- Novanita Sharma
The Wildlife Sanctuary movement of Assam
The process of protecting forests in modern India for the preservation of natural forests, and conservation of its flora and fauna came into effect after 1972. The parliament of India enacted the Wildlife Protection of India on 9th September 1972. This Act carved the road for wildlife conservation and forest protection for the first time in post-colonial India. Till 1972, Indian forests were preserved not for the purpose of wildlife protection, the wildlife reserves identified during the British Raj were set aside for selective exploitation of forest resources for revenue and consumption by the colonial government. Game hunting in Indian forests being an important part of this regime. This is the story of all forests and grasslands of Assam like the present Kaziranga NP, and Manas NP which were Game reserves from colonial era and continued to serve as hunting grounds for zamindars and anyone who pays the price for engaging in hunting expeditions in these forest areas. Hunting continued as a source of revenue for the forest department in both Kaziranga and Manas till the enactment and enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act of India in 1972. The concept of preserving forests for the sole purpose of nature conservation arose after this Act. Many important wildlife habitats and large tracts of natural forests in different parts of India got protected as wildlife sanctuary or national park after 1972. Assam also witnessed a wildlife sanctuary movement after 1972, but the nature and the causes behind this movement differs from rest of the country. In Assam this movement was driven by civil society and community participation with environment leaders like Sri. Soumyadeep Datta and Nature’s Beckon working as the beacon of light. Nature’s Beckon led this movement from its seeds till today. The Wildlife Sanctuary movement of Assam gained momentum after the discovery of the Golden Langur population in the Chakrashila hill forest, situated at that time in the Dhubri district of Assam. Sri. Soumyadeep Datta discovered the presence of Golden Langurs in the Chakrashila hill forest in 1978, through his personal field observations and studies. His findings were recognized by the Zoological Survey of India as the discovery of Golden Langur in this part of Assam for the first time in world. Sri. Datta launched an intense community-based conservation movement for the protection of the Chakrashila hill forest. The Nature’s Beckon led Chakrashila wildlife sanctuary movement strengthened its roots in early 1980s. This Chakrashila conservation movement ushered the wave of wildlife conservation in Assam, it initiated the wildlife sanctuary movement in Assam. The Chakrashila hill forest was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1994, making it the first protected habitat for Golden Langurs in Assam. Nature’s Beckon carried the wave of this Wildlife Sanctuary movement across major wildlife habitats, representative forest ecosystems, and richest biodiversity areas of Assam. During 1980s, the people of Assam along with most Indian citizens were unaware of the legal provisions provided in the country for protection of forests. At the same time Indian citizens were misguided by the notion of ‘Reserved Forests’. Nature’s Beckon played a key role in building awareness about these facts that are important for forest conservation. There exists a huge gap in public understanding regarding the reality of Reserved Forests. This is attributed largely to the nomenclature; the name ‘Reserved Forests’ (Sanrakshita Vananchal in Assamese) makes people feel that these forests are reserved for protection while in reality these are the forests set aside for revenue generation. Reserved forests are legally entitled to be utilized for economic, developmental works, or any other requirement of the government. This important fact about forest protection is still not known to majority of Indian population. This has contributed to the clout of confusion amongst the mass regarding the real state of forest conservation in the country and a reason behind many misguided environment campaigns in India. On the other hand, the wildlife sanctuary movement of Assam has countered these misconceptions regarding the status of ‘Reserved Forests’. Nature’s Beckon has successfully led this wildlife sanctuary movement to inspire an intellectual growth in Assam regarding nature conservation. The rise of new environment organisations, journalists, writers, and other prominent civil society representatives lending support to the cause of wildlife conservation affirms this gradual change in the public psyche. Many wildlife habitats, wetlands, forests across different parts of Assam were identified for permanent protection under the Wildlife Protection Act of India in due course of time. Most of these wildlife habitats got protected as wildlife sanctuaries, many of them later got upgraded to the status of National Park. It is noteworthy that, the initiatives for the declaration of all these wildlife sanctuaries has been taken by local people either under the leadership of Nature’s Beckon, or were guided and facilitated by Nature’s Beckon. The state forest department failed to play its role and participate in this wildlife sanctuary movement of Assam, befitting its capacity and official authority. Nature’s Beckon has led this wildlife