GUWAHATI, June 3 - While pressure from coal and oil lobbies effectively restricted the size of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary to a 111.19 sq km out of a contiguous belt of over 500 sq km of rainforests � among the largest such stretch in the country, conservationists and foresters assert that it is still possible to expand its area and upgrade it to a national park. This, they say, is a dire need in view of the rampant forest loss in the area due to coal mining.
Assam has not seen upgrading of any protected forests to national park since 1999 whereas many other states have declared a large number of national parks in the past 20 years. The original proposal for the wildlife sanctuary, which was created in 2004, envisaged an area of 440 sq km in 1989. This was subsequently reduced to 267 sq km in 1996, and ultimately an area of 111.19 sq km was covered under the sanctuary.
Forest sources privy to the developments at government level during various stages prior and after the creation of the sanctuary told The Assam Tribune that a proposal for upgrading it to a national park was also there though it did not attain concrete stage.
�But it is easily possible to expand its area by more than double its present size and declare it as a national park. In fact, this is a dire need and the unique aspects of these forests and the amazing range of wildlife they support perfectly corroborate such an intervention,� sources said.
Asserting that the second proposal for having an area of 267 sq km was perfectly feasible even today, sources said that expanding it as per the original proposal of 440 sq km was unrealistic today due to loss and fragmentation of the contiguous stretch.
�The original proposal is non-implementable today due to the changing reality but the 267 sq km area is still intact. The State government should immediately add the additional 156 sq km area to the sanctuary and elevate it to a national park. These areas do not have forest villages and are free from any disturbances, including mining. This will save a large stretch of our remaining rainforests,� a forest official said.
Conservationist and retired bureaucrat Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, who had prepared the first two proposals of the sanctuary encompassing a larger area, said the sanctuary can easily be expanded by incorporating the large remaining area of Jeypore reserve forest (RF), and some areas from the remaining parts of Upper Dehing (West Block) and Digboi (West Block) RFs as mapped in 1994.
The present sanctuary is formed out of Dirak RF, a large part of Upper Dehing RF, and a small part of Jeypore RF.
�Apart from the sanctuary, it is the Jeypore area where Assam�s State tree � the hollong � can be seen at its best, with many trees towering over 150 feet. The greater Important Bird Area (IBA) complex comprising Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, six RFs and three proposed RFs form the largest contiguous rainforest area in Assam,� he added.
The Dehing Patkai rainforests shelter 47 mammals, including eight species of cats, seven species of primates including India�s only ape hoollock gibbon, five species of hornbills and other endangered birds, a large elephant population, and wide varieties of reptiles and insects. It is also the last stronghold of the highly-endangered white-winged wood duck, Assam�s State bird.
Meanwhile, Pradip Bhuyan, an octogenarian along with conservationist Joydeep Bhuyan have challenged before the NGT the recent NBWL approval for open cast coal mining at Saleki PRF which is a part of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.