GUWAHATI, Dec 1 - Almost four months into Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal�s announcement to upgrade Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary into a national park with additional areas, including the contiguous biodiversity-rich Jeypore reserve forest, things seem to have developed cold feet for reasons best known to the authorities.
Conservationists fear that any more delay in bringing the upgrade process to its logical conclusion will seriously hurt the long-term conservation prospects offered by the last remaining stretch of Assam�s invaluable rainforests together with the diverse wildlife and flora they sustain.
Disturbingly, there have been reports of continued illegal felling of trees in Jeypore since the past three-four months � something corroborated by visual evidence.
�The formalities need to be completed soon, as the delay is harming the cause of conservation. A national park status will ensure greater security and infrastructure for these rainforests. The Jeypore area in particular has been vulnerable to all sorts of depredation, especially illegal logging,� a forest source wishing anonymity told The Assam Tribune.
The source added that while the area of the proposed national park would have more than double the sanctuary�s current size of 111.19 sq km, some difficulty had arisen over a 10-sq km stretch near the Burhi Dehing and Dirok rivers, as the land in question fell under civil authorities. This in turn could entail a lengthy process of public hearing before it is handed over to the forest authorities.
�The rest of the proposed addition, including 84 sq km of Jeypore RF, will effectively double the existing sanctuary area. There are no issues with these RF areas and those can be immediately included in the national park,� the source said.
Also apparent is the fact that a vested interest lobby had been working overtime to derail the inclusion of Jeypore RF in the national park. This came to the fore when a recent presentation before an expert panel of the Union Environment and Forest Ministry by the Assam forest department on the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) made a shocking omission of Jeypore RF � before the revised map was rejected at the last minute due to intervention at the highest level of the department.
�The presentation done by an Additional PCCF was aimed at accommodating the hydrocarbon exploration proposals of Oil India Limited in the area. Shockingly, a section of the forest officials was supporting such a move,� the source said.
Many of the nearly 50 species of mammals found in the sanctuary were documented in the Jeypore area during a camera-trapping study conducted by wildlife biologist Kashmira Kakati during 2007-2009.
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 importance of Jeypore RF can hardly be overemphasized. 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,� Dr Kakati said.
Conservation activist Mridupaban Phukan, who has done extensive documentation of the sanctuary and the elephant reserve, said that Jeypore RF comprised 108 sq km of which an area of only 24 sq km is inside the sanctuary.
�Eighty-four square kilometres can easily be added to the sanctuary, besides 30 sq km from the adjoining Dilli RF that borders Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly, a sizeable area can be incorporated from the 275-sq km Upper Dehing West Block RF. Only 56 sq km of this RF are in the sanctuary at present,� 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 vandalized 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.
Notwithstanding the State government�s announcement about upgrading the sanctuary to a national park, conservationists believe that a sizeable expansion of the sanctuary would prove the authorities� sincerity.
�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,� Phukan said.