An important animal corridor in the world famous Kaziranga National Park is almost blocked due to human intervention. Experts say this could spell disaster for both human beings and animals in the future, reports Teresa Rehman
With hands on his waist, conservationist Uttam Saikia stands on the National Highway 37. He points out to the zone which was once the Panbari animal corridor. Saikia, who is also honorary wildlife warden of Golaghat district is pained by the fact that the important animal corridor is now blocked by illegal stone mining on one side and human settlement on the other.
His eyes wear a forlorn and helpless look as he helplessly saw this happen right in front of his eyes from 2005 onwards. “This was once a corridor for wild animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger. Now it’s almost blocked. When we care only for our selfish interests, the plight of the animals become secondary,” he sighs.
Saikia points out that rampant illegal mining is going on in the foothills of Karbi Anglong and this is badly affecting Kaziranga, especially in the animal corridors of Panbari Reserve Forest and Panbari is an ideal corridor for the Royal Bengal Tiger. “More than 62 stone quarries and stone crushers are destroying the habitat and creating serious roadblock to animal migration,” he says.
The rampant mining has also led to erosion in the low-lying areas of Kaziranga. “A heavy shower brings down with it soil, sand and stones which has caused heavy siltation in the small streams below. Many culverts near the NH 37 have been blocked,” Saikia points out. Moreover many tea gardens and rubber plantations have come up and destroyed the habitat.
On the other hand a village is also coming up there. All local people are occupying the land here inspite of the fact that this area falls under third addition of Kaziranga. “This settlement started since 2005-06 inspite of the fact that it’s a notified area. It started with 2-3 households. Now it’s a village and disconnects Kaziranga from Karbi Anglong,” he adds.
There were some Karbi villages in Panbari and gradually people moved out. Till recently, there were paddy fields in that area. In 1986, government gave a notification gave the area as an addition of KNP. In 1995, the government gave a relocation package and compensation. People did not agree. They wanted alternate land. They had even approached the Gauhati High Court. The government gave notification three times. Many voluntary organizations tried to pitch in.
“We at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) secure vital corridors. As a welfare team, we had negotiated with the people on the importance of the corridor. In 2008, they gave a written consent. We gave a welfare package alongwith the government compensation. Now we are ready to give them market value from WTI and hand them over to the forest department,” says Dilip Deori, Assistant Manager, WTI.
The Panbari Animal Corridor is one of the vital corridors apart from Kanchanjuri, Haldibari and Amguri. “It is one of the most vital corridors. In fact, this corridor connects Nagaland and reaches upto Myanmar,” adds Deori. WWF’s Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Conservation Programme (KKL) has also been working to document the above corridors by initiating conservation activities involving communities around them since 2005.
In an interesting development, the National Green Tribunal had issued notices to the Ministry of Environment and Forest and the Assam government on January 5 restraining them from granting fresh approval to any industrial or stone crushing unit in the vicinity of the famed Kaziranga National Park or renewing the existing ones.
Asking the ministry to conduct a survey in the park’s vicinity, the Tribunal also expressed its displeasure on the ministry’s failure to a respond to the plea which alleged unregulated quarrying and mining activities in the ‘No Development Zone’ around the park and Tiger Reserve and Karbi-Anglong Elephant Reserve in Assam.
The order came on a petition by RTI activist Rohit Chaudhary seeking directions to the government to stop quarrying and stone crushing units around Kaziranga National Park. It was way back in 1996, the ministry had declared the national park an eco-sensitive zone and thus it became a no-development zone for any industrial project. It was part of the ministry initiative to protect as many as 600 national parks and sanctuaries across the country.
Earlier too, Saikia had been actively participating in a bid to create awareness among the local people. There were efforts to come to an understanding with the villagers by several groups. In November 2009, a meeting was held at the Panbari Animal Corridor by representatives of the Bokakhat Press Club, Aaranyak and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) with the local people and the village headman who had occupied the land. WTI trying to motivate the people of that area to leave the place and WTI ready to pay them an amount alongwith the government compensation but they paid no heed.
“The local people were adamant and refused to move out. They also supported the mining as a source of livelihood,” says Saikia. But in a new development, the stone crushers have started using sophisticated instruments and many workers have lost their jobs.
The reasons that led to the nearing blocking of the corridor may seem complicated. But at the receiving end will be the animals. These changes will definitely affect the behaviour of the tiger population of Kaziranga National Park. Apart from being a success story on the conservation of the one-horned rhino, the Park also houses the highest number of big cats in the state. The tiger census of 2010 had shown an increase in the population of Royal Bengal tigers in Assam with a total of 143 big cats in the state. The globally recognised camera trapping method used in tiger census has revealed 118 Royal Bengal Tigers in Kaziranga National Park (KNP). Kaziranga has the highest density of royal Bengal tiger in the country.
Kaziranga was never associated with tigers till December 2007 when it was declared it as a Project Tiger Area. The numbers that seem to come from camera trap seems to suggest tiger population of anywhere between 75-100 in a total area of about 860 sq kms which is probably the highest density per sq kms in the country. Saikia says, “The animal is now forced to change their migration route to Karbi Anglong. And exploring a new route might lead to a conflict.”
The tiger is a sensitive animal. This increase in the density of the tiger population has led to additional problems. The sub-adult male can’t stay in the core area as the dominant male will attack them. These sub-adult males stray into neighbouring areas and even swim to the char (riverine) areas in the Brahmaputra. They prey on domestic animals and cattle till they grow into full-grown adults and then they fight with the existing males.
Over the years the man-animal conflict is also on the rise. There were two incidents of Royal Bengal tigers coming out to the fringe and killed villagers separate incidents in November last year. There are instances when tigers are also poisoned by the villagers. Deori says, “The blockade of the Panbari Animal Corridor It will have a long-term impact on the tiger population, specially the transient (sub-adult) tiger who move out. If their movement is restricted, infighting will increase and they will kill each other. This will also lead to more man-animal conflict,” adds a wildlife worker.
The main stakeholders are the local people. Deori rues, “When we try explaining to the local people, they ask us, what use is an elephant or a tiger for us?” It is important that the local people join hands with the civil administration and wildlife activists and participate in the habitat restoration programmes. Political will is also needed to avert a disaster waiting to happen.
(This article was written under the aegis of the CSE’s 13th Media Fellowship: Backs to the wall: tigers, tiger habitats and conservation in India)