The Biodiversity Hotspot of Eastern Himalayas and Its Conservation: A Case Study with Special Reference to Goalpara Forest Division in Assam ?>

The Biodiversity Hotspot of Eastern Himalayas and Its Conservation: A Case Study with Special Reference to Goalpara Forest Division in Assam

Nazrul Islam

Abstract:
“Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms from all sources including inter-alia,
terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and ecological complexes of which they are a part.” – The Convention of Biological Diversity (1992)

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Introduction
Norman Myers introduced the term ‘biodiversity’ in 1988. “Areas which exhibit high richness as well as high species endemism are termed as hotspots of biodiversity.” “Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability among all groups of living organisms and the ecosystem complexes in which they occur.” Similarly, a biodiversity hotspot is a biogeography region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is under threat from humans.

Biodiversity satisfies the needs of the human beings. Contrary to this, the hotspots of biodiversity are facing serious threats in several ways. In an estimate, noted ecologist E.O.Wilson puts the figure of extinction at 10,000 species per year or 27 per day. There are many factors working adversely leading to serious challenges to the biodiversity. Therefore, the conservation of biodiversity has been the prime sector of interests today for the state planners, researchers and conscious people.

There are 25 such hot spots of biodiversity on a global level out of which two are in present India, namely the Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats. The North Eastern states, including Assam fall under biodiversity hot spots of the Eastern Himalayas. They display an ultra-varied topography that forest species diversity and endemism. Numerous deep and semi-isolated valleys in Sikkim are extremely rich in endemic plant species. The forest cover of Eastern Himalayas has dwindled to about 1/3rd of its original cover. The recent studies have shown that North East India along with its some contiguous areas of foreign countries is an active centre of organic evaluation and is considered to be the cradle of flowering plants. Out of the world’s recorded flora, 30% are endemic to India of which 35,000 are in the Himalayas.

Lying between 22-30 degree N latitude and 89-97 degree E longitude, and sprawling over 2,62,379 sq. km., Northeast India represents the transition zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese biogeography regions and a meeting place of the Himalayan Mountains and Peninsular India.

India is a country, which ranks in one of the 12-mega diversity countries in the world. As per records, 47,000 species of plants and 81,000 species of animals which is about 7% and 6.5% respectively of global flora and fauna.

Threats to Biodiversity
As per the theory of evolution, extinction or elimination of species is a natural process. However, the rate of loss of species in geologic past has been a slow process. Nevertheless, the process of extinction has become particularly fast in the recent years of human civilization. Biodiversity satisfies the needs of the human beings. Contrary to this, the hotspots of biodiversity are facing serious threats in several ways. The threat to biodiversity has not been a matter of single day or few years. Loss of habitat or habitat fragmentation, massive poaching for illegal trading of wildlife products, increasing man-wildlife conflicts are the major causes and issues related to the threat to biodiversity. This has been happening in spite of the fact known to all that forests cover the earth like a blanket and produce innumerable material goods, but also provide several environmental services, which are essential for human life.

A biodiversity hotspot is a biogeography region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is under threat from humans. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot on Myers 2000 edition of the hotspot-map, a region must meet two strict criteria: (i) it must contain at least 0.5% or 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and (ii) it has to have lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation. Around the world, at least 25 areas qualify under this definition, with nine others possible candidates. These sites support nearly 60% of the world’s plant, bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species, with a very high share of endemic species.

Goalpara Forest Division
Goalpara Forest Division lies within the civil district of Goalpara. The forests covered by this division lie within the geographical limits of 25.50`N to 26.15` N latitudes and 89.45` E to 91.15` longitudes. There are four forest ranges in the division, namely Rangjuli, Krishnai (Central), Goalpara and Lakhipur Forest Ranges.

There are total 89 numbers of Reserve and Proposed Reserve Forests (RF and PRF) in the district and Forest Division of Goalpara, covering more than 32,000 hectares of land territory. The survey done to prepare the working plans for the division during the year 1981-82 to 1991-92 estimated 123 species of Trees, 48 species of Shrubs Herbs etc and 29 species of Climbers in the plants category found in the Goalpara division of forest. Regarding the composition of the crop, the descriptions of the different types of forests in areas covered by this division may be placed as follows:
A) Eastern Hill Sal Forests – Khasi Hill Sal
B) Eastern Moist Plains Sal Forests
C) Moist Mixed Deciduous Forests
D) Secondary Moist Bamboo Brakes and
E) Secondary Euphorbiaceous Scrubs

