DIGBOI, June 27 - Contrary to tall claims by the forest authorities and a section of conservationists, Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary � the core area of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve � presents an appalling picture of neglect, making it extremely vulnerable to all sorts of illegal activities inside the supposedly protected forest.
Even forest officials admit that there has been serious compromises in the security of these famed rainforests and their diverse fauna.
The 111.19-sq km sanctuary and the sprawling 937-sq km (much of it lies degraded and fragmented today) elephant reserve constitute the last vestiges of the State�s rainforests that have been vandalized by opencast and rat-hole coal mining, besides large-scale logging. Yet another concern stems from sand and boulder mining in the sanctuary from the Dirak and Burhidehing riverbeds.
A field visit to the sanctuary by this correspondent revealed a shocking picture. Barely a kilometre into the sanctuary on the Dirak side were telltale signs of rat-hole mining. A group of men armed with sharp weapons and bows, with hunting dogs toeing them, was also seen roaming freely inside the forest � a case of community hunting, according to a local forest staff.
All this merits little surprise, given that a skeleton staff of 74 personnel out of a sanctioned strength of 214 mans the jungle, and forest camps inside the sanctuary are almost non-existent. While four posts of range officers have been lying vacant, some ailing officers are unable to discharge their obligations. There is no full-time DFO to the division either.
Atiqur Rahman, DFO in-charge, Digboi Forest Division, admitted that there had been rat-hole mining inside the forest but that �those were detected and closed down last year.�
Rahman added that they were doing their best despite the constraints and that the remoteness of the forests along the Arunachal Pradesh border posed difficulties in movement and vigilance.
�We are trying hard and have been able to prevent many forest crimes. We have also seized illegal coal-laden trucks and timber at various localities of our division,� he said.
NGO activists are quick to point out that illegalities had been rampant and an occasional drive would not yield any lasting results.
�We keep frequenting these areas and witnessed large-scale rat-hole mining and illegal logging, besides sand and stone extraction from riverbeds due to the lack of enforcement. The forest department needs to do better than coming up with the alibi of manpower shortage,� Devajit Moran, secretary of Greed Bud Society said.
Rat-hole mining had been widespread inside the sanctuary, just as across many other reserve forests of the elephant reserve, he added.
When asked, PCCF, Assam, AM Singh said that manpower crunch had been a persistent issue. �We are making some interventions... We recently added some 20 frontline personnel from different locations to the sanctuary and more will be added,� he said.
Another forest official wishing anonymity said that the Digboi division had been the most neglected division despite the fact that it harboured the maximum part of the sanctuary. �No manpower, no amenities... even the few camps are dilapidated,� he said.
A retired forest officer, who had served in the sanctuary, said that shortage of staff should not be a pretext for compromising on security. �We too had functioned with limited manpower, but that did not deter our zeal to protect the wildlife habitat. We used to do a lot of patrolling even with our limited personnel. Most of all, you need is dedication,� he said.