachal Pradesh forests, including the Deomali Elephant Reserve.
Assam at present has five national parks � Kaziranga, Manas, Orang, Nameri and Dibru-Saikhowa.