TEZPUR, Oct 16 - Sonitpur (West) Division of the Forest Department is at present facing an uphill task in combating the gradually increasing cases of human-elephant conflict due to lack of sufficient manpower.
It may be mentioned here that the low hilly forests along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border in the north bank of the Brahmaputra happens to be prime elephant habitat. This particular geographic space has two contiguous elephant reserves � Sonitpur Elephant Reserve in Assam and Kameng Elephant Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh with a population of over 615 elephants. There are a number of prominent elephant corridors as well in this region which connect the larger forest patches and make the entire region a larger connected space, ideal for large mammals like elephants to sustain themselves in good numbers.
However, the West Division of Sonitpur Forest Department also covers Nameri National Park, Sonai Rupai, sixth addition of Kaziranga National Park, Chardwar Reserve Forest, Sengelimari Reserve Forest, Balipara Reserve Forest, Bhumuraguri Reserve Forest, Burhasapori Reserve Forest, Lawkhowa Reserve Forest and Singri Reserve Forest respectively.
Though these forests are major wild elephant habitat in Sonitpur, however, due to growing denudation, the wild elephant herds often stray out to human habitations like Tarajuli, Sonajuli, Borjuli, Ghoiralie, Dhulapadung and Rupajuli tea garden areas in search of fodder.
More importantly, from Nameri side they amble along Phulbari, Naharani, Namgaon, Adabari, Harsura, Sesa, Durung and converge near Tezpur and Ghogra TEs touching Bindukuri, Pokhiajhar, Mouamari-Kochari, Kalita gaon, Depota, Da-Beseria etc., villages where they often create havoc, thereby leading to the much-discussed human-elephant conflict.
To deal with this serious issue, the Forest Department obviously needs a strong team having sufficient manpower. But unfortunately, due to superannuation of many staff members under Sonitpur (West) Forest Department, it has to deal with occasional cases of human-elephant conflict with great difficulty due to acute manpower shortage.
Though official records reveal that 245 men should have been available, but the actual position is altogether different. As 117 posts are lying vacant due to non-recruitment since quite long, the department has been facing stiff challenges while implementing any type of work.
Expressing serious concern over the government�s lackadaisical attitude towards the issue, honorary wildlife warden Saurav Barkataki mentioned that despite repeated pleas to the Forest Department, the Government of Assam has not taken the matter seriously.
�Still, we are working dedicatedly to save both wildlife and human beings from the ever-increasing cases of human-elephant conflict,� he said, adding that only because of the dedicated service by our minimal staff in comparison to other districts, Sonitpur has a substantially lower rate of elephant deaths.
Praying for early recruitment to the vacant posts in a memorandum submitted to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, he stated that out of 245 sanctioned posts of various categories under Sonitpur (West) Forest Division, only 128 posts were filled up and almost 50 per cent posts are still lying vacant, which has severely hampered in running the Division smoothly, besides minimising instances of human-elephant conflict.
There are 52 sanctioned posts of Forester I (one) in this Division against which there are only 33 foresters I (one) available, thereby keeping 19 posts vacant. Out of 19 Foresters I, two persons retired on September 2 last.
Apart from 102 sanctioned posts of forest guards in this Division, 52 posts are lying vacant. Further, out of 9 sanctioned posts of game watchers in this Division, 6 posts are lying vacant.
Additionally, this Division is located in a very strategic location having inter-State border and heavy encroachment problem. It is surrounded by five protected areas such as KNP, NNP, Orang National Park, Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and Burhasapori Wildlife Sanctuary. As such, the magnitude of human-wildlife conflict is much higher in comparison to other forest divisions.
During the current year, many people lost their lives in this Division while a good number of wild elephants too have perished. This belt is also a major rhino-tiger zone. But without sufficient number of frontline staff and other logistics, it is simply not possible to improve the situation any further.
Further, anti-depredation duties could not be carried out effectively on time due to shortage of departmental drivers following which rented (untrained) drivers had to be hired for providing back-up to the emergency staff.
It is worth mentioning that elephant depredation is a common phenomena and there are frequent instances of human-elephant conflict. The human-elephant conflict scenario in Sonitpur is gaining momentum day by day and cases of elephant depredation too are also on the rise. Though the department is putting its best foot forward in trying to mitigate cases of conflict and minimise damage, but perennial shortage of manpower and ancillary resources has hindered optimum efficiency in controlling the situation, especially when cases are reported at 3-4 locations simultaneously.
Instances are not rare when frontline staff despite being in the job 24x7 have to face the wrath of the communities affected by elephant depredations.
Recently, incidents of assault on field staff in certain tea estates has demoralised the Forest personnel, besides creating a sense of insecurity among the frontline staff.
However, despite the surmounting odds, the departmental personnel have tried to mitigate the human-elephant conflict with hired kunkies (trained elephant used for chasing away stray wild pachyderms) and available resources along with limited numbers of staff available in this Division.