Wildlife of Goalpara Forest Division
In the year 1981 the Chief Conservator of Forest, Assam prepared an outline of the future management of the Forests of the Goalpara Division. Accordingly, the then Working Plan Officer, Lower Assam Circle, Gauhati did his job per excellence. In the chapter of suggestions, it was clearly stated, ‘Although there is no Wildlife Sanctuary in this Division, yet there are places where rich Wildlife species like Hoolock, Assamese macaque, Clouded leopard, Sloth bear, etc can be seen. Tracks and signs of some larger animals and varieties of deer species, i.e. Hog deer, barking deer, etc. and occasional Sambar are also met with. The Division is also rich in Aves- fauna. Every year a large number of species like Myna, parakeet, etc used to be exported to various places from the Dhupdhara and Krishnai area. It was also cautioned, ‘The greatest adverse factor operating on the Wildlife is the shrinkage of suitable habitats for the Wildlife due to rapid expansion of human habitations as cultivations. The repercussion of such shrinkage of habitat has been felt and should be preserved for the Wildlife Management and further disturbance of such area should not be allowed under any circumstances’
.
The wildlife specialists are in the opinion that availability of the three things, e.g. food; shelter and water are the basic things upon which the wildlife creates habitats. Goalpara Forest Division in comparison to the recent past has a handful of flora and fauna. This happens because of indiscriminate felling of forest trees, forest firings, and the opening of lands at fast rate, wiping out all big game in the process.

In spite of all obstacles, some areas still provide congenial atmosphere to the animals, like wild elephant, bear, leopard, barking deer, hog deer, etc. In addition, small animal (previously known as game) species, like jungle cat, porcupine, civets, mongoose, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, etc. birds commonly found in the forests are jungle fowl, common green pigeon, spotted dove, ring dove, common myna, king fishers, parakeets, woodpeckers, heron etc. Some common non-game birds like jungle crow, rolex, yellow oriole, bulbul, babbler, owl, koel, sparrow, and cuckoo, etc. are of common occurrence. Among the reptiles on the land, the most important are the various species of snakes and serpents, Cobra, Krait and Viper’s, can all be seen. The only reptile ‘Python’ is very rare occurrence and it is a protected species. In streams, a large variety of small and medium sized fish along with small sized water snails and crabs are extensively found.

Causes of Biodiversity Degradation
Biodiversity of the district requires special attention for conservation, as it is encountering severe threats due to deforestation, urbanization, road construction, construction of embankments, small-scale rubber plantation and indiscriminate application of agro-chemicals. It needs no mention that both the plant and animal species have been decreasing rapidly in Goalpara Forest Division. So, some of them are vulnerable, some rare, some endangered and others are extinct. Several numbers of cases including human activities are associated directly or indirectly with the menace of biodiversity shrinkage.

A) Loss of Habitat: Forests and grasslands, landmasses, oceans, rivers, lakes, wetlands, etc are the breeding grounds of flora and fauna. Due to various reasons, landmasses are shrunken; accordingly, there is a manifold decrease in the plant species. When forests and grasslands are lost due to their habitats, the wild lives are bound to be decreased. On the other hand, due to massive pollution in oceans, uprising of riverbeds, shrinkages of wetlands, the marine and water borne species of animals and birds are facing lots of hardship in these days.

In Goalpara Forest Division, deforestation and degradation have been experienced due to ill practices of agriculture, massive encroachment, over-grazing, human-wildlife conflict, forest fires, and illegal extraction of forest products, commercial plantations, replacement of indigenous species with exotics, uncoordinated infrastructure development and immigration.

Now there is not a plot of closed forest (all open) in the district. Up to 1999, there was 147 sq km area of dense forests in Goalpara Forest Division until 1999. Regretfully, this little area of pride was vanished from the division by 2003. The total forest area of Goalpara Forest Division is 38344 hec, which is 20.8 per cent of total geographic area of the division. Nevertheless, the trend of the same is definitely decreasing. It is far most from 33.3 per cent, i.e. the national norms of forests.

Table -1: Total geographical and forest area of Goalpara District

Sl No Particulars Total Area (in Hec)
1

2

Total Geographical Area

Total forest Area

184262                          38344

Table – II: District wise forest cover in 2007

(Area in Sq Km)

District Geographical Area Very  Dense Forest  Mod

Dense Forest

Open

Forest

     Total % of G.A.
Goalpara 1824 1    70 265 336 18.42

Source: India Sate of Forest Report 2009 (Assam Chap)

B) Poaching: Due to traditional food habits of local people, particularly, tribal people, a regular and massive poaching are being taken place in every nook and corner of the forests and hills of the district. Moreover, illegal trade of wildlife products by killing prohibited endangered animals is another threat to animals in the district.

C) Man-wildlife conflicts: Increasing human-wildlife conflicts in the district has been paused one of the main causes of wildlife loss. There were a good number of cases of human-wildlife conflicts few years back. In these days, man-elephant conflict alone has been creating a menace in the area. At least 50 human lives were killed in the last 10 years by wild elephants. Nevertheless, the agonized people also killed a good number of elephants. A good number of vultures were killed due to food poisoning at Solmari near Goalpara. Food poisoning was due to taking carcasses having been treated with medicine.

