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Monday, June 18, 2012

Animal kingdom reels under a human invasion

Pinak Priya Bhattacharya, TNN | Jun 18, 2012, 06.51AM IST Scene 1 (On Murti bridge, NH-31 , Jalpaiguri district): It's homecoming time and the sprightly Murti roars along its gravelled pathway into the lap of the jungle . The sun, too, having finished its day's business, slides idly behind the horizon of towering willows that make up the fringes of the Gorumara National Park. As birds chatter and insects screech, the wind whips up the Dooars crescendo — a melody of cacophonic sounds that welcomes a visitor in these sylvan plains of North Bengal and Assam. This otherworldly charm is broken by a gruff, rasping voice, bringing the focus back on the business at hand. "The site is ready," says the weather-beaten face, a narrow smile on the pan-stained lips. It is Bhola (name changed), one of the 'land lords' of the region. "Let's go," he adds, "And please remember my commission, in cash." The second part of the sentence is spoken like a warning. Scene 2 (Two hours earlier, at a watchtower inside Gorumara): The speck of green on the white river is obviously what has caught the deer's attention. It sniffs at it, licks it and even gives it a playful poke with its sharp horns even as the foreign object — a green crushed beer can — floats downstream and bobs up in front of another couple of deer grazing a few hundred metres away. But not given to the free-spirited ways of their thirsty mate, they ignore the invader. The rare sights are captured in a flurry of clicks by excited tourists, oblivious to the alarm bells they set off in the mind. The contamination is spreading fast. Bhola and the beer can are representatives of the twin maladies that have infected the picturesque and richly bio-diverse Gorumara forest — unregulated tourism and an explosion of commercial activity around the forest's perimeter. Along with the Buxa and Jaldapara reserves, Gorumara forms Bengal's famous forest troika in the Dooars as the home of the one-horned rhinoceros and over a century-old forest retreat established during British rule. The upscale tourist's fantasy and the creative Bengali's muse, the lone bungalow deep inside the forest's belly was for long civilization's only window to Gorumara's animal kingdom — elephants, bisons, leopards, the rare hornbills and of course, the rhinos. Wildlife activist Belinda Wright's mother Anne has fond memories of the Gorumara of the 70s. "I knew the place well. In those days, the only place to stay there was the forest bungalow with its lovely viewing point that looked down on the jungle," she says. If Anne were to visit Gorumara today , she would understand the scale of the invasion. The forest bungalow and its viewing point remain intact but have lost their coveted status. What was for close to a century a forested stretch of highway interspersed with tea gardens is now home to about 90 resorts — average to plush, budget to luxury — that began sprouting at the turn of the millennium . At a vantage point in the Dooars, and a few hours' drive from Darjeeling , Kalimpong and Gangtok, Gorumara is a tour operator's dream. A dream that has been realized in the maze of resorts that now have the national park in a stranglehold and the number of tourists — at least 70,000 a year, according to Kamal Bhowmick, secretary of the Lataguri Resort Owners' Association. While officials like to harp on the development story and the fillip to the local economy, the source of the beer can floating inside the forest reveals the real danger of such a lopsided theory. On the partially dried up Murti river bed, at least a couple of kilometres past a 'No Entry' board that classifies the area as a part of Gorumara National Park, loud music blares from the decks of an SUV parked close to the river. A group of around 10 youths matches steps with 'Chammak Challo' and takes large swigs of beer, flinging can after can into the river that's flowing straight into the forest . "What better way than this to celebrate nature," one of the youths, an engineering college student, says. Curious case of Gorumara Gorumara has no buffer area. It may seem strange but, as forest officials point out, many protected areas, including reserve forests across India, have no buffer area. Yet, Gorumara is different. Some of the resorts in Lataguri — which alone hosts about 34 of the 90 that dot the region — Murti and Dhupjhora are right on the fringes of the forest, well within the range of a straying animal. The forest department says it has no right over the land and no control on construction activities on them. "Investors only need permission from the government's land department as these are private lands," says Bhowmick. Officials say in case of tribal lands, investors strike partnership deeds with local villagers, who have first ownership rights over the land, and give them a slice of profits. In short, there seem to be no legal hurdles to building a commercial establishment on the fringes of Gorumara, as is evident from the large-scale construction work visible on three sides of the forest. A senior state forest official points out that the Pollution Control Board (PCB) does have a rule that makes it