The film ‘Sherni’, starring Vidya Balan that recently got released on Amazon Prime Video, allowed me to think about and write about wildlife.
Although, I felt the film quite did not live up to the hype, yet it provided a leeway into understanding the bottlenecks and bureaucratic red-tapism prevalent in the country’s forest departments.
Assam recently got two more national parks in its kitty, viz., Dehing Patkai and Raimona. Located in the Kokrajhar district of the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) in Lower Assam, Raimona National Park spread across 422 square km is located in a transboundary ecosystem.
To its north is the Phispoo Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan, Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal to its west and Manas National Park in Assam to its east. On the other hand, the Dehing Patkai rainforest getting declared as a national park was anticipated given its unique biodiversity in the Brahmaputra valley. Last year, it was in the news because of the many mining activities in the nearby areas.
As part of a six-month fellowship given by TERI, New Delhi and Internews’s Earth Journalism Network (EJN), I was given the task of coming up with a story on Hoolock Gibbons of Assam. This was one of the most enriching stories that I could come up with during the first wave of Covid-19 in 2020.
The major task was to understand the ecosystem services the said rainforest provides in the region and to its people. The term ecosystem services have gained a lot of significance over the past few decades and can be loosely defined as the direct and indirect benefits that human beings derive from the function of an ecosystem. They are commonly categorised as provisioning, supporting, regulating and cultural ecosystem services.
I belong to the sleepy township of Duliajan in Dibrugarh district and it is not very far off from the Dehing-Patkai rainforest. In fact, the whole township is supplied with the waters of the Dehing River that happens to be the second-largest tributary of the Brahmaputra River covering a distance of about 380 km.
Taking advantage of the geography and language, I got a chance to interact with Mr Soumyadeep Datta over an online interview. He is an environmental activist and a conservationist based in Assam and heads an NGO named ‘Nature’s Beckon’. He decluttered the issues related to the environment with a special focus on Hoolock Gibbons and the related ecosystem services in the Dehing-Patkai rainforest. It is located in the upper reaches of Assam mostly covering the districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh and is also known as the ‘Amazon of the East’.
The first question was on the richness of the Dehing-Patkai rainforest.
Mr Datta points out that most parts of upper Assam were covered by rainforests in the olden days. But, due to rapid industrialization especially with the expansion of coal mining and oil exploration and also with the rise in human settlements and tea plantations, most areas covering the rainforests have been destroyed. Joyepur, Upper Dehing and Dirak are the three reserve forests that are contiguous and with the recent declaration as a national park, the efforts of conservation could be recognised better.
From the biodiversity point of view, this is a unique area with over 40 species of mammals; more than 332 species of birds have been recorded so far and there are 28 species of reptiles and over thousands of insects. He says that Dehing-Patkai is a multi-structural forest and is the best woodland patch. He adds that this is the only contiguous rainforest patch in the entire Brahmaputra valley.
The second question dealt with Hoolock Gibbons and their role in ecosystem services.
They are the only lesser ape found in the entire Indian sub-continent. Mr Soumyadeep says that the distribution of Hoolock Gibbons always lies to the southern part of the Brahmaputra valley. As per IUCN, it is an endangered species. He points out that to conserve any wildlife species, their habitats have to be conserved. This particular species is a canopy species, i.e., it is dependent upon the canopy of the said forest.
This means the animal needs matured forests, thus to save Hoolock Gibbons, the effort has to go onto saving the entire ecology. Other species are interdependent as well. They help in pollination and seed dispersal, thereby, making them extremely essential for the Dihing-Patkai rainforest. Hoolock Gibbons are a territorial species, i.e., one will find them in groups consisting of six members.
Hence, they not only maintain their territory but also maintain the ecology of the territory. Lastly, they are also an indicator species and they accompany the symbiotic relationship of many plant species. Therefore, they play a huge role in the pollination as well as germination of plant species.
The third question was concerning any change in the species behaviour of Hoolock Gibbons.
Datta says that they have changed largely due to the destruction and disturbance within the forests because the breeding processes get affected. These activities could range from mining to other non-forestry activities. Hence, a territorial disturbance is a big threat to the existence of this species. Over the years, it has been observed that the fertility of Hoolock Gibbons has also reduced.
Additionally, highlighting the importance of ecosystem services, he mentions that the area has a huge potential in serving local village businesses. The Assamese and the tribal communities love their ‘xaak’ (green leafy vegetables or mixed greens) and the indigenous people get their access to such greens from the nearby forest areas who then sell the produce in the weekly village markets.
Most probably, this will change after the conversion of the forest into a national park which literally means protection from all human, industrial and agricultural activities. The potential of sustainable eco-tourism lies largely untapped for this part of Assam and once the project of ecotourism is taken into account in a post-pandemic world (read and understood as hope), it will be a visual treat for most wildlife lovers!
Mr Soumyadeep Datta points out that due to people’s continuous efforts, they have been successful in busting rackets that were involved in the poaching of Hoolock gibbons, especially poachers from neighbouring Myanmar. The rainforest conservation movement over the past 25 years has borne fruit in creating the right kind of awareness when it comes to preserving such valuable species.
He believes there has to be a lot of focus on sensitization of local people especially students and the people residing in the forest fringe areas in local dialects and the Assamese language. There has to be an emphasis on capacity building in the indigenous languages. His organisation Nature’s Beckon has been successful in bringing out educational materials mostly in the forms of books about the cat family, bird watching and also about primates, thus making an effort towards increasing and strengthening the database about ecosystem services and the environment.