D) Anthropogenic factor: Whatsoever it is related to illegal felling of trees, excessive forest exploitation, forest fire, negative agricultural practices, encroachments of forest lands and wetlands, illegal fishing practices, poaching of animals and avian lives or anything like these, are due to the fragile deeds of human beings only.

E) Resource mismanagement: Increased tourism without proper regulation has led to pollution and environmental degradation. Religious destinations are also hot destinations for medicinal plant trade, which has threatened plant life in the area.

F) Climate change: Several Himalayan glaciers are melting. Climate change may significantly affect the temperatures, rainfalls and water tables.

Suggestions and Conclusion
The solutions presented to address such threats tend to be generalized and often inappropriate, while only dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of biodiversity loss. There is further a need to be understood about root causes of biodiversity loss in order to formulate appropriate interventions.
Biodiversity of the division requires special attention for conservation. Various remedial and protective measures for the same may be suggested in this regard. Public-private initiatives must be there in research and development. In an end, all these require a strong environmental policy of the government.

The Working Plan of Goalpara Forest Division (1981-82 to 1991-92) suggested long back, ‘The repercussion of such shrinkage of habitat has been felt and should be preserved for the Wildlife Management and further disturbance of such area should not be allowed under any circumstances.’ However, for the same, nothing has been done for the last 30 years, by which in turn, the fate of forests and wildlife of Goalpara Division are left for further deterioration.

A wildlife division should be accompanied with forest territorial division in Goalpara. Further, Ajagar Hill Reserve Forest (42.40 Sq Km), as demanded by AID-R, an NGO from Goalpara, should be declared protected area as the wild elephant habitation, concurrently with adjoining Meghalaya state.

Man-wildlife conflicts should be minimized following some urgent and useful prepared guidelines and action plans on the part of Governments, NGOs and individuals.
With the increasing amount development being planned, there is a need to develop appropriate models and standards for environmental and social impact assessment. However, most of such assessments are found to be weak or biased. This gap needs to be urgently addressed.

As a conservative measure, some feasibility assessments, if environmental service payments can work in specific situations, need to be undertaken. Of course, this will require developing approaches and methodologies for undertaking economic valuation of biodiversity and forest resources.

There is great potential for developing and enhancing forest-based livelihoods in many parts of northeast India. However, this requires, in addition to the appropriate policy instruments, a strong scientific basis for determining harvesting and extraction levels, value addition, marketing, and benefit sharing. Hence, the working procedure of the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) should be made proper and fruitful in the line of conservation of forests and wildlife.

There should be concrete and willful forest policies of the government, so that it is possible to develop and conserve flora and fauna. Above all, Govt.’s positive initiatives are necessary for doing all these.

Suggestions and Conclusion
1. Kushik, A, Kaushik, CP (2004), “Perspective in Environmental Studies”, New Age International (P) Limited, .
Publishers, New Delhi.
2. Sharma PD, (1997), ‘Ecology and Environment’, Rastogi Publication, Meerut.
3. Norton, B. G., 1988, “Commodity amenity and morality: the limits of quantification in valuing biodiversity,”
in E. O. Wilson (Ed), Biodiversity, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
4. Norton, B. G., (2001), “Conservation biology and environmental values: can there be a universal earth ethic?”
in C. Potvin, et al. (eds), Protecting biological diversity: roles and responsibilities, Montreal: McGill-
Queen’s University Press.

Edited Books –
1. Ghosh, A. K. and Tiwari, K. K. (1984). Faunal Resources of Northeast India. In Resource Potential of
Northeast India, Vol. II (Living Resources), Tripathi, R. S. (ed.). Meghalaya Science Society, Shillong,
Meghalaya.
2. Reports –
3. Forest Deptt. SETT Branch, Govt. of Assam, Working Plan of Goalpara Foerst Division for duration of 1981-82
to 1991-92
4. Islam, N, (July 20, 2006),’Goalparat Ata Banyaprani Sangmandal Tatha Abhayaranya Garhar Jordar Dabir Hake,
the Saptahik Janakantha, Goalpara (Assam).
5. Islam, N, (Nov 9, 2006), ‘Atha: Ban Sangbad / Goalparat Nai Atia Adarao Gabhir Aranya’, the Saptahik
Janakantha, Goalpara (Assam).
6. Islam, N, (2008), ‘A Plea for declaration of Ajagar Hill Reserve Forest as Protected Areas for Elephant
Habitats in Goalpara Forest (T) Devision’,‘airawat’, Souvenir of 6th Kaziranga Elephant Festival (C/Ed.
Hazarika, R.)

URL –
1. V.Ramakantha, A.K.Gupta, Ajith Kumar, ‘Biodiversity of Northeast India: An Overview’, Online available at:
http://oldwww.wii.gov.in/envis/rain_forest/ chapter 18.htm

The writer is the Asstt. Prof, Nazrul Islam, Head Department of Economics

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