compulsory for commercial premises within a kilometre of a national park to obtain a no-objection certificate (NOC). "It's the only real hurdle for investors . Unfortunately, there is no clarity on who should take action if the NOC rule is violated because the land technically does not belong to the forest department ," the official adds. While conservationist Raghu Chundawat blames this on "too many legislations , but no flexibility" , and green activists slam the authorities for ignoring the carrying capacity of the forest , the government argues Gorumara's core area is safe and tourism poses no threat. "Gorumara is a well-protected forest," says state forest secretary Subesh Das. "Our basic policy is that tourists will be only allowed in the forest's periphery, not in the core areas. There is also a demand that more tourism facilities should be allowed in the region," he adds. It's this demand that has made the land around Gorumara hot property. And brought into business Bhola and his growing clan. 'Land lords' : A big deal "This is the best site you can find to set up a resort," Bhola says, pointing to the river, which is less than 100 metres from the 15-bigha site he is trying to sell. "There will be nothing between your resort and nature. Perfect for honeymoons ," he adds with a wide, toothy grin. The meeting with Bhola was set up through some local contacts. The TOI correspondents met him and his two aides at a spot of their choice just outside Gorumara forest, posing as investors scouting for land. "Don't worry about the rules, just remember our commission , 4%, and everything will be taken care of," Bhola says as a possible 'deal' is discussed. Though he works as a tour operator's local partner, Bhola says fixing land deals is what earns him the big bucks. Agents like him hook up with potential buyers, show them the land, set the terms of the deal, bargain a price and finally set up a meeting with the actual land-owner . Land prices range anywhere between Rs 5lakh - Rs 10lakh per bigha, depending on the location and infrastructure . The 4% commission is charged from both the buyer and the seller . So, in a deal worth Rs 1crore, the 'fixer ' earns Rs 8 lakh. "It's good business," Bhola says. And it's brisk business, too. Plots on sale in Lataguri and Murti are advertized on prominent real estate sites and portals like Quikr. With the Gorkhaland agitation making Darjeeling an unreliable holiday spot and quake-shaken Sikkim still recovering from last year's tragedy, the Dooars has emerged as the preferred tourist destination in the east. A resort around Gorumara is, therefore, considered good investment with longterm profitability. Conservation vs Development The tourism dilemma is at the heart of a raging debate on how to protect natural wealth like forests and yet put them to profitable use. But the answers are lost in the din of political rhetoric, vested interests and highdecibel activism. Some of India's biggest tiger parks like Periyar, Ranthambore, Dudhwa and Mudumalai don't have buffer areas and are grappling with the same tourism conundrum as Gorumara. The area around Corbett national park was recently declared a silent zone — noise pollution is banned in a 500-metre radius around the forest — by the Uttarakhand government on the orders of the high court. But forest officials say every time a tourism project near a protected area is opposed, they are labelled "anti-development" . Many villagers around Gorumara, for instance, don't complain about the resort boom. "Earlier, a youth would make Rs 2,000 a month cutting wood. The same youth now makes Rs 5,000 a month driving tourist cars," one villager says. "But we don't like the Kolkata culture," he adds. "The tourists smoke, drink and cavort around here, it teaches our children bad things." A senior state forest official says the government is trying to raise awareness among local residents about the longterm impact on their livelihoods if the forest area dwindles. "But there should be more coordination between the PCB, the forest department and district officials to find a way to stop the unregulated growth of commercial structures," the official says, adding, "Of course, political will is required, too." The solution could come in the form of a national eco-tourism policy, the draft guidelines of which have been prepared by the MoEF. The carrying capacity of a forest is central to these guidelines. Gorumara, where tourists far outweigh the carrying capacity, can hope for a breather once the policy is notified. The state, too, has formed an eco-tourism development committee comprising experts and government officials to address these concerns. "The committee has been recently formed. A comprehensive policy is being formulated ," says forest secretary Das. Sumita Ghatak, DFO wildlife II, Jalpaiguri, adds, "We are trying to declare the area an eco-sensitive zone. The proposal is being readied and will be submitted soon." But proposals, guidelines and policies , however well-intentioned , must survive the scrutiny of committees, negotiate the hurdles of bureaucracy and finally pass the political acid test. Gorumara, with the noose of realty tightening around it, can't afford the long wait. Save the forest, it's the call of the wild.

