- A neglected and fragmented biodiversity-rich forest patch, Behali Reserve Forest in Assam, needs urgent protection. Experts say it must be upgraded to a protected area for conserving the flora and fauna.
- Lying on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the forest is part of a disputed territory and has witnessed rampant encroachment over the years.
- Wildlife poaching for local meat consumption and logging for timber are further endangering the forest’s biodiversity.
One of the key announcements by the newly-formed cabinet, led by Himanta Biswa Sarma, in Assam, was of two new national parks in the state – Raimona in Kokrajhar and Dehing Patkai in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh. This takes Assam’s national park count to seven, making it the Indian state with the second-highest number of national parks, just behind Madhya Pradesh which has nine. While this development brought a reason to cheer for environmentalists and wildlife lovers of Assam, there are other biodiversity-rich but fragmented forests in the state that are still waiting for attention. One such example is the Behali Reserve Forest (BRF), one of the last remaining forests in the Biswanath district of Assam, in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.
Behali, in the north of the Brahmaputra river, became a 140-square km reserve forest (designated under the then British laws) in 1917, during the First World War. The area straddling a disputed Assam and Arunachal Pradesh border was never upgraded to a protected forest despite its remarkable flora and fauna. Only 80 square km of the original 140 square km Behali Reserve Forest (BRF) remains at present. Earlier a part of Sonitpur district, BRF is now part of Biswanath district which became a separate district in 2015.
The semi-evergreen and wet tropical forests of Behali lie within kissing distance of the Kaziranga National Park and serve as an elephant corridor, embedded in the Kameng-Sonitpur elephant reserve, on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.
Dipankar Borah, Assistant Professor of Botany in Goalpara College and a local from Behali explained that the forest connects Pakke and Nameri tiger reserves to forests of Dulung and Kakoi, aiding the migration of the endangered elephants and other wildlife along the Assam-Arunachal border.
As per the research conducted by Borah and other local researchers, 308 native plant species as well as animal species including 49 mammals, 280 birds, 23 snakes, 12 turtles, 11 lizards, 12 amphibians and 275 butterfly species have been identified in this forest. The researchers note that encroachments in the disputed border area have derailed conservation efforts. Deforestation and the illegal killing of wildlife for consumption have further pushed the habitat to the brink, adds Borah, also the executive member of the Biswanath-based environmental NGO Nature’s Bonyopran, which has been rigorously working for the conservation of BRF. Formed in 1995, the NGO currently has around 150 executive members and more than 400 general members.
The researchers’ concerns over BRF come ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) scheduled for October 2021 in China, where the next set of global biodiversity targets for 2030, to halt biodiversity loss, will be decided. In early July 2021, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Secretariat released the first official draft of a new Global Biodiversity Framework that will ultimately advance to COP 15 for consideration by 196 member Parties, including India. The framework includes 21 targets for 2030 that call for, among other things at least 30 percent of land and sea areas global (especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people) conserved through effective, equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas (and other effective area-based conservation measures).
Around five percent of India’s geographical area is under protected area coverage but concerns over the “failure of India’s conservation model to recognise the fundamental and customary rights of local and indigenous communities who have inhabited these areas for centuries” have also been consistently highlighted.
Declaring an area as ‘protected’ under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 has several positive effects on the flora and fauna of the area, adds Debadityo Sinha of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. He notes that Reserve Forests do not have any focus on wildlife or its management. But local realities must be addressed for effective conservation.
“Primarily, it (declaring a PA) gives legal recognition to the habitat and enforces stronger rules against any land-use changes. It also opens up opportunities for the forest managers to develop capacity in managing the wildlife better through financial and technical support from government and non-government organisations. However, for long-term conservation success, connectivity must be maintained between neighbouring PAs,” Sinha told Mongabay-India.
“Though the declaration of PA is the first step towards the conservation of threatened landscapes, the success of any PA depends much on the support of local communities, the commitment of the forest department as well as larger economic goals of the state,” he added.
Borah adds that it is crucial to provide a source of livelihood for forest-dependent people at Behali so that the dependence on forest for livelihood decreases “but necessities for maintaining the ethnic identity should be provided.”
A satellite view of the changes in Behali Reserve Forest over the years. Forest boundary from Sonitpur East Forest Division, Government of Assam.
Disputed Assam-Arunachal border
Biodiversity loss in Behali is primarily rooted in border disputes. Assam has a long history of border disputes with its neighbour states Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. BRF, adjoining the Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh, falls right in the midst of that dispute. Both states have accused each other of encroaching upon their territory. The dispute has resulted in violent clashes in the area over the years, one of the most notable being the incident at Chaoldhowa village inside BRF when 15 people from Assam were killed in 2014.
Parixit Kafley, an independent research scholar from Behali and a member of Nature’s Bonyopran said that the boundaries of the forest need to be demarcated properly for the BRF to be declared as a protected area.
“Over the years, BRF has faced massive encroachment from both Arunachal as well as this side (Assam). People from Arunachal Pradesh have set up hamlets in several places inside the forest. There are encroachments from our side as well though those are less in number. Till the forest is freed of encroachment, it is not going to get the status of a Wildlife Sanctuary,” Kafley said.
Kafley adds that the encroachment started in Behali in the early 1990s. “People from Arunachal have also set up churches, schools, pucca roads inside the forest. They are not landless or refugees but settle here from the hills because it is more conducive to agriculture. Encroachers from both Assam and Arunachal harm the forest by cutting down trees.”
