MUSHALPUR, Feb 1 � Eastern Himalayan region is identified as one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Manas Tiger Reserve, which is included under Eastern Himalayan region, is also known as the habitat of flagship species like Asian elephant and Indian rhinoceros. This tiger reserve, also adorned as a biosphere reserve, Elephant Reserve National Park and World Heritage Site (core zone) is overlapped by conservation zones like North Bank Landscape and Bhutan Biological Conservation Complex. Unfortunately this important landscape has been facing great threat to its unexplored rich biodiversity due to continuous forest exploitation and poaching by forest mafias since 1987 taking advantage of political unrest.
Though the situation improved significantly since 2004 after the creation of Bodoland Territorial Council, the exploitation of forest resources has been going on in different zones. Efforts of different organisations and the local forest authority has undoubtedly resulted in better community participation in conservation of Manas.
The ecosystem service of Manas landscape cannot be measured in terms of rupees. The loss of this ecosystem will not only destroy wildlife but the traditional livelihood of indigenous people of the region. Therefore, an active involvement of the local community in minimising the poaching threat and forest can be ensured if a friendly buffer can be made through community conservation. Community conservation activities in Manas tiger reserve, especially in buffer areas are limited due to remoteness of the area, vast fringes and limited resources. But, it will be a long lasting and a cost effective tool for overall protection of biodiversity of Manas landscape.
Therefore, Grasshopper, (a society for biodiversity conservation in North East India) working in Manas, has been engaged in developing a design of community conservation model where better biodiversity protection as well as better socio-economic upgradation of local communities can be ensured. As part of the programme, the society has been working to evaluate the present socio-economic problem of the fringe villagers including man-elephant conflict in eastern buffer, finding for alternative livelihood considering the traditional lifestyle and locally available resources, helping frontline conservation NGOs and conservation awareness campaign. While piggery and weaving are traditional vocations preferred by major part of villagers surveyed, its value addition is highly expected to help the forest dependants, conservation volunteers and poor villagers to upgrade their socio-economic condition. As very less amount of land is required for these two vocations, it can also help in mitigating man-elephant conflict in terms of discouraging encroachment of forest areas. The preliminary study of Grasshopper indicated that elephant corridor and habitats have been badly fragmented, crop damage by wild elephants has increased and death of both humans and the pachyderm has resulted due to the conflicts. With support of local NGO Manas Sousi Khongkhor Ecotourism Society, Grasshopper has been continuing its works. Giving a boost to the initiative State Institute of Rural Development (SIRD), Assam has come forward to support the NGO in promoting weaving and piggery in the region.
This SIRD, Assam programme is to encourage women empowerment through promoting weaving and piggery in remote villages. Under this programme, Cluster of Joint Liability Groups (JLG) for weaving and Self Help Groups (SHG) for piggery have been formed in two areas � one in fringes of eastern buffer and another in fringe villages of core zone of Manas. The reason of selecting fringes of core zone is to encourage grassland restoration activities of another local NGO Manas Agrang Society. The objective is to support rhino and tiger conservation in core zone. While the number of members is five for each JLG, it is ten for forming an SHG. With support of both local conservation NGOs, Grasshopper is working closely with SIRD to select beneficiaries to form 20 JLGs and 20 SHGs for fringes of Manas. There will be four clusters with 10 JLGs/SHGs each in fringes of buffer and core zone of Manas Tiger Reserve. SIRD will provide detail training to JLGs on weaving (about 25 days) while short training for piggery will be also arranged for SHGs. Secondly the trained JLGs & SHGs will get support (in kind/cash) of government subsidy and loan from local banks to start their respective livelihood options.
Monitoring of the overall performance and extending all possible help when necessary are also part of this long term programme. Two awareness cum motivational programmes have been already organised in both the areas by Grasshopper; SIRD, Assam; Manas Sousi Khongkhor Ecotourism Society and Manas Agrang Society. Dr Pranjal Bezbarua, secretary, Grasshopper expressed hope that with the success of the programme and based on availability of resources more families of forest dependants may be supported in future to ensure practical community conservation and subsequent biodiversity protection of Manas landscape.