Officials, civil society join hands to restore wildlife corridor

Subhash Chandra N S Bangalore: Govt declares Kaniyanapura and nearby villages as reserve forest This is one classic example of how concerted efforts by government officials and civil society can make a difference to conservation. Sustained pursuance of the case by a few bureaucrats and wildlife activists has ensured that revenue land, over 5,000 acres, falling in a critical wildlife corridor at Kaniyanapura is declared a reserve forest. The efforts bring to an end the two-decade old issue of protecting the Kaniyanapura elephant corridor - which links Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Kaushik Mukherjee, former additional chief secretary, B J Hosmath, field director, Project Tiger, Sanjay Gubbi, member, State Board for Wildlife, Basavaraju, assistant commissioner, Kollegal and Manjunath, tahsildar, Gundlupet have together got thousands of acres of revenue land, which had features of forest, declared reserve forest. “A notification under Section 4 of Karnataka Forest Act has been issued with an intention to provide legal status to this forest patch,” Kumar Pushkar, Chief Conservator of Forests, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, told Deccan Herald. The notification - dated February 2, 2012 - grants reserve forest status to more than 5,000 acres of revenue land to ensure their protection. Pushkar said the corridor was very important as far as wildlife protection is concerned as almost all animals, including tiger and elephant, use this stretch for their movement. He said declaring such a huge stretch of land as reserve forest was not an easy task. Not doing so would have been a great loss to wildlife as the notified area binds north and south ears of the corridor, he said. “This area had become a hub of numerous activities. We would have lost the habitat. By declaring it reserve forest, we have secured it for wildlife,” he said. “This is the patch which connects Biligirirangana Hills Tiger Reserve and Satyamangala forest with Nagarhole and Bandipur,” he added. The revenue land falling in the limits of Chikyelchetti, Bachalli, Kebbepura, Kaniyanpura, Mangala, Yeriyur, Heggavadi and Kundukere villages have forests that connected the two important protected areas within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. “Despite a Supreme Court order that land with characteristics of forests should not be diverted for non-forestry activities without proper permissions, several resorts and private farms had come up here. Many of them were illegal and had reduced the corridor to a chicken neck in some locations,” explained a wildlife expert who has conducted a study of this corridor. Sanjay Gubbi conducted a quick survey of the area with the help of volunteers from Vanya and Aranya wildlife groups in 2011. An area of 9,662.3 acres was found to have forest cover and a report was submitted to the government recommending that these areas be declared reserved forest. Finding that an area of 5,599.05 acres was not diverted to private use, the department officials made a proposal to the government to declare it reserved forest under the Karnataka Forest Act, 1963. This finally led to the notification declaring the area as reserve forest.

Warning roar for shabby tiger turf

A.S.R.P. MUKESH Ranchi, June 17: A three-member team of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is expected to arrive in Jharkhand in July second week to take stock of Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR) with the threat to stop central funds if the state did not get its act together to save the big cats. State forest department sources said that the NTCA was “very upset” over the dismal state of tiger conservation in Jharkhand (see chart). It might plug central funds — Rs 1 crore was earmarked in the last fiscal year — to punish the state’s poor performance. The PTR is one of India’s original nine tiger reserves. It has a core area of 414sqkm and a buffer zone of 600sqkm. Villages on the buffer and periphery exceed 100. Over the years, the number of tigers has dwindled to between six and 10, though “sightings” make occasional headlines. Worryingly, the presence of Naxalites and poachers makes more credible news. A senior forest official, who visited New Delhi earlier this month along with couple of other officials from the state wildlife division for nationwide meeting on tiger conservation measures, said Jharkhand had become “a joke” among other states. “Every state barring Jharkhand has more or less formulated a Tiger Conservation Plan in the past two-three years, details of which were discussed during the Delhi meeting. Representatives from Jharkhand had nothing to share, which irked NTCA officials,” he said. A high-level committee is expected to meet chief minister Arjun Munda and forest minister Sudesh Mahto to find out why not much headway was made in PTR for years. Though chief wildlife warden A.K. Malhotra and chief conservator of forests A.K. Gupta couldn’t be reached for comments, senior member of state steering committee (tiger conservation) D.S. Srivastava confirmed the upcoming visit and dwelt on its implications. “The exact date is not yet known. But during my meeting with NTCA member secretary Rajesh Gopal, I was told the visit would be around the second week of July. They also dropped hints about stopping funds this time.” Srivastava is also involved in tiger conservation plans for Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and so is in a position to compare. “These three states have almost prepared holistic plans. They are again holding a meeting with NTCA on June 22 to discuss the course of action. People make fun of Jharkhand, saying the state has not chalked any plan despite so much time,” said Srivastava. According to him, NTCA has two major gripes where the PTR is concerned. First, despite repeated directives Jharkhand has not formed a tiger conservation foundation. Second, its core and buffer areas are not declared under Section 23 of NTCA’s tiger reserve guidelines, which makes it mandatory to relocate human population from core areas. “Till these are done, conservation plans can’t start. Plus, no one in the department is serious,” he claimed. Premjit Anand, divisional forest official of PTR (core), said they had not received official intimation on the visit. “I know that the NTCA has written to headquarters about the foundation and other pending activities of the PTR,” he said.

