Unabated encroachment on in reserve forests
GUWAHATI, May 1 – Unabated encroachment in vast tracts of reserve forests (RFs) has posed a danger to long-term conservation prospects in the State. Official figures alone put the encroached area at approximately 3,396 sq km. Another 159.69 km of forests under protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) continue to be under encroachment.
Reserve forests have traditionally been a marginalized area, receiving little protection despite their immense significance from the point of conservation. Some of the reserve forests still constitute prime wildlife habitat besides forming contiguous belts with protected areas and linking those with other forests.
“Many of the protected areas today resemble islands, as they no longer have the contiguity — something vital for the success of long-term conservation — with nearby forests. This has happened because of widespread destruction of reserve forests due to encroachment. The intensifying man-elephant conflict is also a direct fallout of the loss of animal corridors and habitat formed by reserve forests,” Dr Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak, an environmental NGO, said.
The importance of reserve forests should be evident from the fact that they, together with proposed reserve forests, constitute over 81 per cent of the State’s total forest cover. Of the State’s total classified forest cover of 20,898 sq km, reserve forests (13,870 sq km) and proposed reserve forests (3,103 sq km) make up 16,973 sq km. Protected areas account for just 3,925 sq km. But regrettably, much of the reserve forests stands degraded today due to encroachment and tree-felling.
According to Dr Talukdar who is also a member of the National Wildlife Board, there is an urgent need for according protection to the reserve forests, especially those forming contiguous belts with protected areas and those having a good concentration of animals.
“We still have some reserve forests bordering sanctuaries and national parks. These need to be upgraded to protected areas for boosting conservation,” Dr Talukdar said.
Some important reserve forest belts that can be upgraded to protected areas include Rani-Garbhanga in Guwahati, Ultapani-Ripu Chirang in Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD), Sonai-Nameri-Behali in Sonitpur, and Upper Dehimg-Joypur in Tinsukia besides a stretch in the Barail hills.
“In addition, some reserve forest belts to the north of Kaziranga in Karbi Anglong merit urgent inclusion in the national park,” Dr Talukdar said.
A State forest official, preferring anonymity, said that major decisions would have to be made at political levels if the future of the reserve forests were to be secured.
“Our infrastructure and security are abysmal even in some of the protected areas. It is hardly surprising that reserve forests are languishing. Unless we adopt a holistic approach towards conservation nothing will materialize,” he said, adding that organized encroachment often enjoyed political support.
From the point of wildlife concentration too, reserve forests warrant better protection. The recent nationwide tiger census traced the presence of a sizeable tiger population outside protected areas. In Assam and Arunachal Pradesh also, evidence is there to indicate the occurrence of many animals in reserve forests.
Asif Ahmed Hazarika, a conservationist who conducted a survey of tiger habitat in the reserve forests of Arunachal, found evidence of a healthy population of the big cat in those forests.
“Reserve forests of Arunachal constitute an ideal tiger habitat, and improving their security is a must to sustain the tiger population there,” he said.