GUWAHATI, Sept 6 – Rampant deforestation in the forests of the vast North Bank Landscape (NBL) spread along the north of the Brahmaputra extending up to the eastern Himalayan foothills, across the States of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, has been at the root of the raging man-elephant conflict in Udalguri and Sonitpur districts.
Until recently, the NBL -- distributed among 19 districts of the two States -- used to have a continuous belt of forest cover providing secure refuge to a significant population of over 2,000 Asian elephants along with other important mammals like rhino, tiger, water buffalo, pygmy hog, etc.
"This pristine wildlife habitat suffered an unprecedented forest loss (approx. 65 per cent in Assam part of NBL) during 1991to 2001 resulting in reduction and fragmentation of critical wildlife habitats. Populations of large mammals like elephants which need vast areas to function are in danger of becoming further fragmented into smaller population units," Anupam Sarmah, coordinator of WWF-India's NBL Conservation Programme said.
Unfortunately, the situation post-2001 witnessed little
improvement, and the loss and fragmentation of forest cover in the past decade continued unabated.
"The initial outcome of 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 said.
Blockage of critical elephant corridors so essential for the movement of long-ranging animals is another important driver of 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.
"This is one of the most important habitats as well as a vital corridor for elephants which connects all these three important patches of forests very critical for the survival of the NBL elephant population. However, in recent years this area has undergone alarming degradation threatening the connectivity among the adjoining habitats," Sarmah said.
As a direct consequence, the man-elephant conflict in the vicinity of Barnadi, Khalingduar and Neoli forest stretches has been escalating in the last few years. Apart from being a known elephant corridor for east-west movement of elephants, the Neoli PRF also serves as a buffer zone for the forest of neighbouring Bhutan.
"Because of tremendous anthropogenic pressure, this particular forest patch has undergone significant degradation. Illegal and unplanned developmental activities and construction of SSB camps on the corridor is obstructing the free movement of elephants," Sarmah said.
According to Sarmah, the socio-political unrest, ethnic conflicts and large-scale felling combined with subsequent encroachment of the forests in the Assam part of the landscape has reached unmanageable proportions.
"In Arunachal Pradesh, the increasing need for flat land for development and large-scale migration of people from higher altitudes to the road heads and valleys is taking away vital linkages connecting elephant populations and habitats," Sarmah said.
Forest officials, while acknowledging the gravity of the situation, maintain that both short-term and long-term measures are being initiated to ease the problem.
"While protection and regeneration of some critical habitat is a must in the long run, our immediate thrust has also been on reducing both human and elephant casualties in the conflict. The short-term measures include use of fire crackers and trained kunkis (domesticated elephants) to ward off raiding wild herds. The villagers are also being educated on elephant behaviour so that they do not confront an elephant aggressively when it is sighted near human settlements. We are also releasing the compensations for crop and property damage immediately for checking retaliatory killings," a forest official said.
Conservationists feel that unless the remaining forests and corridors are protected with immediate effect, the elephants and the rich biodiversity of the landscape could very soon sink into oblivion.