- In the last decade, sightings and close encounters of leopards have been uncommonly high in Uttarakhand, not because leopard populations have increased exponentially, but due to their proximity to villages, drawn initially by wild boar, but subsequently by livestock and dogs.
- The failure of agriculture due to crop raiding by wild boar and macaques, and limited other sources of employment have meant that the younger generation has moved out, while the older folk stay behind, harvesting just about enough for their needs and a little extra for the market.
- In this commentary, Gopakumar Marayil traces the root cause of most of the problems listed here — crop depredation by macaques and wild boar, forest fire, leopard attacks on livestock, the mass migration of people — to the exponential growth of the chir pine and its steady march into broadleaved forests.
It was when I first read an article in Down To Earth some years ago that I got interested in the people who lived in the hills of the Western Himalayas. I had done some treks in the past in Himachal and Uttaranchal, always with a group of friends who believed in goal, grit and gin, though in a different order of priority (on one memorable occasion, they added goat to the agenda too, on the way back from Bedni Bugyal).
We had never stopped in a village to chat or live with its denizens, only passed through a number of them onroute and the visage was always the same – fair and delicate folk, with cheerful smiles and a visible obduracy in frame and spirit, the women folk more at work than their men. We appreciated their difficulties, shivered in the cold, scoffed at our ineptness in dealing with it or with the climb or descent, and yet longed for more of the hills, a sort of envy that is selective in perception and understanding. Reading Ruskin Bond – again, selective retention – only strengthens that perception.
The article changed all that.
It spoke of systematic migration to the plains of the younger, often somewhat-educated, men, followed by their women and children. It featured hamlets with shrunk, aged populations who were too old to change their ways, the rest having migrated. It detailed crop failure due to changing rainfall patterns and the depredation by wild boar. And the looming, furtive, almost surreal presence of leopards that preyed on livestock and dogs.
This was before 2013, when Uttarakhand had its worst floods in memory. And 2016, when it had its worst forest fires in decades.
So, this year – in 2018 – I did two short stints through a part of Kumaon to understand these better, one through the Binsar wildlife sanctuary and the other around Ranikhet and Almora. The stories were the same everywhere, and in retelling them, I marvel at the resilience and fortitude of the people of the hills. In equal but opposite measure, the policy paralysis of the Government is annoying, for much of the problems of the people can be addressed by policy and implementation.
What happened when there were no more fires
Peter Semtacek, in a couple of fascinating articles in www.scroll.in, has traced the fires to a Government policy that, with best intent, banned the felling of trees that grew in landscapes that were 1000 metres above sea level and the consequences that followed, as a result of deliberate arson. Here’s a neat excerpt from the article:
“Over the years, the regular fires have had several consequences. There is little or no regeneration in broadleaf forests, the composition of forests has changed from broadleaf dominated, humid evergreen forest to dry stands of chir pine, which with its resin-rich leaf litter are fire traps in summer. In addition, perennial water springs have dried up or become seasonal, leading to acute water shortages in upland villages. Wildlife has been exterminated as well, except for highly adaptable creatures like macaques and wild boar, which have shifted to agricultural fields for sustenance.”
So, if wild boar move to the villages, will leopards be far behind? In the last decade, sightings of leopards – and occasional close encounters – have been uncommonly high, not because leopard populations have increased exponentially, but due to their proximity to villages, drawn initially by wild boar, but subsequently, of course, by livestock and dogs. Most households I visited had their own leopard story to tell, which was thrilling to hear, yet frightening, and therefore, in the villages I walked through – hamlets with beautiful names like Bhaura Gaon, Thalli Mirae, Kathdhara and Matkanya – there is apprehension and a palpable discomfort.
The root cause of it all
The failure of agriculture due to crop raiding by wild boar and macaques, and limited other sources of employment have meant that the younger generation has moved out, and continues to do so, while the older, less mobile folk stay behind and struggle on, harvesting just about enough for their needs and a little extra for the market. In Bhaura hamlet, for instance, there were all of seven village folk, only two of whom were below the age of fifty. In a sense, much like some other parts of India, the hills have become an example of the money-order economy. The interventions by committed non-profit organisations like Grassroots, Avani and Aarohi that work with the local women folk have been useful in steadying incomes and savings, yet scaling this to a larger population is decidedly a serious, perhaps intractable, challenge.
I learnt equally of the root cause of the crisis, for most of the problems listed here – crop depredation by macaques and wild boar, forest fire, leopard attacks on livestock, the resultant mass migration of people, even water scarcity – can be traced, with unbroken or dotted lines, to the exponential growth of the chir pine (Pinus roxbhurghii) and its steady march into broadleaved forests.
The chir pine dominates the hills today, with one estimate being an occupancy of about sixteen percent of Uttarakhand’s forests. Stand by virtually any road along a hillside and you’d see hundreds of thousands of acres of chir pine monoculture – a tree that is a water guzzler, a fire hazard, and of nominal biodiversity value. The species is also known to be allelopathic: it produces biochemicals that stall the growth of most other plant species. Its economic value is through a resin that is used in the manufacture of varnishes and turpentine, while the wood is used in furniture and construction (on a relatively small scale). As the commercial harvesting of this wood is prohibited, these trees have multiplied in vast stretches of woodland hit by forest fires or cleared of broadleaved trees.
It’s a vicious spiral too, for the needle-like leaves of the chir pine that form soft carpets on the forest floor and the cones are inflammable and a carelessly tossed beedi can light up an acre of chir pine in minutes and then spread to original, broadleaved forests nearby. If contained, the tree would have probably have been useful, yet its spread today has outstripped demand for commercial products and become an ecological menace. The forest department has been complicit in its growth by, essentially, doing little, while pitching to the Government annually for money for afforestation that is wasted away.
Is there a solution?
Well, unlike some of the intractable conservation issues that plague India’s forests, the chir pine problem is a solvable one, provided local communities are involved and the issue is seen from their perspective. In solving an ecological problem that plagues a community, the first question should always be: does the community see the problem, the way an ecologist does?
The broad answer is in the affirmative and that’s a positive to begin with. The pahadi (mountainous) village folk are aware of the problems with chir pine — grazing grounds for cattle have shrunk, forest fires hit them hard, as does the water shortage, which they know is due to chir pine’s need for the resource – though they may not have connected the many dots that lead from chir pines to leopards in their midst.
So, what if communities were asked to plan a twenty-year chir pine reduction program, with an annual felling of one-twentieth of the stand in either private or village land (which wood could then be auctioned)? What if many committed non-profit organisations working in the hills (and the army as well) were involved in a steady restoration of broadleaved forest land, with funding support from the Central Government, with a national institution like the Wildlife Institute of India being the auditors of this long term effort?
These are but two ideas and they must necessarily be subject to debate and criticism, even as other ideas are brainstormed on, yet the status quo spells doom for the hills. A chir pine removal program has the potential to reduce migration pressure and provide accessory employment in the hills too, which should make implementation easier.
The starting points must, therefore, necessarily be a bias for action, optimism and a well-prepared plan. Addressing the chir pine issue is both important and urgent; if not done, the problems in the hills – boars, migration, fires and leopards – will only worsen in the gorgeous hills of the Garhwal and Kumaon.
Banner image: An abandoned home at Bhaura. Photo by Gopakumar Marayil.