sanctuary movement with firm resolve and determination, setting remarkable success stories from the Chakrashila conservation movement of 1980s to the Rainforest conservation movement in the 21st century. The organisation played an important role in enabling area expansion of many existing protected areas of Assam, contributing immensely to judicious habitat preservation of these Protected areas in future. Most of the wildlife sanctuaries and National parks in Assam have remained protected over the years due to active participation of the fringe communities, the villages near the protected areas have acted as the first line of defence for these treasure troves of rich flora and fauna. This support and participation from the grassroots is hugely attributed to the tireless efforts made by Nature’s Beckon to engage the fringe communities near protected areas in regular training and awareness camps since the last 4 decades in different parts of Assam. The wildlife sanctuary movement under the leadership of Nature’s Beckon contributed to the growth of protected areas network in Assam, this saved priceless natural forests in Assam from degradation and complete destruction. This movement led a pragmatic approach towards biodiversity conservation. It underlines the fact that forests cannot be created by human beings, afforestation and plantation activities creates only woodlands. Planting of trees, reviving degraded forest lands, and growing woodlands are to be appreciated but preserving the natural forests of this planet is of paramount importance. Forests are created by Nature through evolutionary process spanning across millions of years without any human aid. Destruction of forests is the worst crime against humanity. Human world is so hopelessly driven by the delusional notion of man’s supremacy over other species of this planet that we end up posing as Mother Nature by planting and nurturing trees. It is rather a poignant reflection of our afflicting anthropogenic view which restricts human beings to think beyond narrow goals of human needs, consumption, and a sense of misplaced human ownership regarding the whole creation. We thrive in the shallow mindscape of name, fame, glory, and this has boomeranged on us. True protection of forests requires human beings to rise above these anthropogenic thoughts and set aside the natural forests for the well-being and future survival of the wildlife, flora and fauna found in these forests forever. The wildlife sanctuary movement of Assam has led to the growth of this collective consciousness amongst all. This wildlife sanctuary movement is constantly been propelled ahead by Nature’s Beckon with renewed hope and determination. Nature’s Beckon has highlighted new wildlife habitats; many forgotten and neglected forest areas of Assam have come to the forefront of biodiversity conservation movement through its campaigns and continuous advocacy. The organisation has appealed to the Chief Minister of Assam to protect two very important forest areas viz; Ajagar RF and Pancharatna RF situated in the Goalpara district by upgrading their status to wildlife sanctuary. These forests constitute very important habitats for Asian Elephants in this part of Assam and its protection crucial for the survival of Asian Elephants in future. The preservation of these forest areas is indispensable to mitigate the heightening man-Elephant crisis in Goalpara district in recent times. The only way to secure a safe future for Asian Elephants in this region is to protect and preserve its last remaining natural habitats without further delay. These forest areas represent the past forest heritage of the Goalpara district, where the connection between the human populations and forests has a deep-rooted cultural expression. Ironically, the Goalpara district is yet to see the first protected area. The proposed Ajagar WLS includes the entire area of Urpad beel, this beautiful wetland being an essential part of Elephant habitat and a rich storehouse of biodiversity. The preservation of the Ajagar forest and Pancharatna forest is critical for future Elephant conservation in Assam and NE India. Nature’s Beckon is working amongst the people of Goalpara district- students, youth, villagers, and others to create awareness regarding the importance of the proposed Ajagar WLS, Urpad Beel, and proposed Pancharatna WLS. The awareness and educational programs are sensitising the people of Assam about the urgency to protect the existing Elephant habitats to ensure Asian Elephant conservation, and effective biodiversity conservation in Assam. This campaign to protect the proposed Ajagar WLS, Urpad Beel, and the proposed Pancharatna WLS gives a new direction to the wildlife sanctuary movement of Assam apart from bringing everyone’s attention to the forgotten forests of Goalpara district and the mounting man-elephant crisis in this region. It rekindles everyone’s emotions attached to the tales, stories, poems and, songs of Goalpara’s traditional culture that is rooted in forest lore and the sheer beauty of the expansive forestlands once found in this region of India. The last vestiges of natural forests in Goalpara district constitute an essential part of this cultural heritage of this region. While the soulful songs from this culture reigns our hearts, let these forests of Goalpara district flourish to nurture the beautiful souls of both man and wildlife till eternity.