Sigur corridor caught in crossfire

MONDAY, 18 JUNE 2012 00:09 MOUSHUMI BASU | NEW DELHI The notifying of an elephant corridor connecting the Bandipur-Mudumalai landscape with rich bio-diverse Sigur plateau in Tamil Nadu has brought Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) face to face with National Board For Wildlife (NBWL). The issue that has figured in the last two standing committee meetings of the Board, is pending in the Supreme Court. Based on an expert committee report on the importance of Sigur, the Madras High Court had earlier upheld the issue of notifying of the elephant corridor. But the High Court order was challenged by a local group of high-end resort owners in the Supreme Court, which also includes a prominent Bollywood star. While ordering a stay on dispossession and demolition of the buildings of the petitioners till further orders, the SC stated “it is open to the NBWL to offer their comments on the report submitted by the committee set up by the High Court” and directed the MoEF to submit its report within a given timeframe. As per the directives of the court, NBWL members expressed their opinion on December 13 meeting and wrote a letter to the Environment Minister endorsing the HC panel report. But for reasons not known and much to the surprise of the members, the Ministry tried to set up a new committee to study the ground realities all over again. The High Court had, however, turned down the Ministry’s proposal to form a new panel. A further shock was in store for NBWL members, when the MoEF submitted its affidavit to the SC without including their opinion on the issue as directed by the apex court. Further, in the last meeting of the standing committee of NBWL, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan pointed to the need for implementation of Forest Rights Act in the area, adding that she would submit any supplementary affidavit with views of members of the board. The affidavit, according to Praveen Bhargav, wildlife expert from Karnataka, raises doubts on the intentions of the MoEF. “Why was the written opinion of the non-official experts on the Standing Committee concurs with the recommendations of the High Court Expert Committee not filed before the Supreme Court,” he said. He further questioned on the necessity of constituting another committee ignoring the clear opinion of the non-official members of the Standing Committee when the Supreme Court had only sought the comments of the NBWL. Bhargav also asked when the land in the identified corridor belonged to the State, which is willing and fully competent to notify the protected areas, why were the Ministry officials raising extraneous issues like Forest Rights Act which will only benefit powerful tourist resorts in this area. As per the report of the expert committee, the importance of the Sigur plateau lies in the fact that it connects the contiguous ranges of Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wayanad and Mudumalai national parks, besides the Satyamangalam wildlife sanctuaries in the Eastern Ghats. These national parks and contiguous reserve forests in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have the richest habitat and support nearly 8,000 Asiatic elephants besides tigers and other endangered species. Despite being the vital link to so many protected areas, Sigur corridor is largely unprotected. It is being regularly crossed by the elephants, tiger and other wildlife. The report notes that during the last two decades elephant habitats have been fragmented because of increased human activities including presence of 44 resorts within the proposed corridor. A number of them have solar electric fences obstructing the animal movement, it says. This has largely escalated the man-elephant conflict in the region, resulting in human deaths. Former NBWL member and wildlife filmmaker Shekhar Dattatri pointed out that “consolidation of the Sigur corridor is an extremely important conservation priority since it will ensure connectivity between some of the best habitats for the Asiatic elephant and the tiger. “Any attempt to derail the implementation of the landmark judgement of the Madras High Court will greatly benefit the many commercial resorts that have choked this extremely important elephant corridor,” he said. Sources in the MoEF, however, said that the local villagers are angry with the proposed corridor. It will affect five hamlets of Bokkapuram and parts of Masinagudi, Kadanadu and Hullathi panchayats. The conflict had originated with the order of the State Government in August 2010 to acquire 2,822 hectares (ha) for the proposed corridor. Of this, 1,710 ha is private land. However, the wildlife conservationists argue that the areas fall under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act. This prohibits sale, purchase, lease and mortgage of land including change in land use without the permission of the State Government.