As per a statement made by Assam Parliamentary Affairs minister Chandra Mohan Patowary in Assembly in 2019, Arunachal Pradesh has encroached upon 213.43 sq km land in Assam.
From 2002 to 2020, Sonitpur in Assam lost 6250 hectares of humid primary forest, making up 38 percent of its total tree cover loss in the same time period. The total area of humid primary forest in Sonitpur decreased by 15 percent in this time period, according to Global Forest Watch (GFW). There were 131 deforestation alerts reported in the week of June 21, 2021. This was unusually high compared to the same week in previous years, reports GFW.
Wildlife poaching is another activity impacting biodiversity in BRF. Commercial hunting here is mainly for meat. There are hunters on both sides of the border who kill animals like deer, wild hog and sell the meat illegally.
Commenting on the present scenario along the border in BRF, Jayashree Naiding, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Territorial, Sonitpur (East) under whose jurisdiction the area falls, tells Mongabay-India, “To solve the boundary disputes between the two states, Original Suit No 1/1989 had been filed in the Supreme Court of India. With the matter being sub-judice at the Apex Court, currently, a status quo is being maintained by both parties. The Assam government, in this case, is having an upper hand because the violation happened mostly from the Arunachal side.”
Noted environmentalist Anwaruddin Choudhury adds that in Behali Reserve Forest, there is encroachment from the Arunachal Pradesh side and also by the local communities. “There has been a violation of the Forest Conservation Act in BRF. Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have any stake in the forest. Currently, a status quo is maintained because the matter is sub-judice. However, if the encroachment can be removed from BRF, it will be a great boost to the conservation scenario of Assam,” Choudhury said.
Despite rampant encroachment and timber felling, BRF is still home to a rich array of wildlife.
Ranjit Kakati, a research scholar of Gauhati University, who has extensively studied the fauna of BRF, confirmed to Mongabay-India the presence of a leopard in BRF and nearby tea gardens. There are also reports of sightings of the melanistic leopard (commonly known as a black panther).
“Pug mark of a clouded leopard has been seen in the forest. Apart from that, there are species like capped langurs, slow loris, barking deer, sambar, wild boar, pangolin etc. There is also a good resident population of elephants in the forest. BRF has good habitat for Assam’s State Bird, the white-winged wood duck, though the presence of these elusive birds in the forest can’t be confirmed,” Kakati said.
Tigers have also been previously sighted in the forest. “The last tiger was seen in BRF in the 2000s. In the 1990s, there was a good resident population. Now, sometimes stray tigers might come from Kaziranga National Park (KNP) which is just on the other side of the Brahmaputra river,” said Kafley.
BRF is also home to many rare plants. One plant species called Chlorophytum assamicum which was discovered in the forest by Borah, is found in BRF alone in the entire world. “Because it was discovered in Assam, we named the plant Chlorophytum assamicum. Like Chlorophytums found in central India and the Western Ghats, our plant also has tubers which are known as musli. Musli has medicinal value and so this plant can be called a medicinal plant. It is found only in BRF. However, there are just 20-25 individuals of this plant left in RF because of which it gets the status of ‘critically endangered’ as per IUCN guidelines,” explained Borah.
Borah mentions that there are other rare plants found in BRF. There is Assam pipevine (Aristolochia assamica), a deceptive climber, which is endemic to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. As per IUCN, it is vulnerable. Assam’s dark flower (Peliosanthes macrophylla var. assamensis) is an undershrub, so far known only from BRF.
“Then there is East Himalayan Tupistra (Tupistra stoliczana) which has been rediscovered from BRF after 149 years. Indian wild orange (Citrus indica), again is an endangered Citrus species restricted to a few localities in northeast India including BRF. Lastly, there is Galeola nudifolea, a rare orchid, found only in BRF in Assam,” he says.
Severe staff crunch
BRF falls under Borgang range, which is severely understaffed. Firfila Basumatary joined as a ranger here last October. Speaking to Mongabay-India, she said, “In my range, there is a serious shortage of staff. We are managing with just 30 percent of the number of personnel required here. Because of the lack of manpower, many camps like Thandapani located in a strategic area near the Arunachal border are lying unmanned. Another important camp called Hatimora is also vacant. There is only one man in Bihmari camp.”
“Also, most of my staff is aged and suffer from ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. So, it becomes difficult for them to do patrolling properly during the night. Ten of my staff have retired since I joined and their position is yet to be filled,” said Basumatary.
Priyanath Orang, a veteran forest guard of BRF, who will be retiring after eight months, admits that there is a dearth of young personnel in this range. Orang, who has served BRF for 15 years, reiterated the need for more fresh blood in the department.
“Even though we give our all to this forest, often it is not enough. Apart from tackling the problem of encroachment, timber logging and commercial hunting, we have to be vigilant during flood season because of our proximity to the KNP. During that period, many animals from KNP including rhinos end up in our area and sometimes poachers also follow them.”
Summing up the scenario in BRF, Anwaruddin Choudhury said, “Barring Sonai Rupai and Nameri, BRF is the lone remaining forest in the Sonitpur-Biswanath belt of the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The forest has been neglected over the years and it should get the status of a wildlife sanctuary. The pitiable condition BRF is presently in, is largely because of neglect.”
[With additional inputs by Sahana Ghosh]
Banner image: Sambar deer. Photo by Ranjit Kakati.