GUWAHATI, Sept 25 � While the decks are being cleared for a National Elephant Conservation Authority on the lines of the apex tiger conservation body, conservationists feel that any attempt at ensuring a secure future for the pachyderm must address the all-important issue of rapid degradation of the State�s reserve forests.
This is because reserve forests and not protected areas (sanctuaries and national parks) form the bulk of the elephant habitat. Of the total 41,000 sq km of elephant habitat in the North-East, a meagre 5,927 sq km (14.46 per cent) occur in 16 protected areas. Destruction and fragmentation of reserve forests together with encroachment on elephant corridors have pushed the man-elephant conflict to perilous dimensions.
Assam has five Elephant Reserves � Sonitpur ER (1,420 sq km), Dehing-Patkai ER (937 sq km), Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong ER (3,270 sq km), Dhansiri-Lungding Elephant Reserve (ER) (2,740 sq km), and Chirang-Ripu ER (2,600 sq km). However, only a small part of these reserves falls in protected areas, leaving the rest exposed to deforestation because of insufficient protection measures.
Ecological restoration of existing natural habitats as well as migrating routes and corridors had been two prime objectives of Project Elephant, which was launched in 1992 to address the growing threats to elephants and their habitat. How successful it has been in achieving those hardly needs any elaboration. �The man-elephant conflict is largely attributable to rampant destruction in reserve forests and encroachment on elephant corridors. It is time the reserve forests � a traditionally neglected area � got adequate protection measures. Unless reserve forests, especially those providing contiguity with sanctuaries and national parks, are protected, the situation is unlikely to ease,� Anupam Sarmah, coordinator of North Bank Landscape Conservation Programme, WWF-India, says.
The deplorable condition of the reserve forests in Sonitpur district which has been at the centre of the raging man-elephant conflict speaks for themselves. Most of the reserve forests � especially those along the Arunachal border and once constituting prime elephant territory � have witnessed alarming deforestation.
While Naduar, Sengelimara and Gahpur RFs have suffered hundred per cent forest cover loss, the extent of deforestation ranges from 40 per cent to 90 per cent in many others, i.e., Chariduar RF (70 pc), Balipara RF (70 pc), Biswanath RF (90 pc), Behali RF (40 pc), and Singlijan RF (40 pc). Even the Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary has undergone nearly 50 per cent degradation. In Udalguri district, the magnitude of forest cover loss in Udalguri-Bhairabkunda RF is almost hundred per cent, while it is 70 per cent in Rowta, 30 per cent in Khalingduar and 20-30 per cent in Barnadi Wildlife Sanctuary. �Our study shows a distinct shift in land cover pattern in Udalguri district over the past decade, with growing destruction and fragmentation of forests. The year 2009 recorded 14 and 10 human and elephant deaths respectively under the Dhansiri Forest Division in and around the Barnadi-Neoli-Khalingduar forest complex. The unusually high fatalities can almost entirely be attributed to forest degradation and land cover change,� Sarmah says.
Blockage of critical elephant corridors falling in reserve forests has compounded the man-elephant conflict. Growing obstructions to elephant corridors in the Neoli hill proposed reserve forest (PRF) of Udalguri which connects Khalingduar RF and Barnadi wildlife sanctuary in the east and west and the Bhutan hills in the north, best illustrates this.
Similar degradation has affected elephant corridors across the State and along the inter-State and international boundaries. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, which account for a combined elephant population of 8,782 (2008 census) out of a total of 9,005 in the North-East, have 15, 8 and 26 notified corridors respectively. Four and three corridors fall on the Assam-Arunachal and Assam-Nagaland border respectively besides another two on the Arunachal-Nagaland border. In addition, six, four and three trans-national corridors of the North-East occur on the Indo-Bangladesh, Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Myanmar boundaries respectively. Attributing the degradation of elephant corridors to growing human settlements, besides industrial and agricultural activities, Sarmah says that several corridors in Assam and Arunachal such as the Tipi corridor linking Pakke Tiger Reserve and Doimara RF; the Pakke-Papum RF corridor near Sijusa; and the Drupong-Doimukh corridor, were highly degraded. The Subansiri-Dulung corridor at Singri is no longer used by elephants while the ones at Pasighat-Sibokorang, Poba-Kobo-D�ering, Sonai Rupai-Singri and East Siang-Laimekuri are facing increasing anthropogenic pressures.
To the south of the Brahmaputra too, the same problem persists. In Kaziranga National Park, the existing important corridors, i.e., Haldibari, Kanchanjuri and Panbari, have been under growing human pressure and those could be lost unless measures are initiated to prevent further damage.
Suresh Chand, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Assam, says that the Forest Department has taken up some initiatives for restoration of degraded elephant habitat and corridors is making efforts under Project Elephant.
�We have a plantation programme for the Elephant Reserves that have witnessed forest cover loss. We are also working out a plan to reclaim land on some of the elephant corridors falling on private land, tea plantation, etc.,� he says.