GUWAHATI, Sept 27 - While the eviction drive in the peripheral areas of Kaziranga National Park has understandably evoked mass appreciation, conservationists believe that freeing vast tracts of forests including areas inside protected forests (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks) under illegal occupation will be the real test for the Forest Department and the State Government.
As per official data the encroached area inside protected areas (PAs) across the State is 159.69 sq km. Unfortunately, no attempt has been made over the years to clear the encroachment, with the consequence that areas under illegal occupation have kept expanding. Sonai Rupai and Amchang wildlife sanctuaries exemplify best this disturbing phenomenon.
Worse is the case with the reserve forests (RFs) which constitute as much as 82 per cent of the State’s total classified forest cover. Officially, a staggering 3,396 sq km of RFs across the State is under encroachment but the figure is bound to be an understatement given that encroachment has been consistently on the rise in the RFs which do not have any effective protective mechanism.
“The eviction drive near Kaziranga is a welcome initiative, as the area now freed is crucial as Kaziranga’s buffer zone besides providing contiguity to the Karbi Anglong highlands. However, the need is to take the eviction drive to its logical conclusion by covering all the protected areas that have witnessed encroachment,” Anupam Sarma of WWF-India told The Assam Tribune.
Cautioning against discriminating on the basis of the ethnicity of the encroachers, Sarma said that encroachment – whether by local people or by suspected Bangladeshis – would have the same destructive impact.
“Encroachers irrespective of their ethnicity must be evicted. Many believe that the alacrity exhibited by the authorities in Kaziranga had a lot to do with the suspected citizenship status of the encroachers. Such an approach will not have the desired results; rather it will look as a show for public consumption,” he added.
Pointing out that vast tracts of forest in the North Bank – both RFs and wildlife sanctuaries and national parks – have been under large-scale encroachment, Sarma said that forests bordering Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan in particular had borne the brunt of aggressive organized encroachment, often having political backing.
“What is happening there is nothing short of a conservation crisis. Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and many other RFs such as Behali, Balipara, etc., to name only a few, have suffered serious degradation due to encroachment. The Government needs to carry out eviction drives in all the affected areas – more so in the protected areas – at the earliest,” he added.
Sounding a similar note, Dr Bibhab Talukdar of conservation NGO Aaranyak said that the recent eviction was appreciable but in order to be more convincing similar drives must be launched in other protected areas.