Natural History & Its Unsolved Mysteries

The Proposed Ajagar Wildlife Sanctuary brings hope for forest conservation in Goalpara

WhatsApp Image 2022-05-28 at 7.09.02 AM

-Novanita Sharma

Spread over an area of 4,240 Hectares in the Goalpara district of Assam, the forest of proposed Ajagar Wildlife Sanctuary has remained distant from the conscious memory of forest lovers till recently when Nature’s Beckon raised the demand for upgradation of this forest patch to the status of wildlife sanctuary to provide complete protection to this forest. Nature’s Beckon submitted a proposal to the Chief Minister of Assam for the upgradation of Ajagar Reserve Forest and Pancharatna Reserve Forest situated in the Goalpara district of Assam to wildlife sanctuaries in 2022. These two proposed wildlife sanctuaries along with other surviving natural forests of this region represents the past forest richness of undivided Goalpara district which is an indispensable part of the forest heritage of Assam. Unfortunately, greater parts of this forest cover have already been lost and the existing forests face imminent threats of rampant destruction. The natural forests of entire Brahmaputra basin withstood unsurmountable destruction due to various anthropogenic, political, and socio-economic reasons, but the present condition of forests in Goalpara district exemplifies the worst state of forest destruction in Assam. From culture, folklore, history to livelihood and economy, Goalpara district is known for its deep connections with forest and wildlife. Despite of such heritage and forest richness, the Goalpara district still awaits to see its first wildlife sanctuary. There have been no initiatives to protect any forest area in Goalpara district since the independence of India, there is not a single protected area in the district till date. There is an urgent need to know about these forests of Assam and intervene with correct measures for protection and conservation of these forests.

The forest of the proposed Ajagarh WLS is geographically located in a crucial floral transitional zone between Goalpara district of Assam and the northern Garo hills of Meghalaya. The Ajagarh hill forest spreads contiguously across the political boundary of Assam to Borchung hill tract in Meghalaya. This area is bestowed with many other natural mysteries. While fauna of any forest area attracts everyone’s attention, the floral wealth often goes underrated. A scientific understanding of the flora of any forest area is a pre-requisite to understand the ecosystem functions of that forest. The flora and fauna functions in an intricately interdependent equilibrium in any forest or ecosystem. Modern-day conservation models are mostly directed at preservation of mega fauna. Though the efforts for habitat preservation of mega fauna encompasses preservation of flora and vegetation, but the attention on studies related to flora and vegetation has dimmed in the modern times. This is reflected in the predominant disconnection amongst wildlife lovers/ conservationists regarding flora. The floral wealth of our forests is not reflected in the available published literatures. We hardly come across publications about trees, forest vegetations and various aspects of flora outside scientific work. This has created a blind spot in our holistic approach and interventions essential for true conservation work. This trend will not change until we begin the work through nature writings and published literatures. Hence, lets connect with the proposed Ajagar WLS from a holistic approach. We begin with an overview of the geological and floral significance of the proposed Ajagar WLS.  The Meghalayan plateau comprises of rocks from oldest Precambrian gneissic complex to the recent alluvium formations. The North Garo hills mostly includes the Precambrian gneissic complex with older alluvium land mass, this substratum supports a unique floral transition from the tropical evergreen forests of South Garo hills to the moist deciduous forests of the Brahmaputra valley semi-evergreen forests ecoregion. The paleo-geographic studies of India-Asia continent collision which happened some 56-60 million years ago provides information regarding the presence of an abundance of fossils in the Meghalaya plateau. This collision led to precipitation of well-developed sediments in the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills and makes Meghalaya globally significant in the understanding of early foreland basin evolution. This continental collision also impacted the dispersal of species across this region. The Ajagar hill forest exists in an inseparable contiguity with this ancient land mass of North Garo hills, it forms a continuous habitat for the vegetation and wildlife of this forest area. The continuity shows bio-geographic transitions and diversification which is important for the migrating mega fauna of this habitat like Asian Elephant. The preservation of the proposed Ajagar WLS thus provides an opportunity to contribute towards the conservation of the contiguous forest spread over an extended area of the North Garo hills. The Garo hills is one of the wettest places in the world, it is part of the Meghalaya subtropical forests ecoregion. The Garo hills also constitute the western most part of the Indo-Malayan biodiversity hotspot and hence is very important for future biodiversity conservation of this region. The Garo hills comprises of tropical moist evergreen, tropical semi-evergreen and tropical moist deciduous forests interspersed with grasslands and riparian forests. The terrain is hilly with limestone formations, plateaus, cliffs, and deep gorges. The germplasm of Citrus India (ancestor of today’s cultivated citrus fruits) is conserved in-situ in the National gene sanctuary in the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve. The area is noted for other wild varieties of citrus fruits as well. These forests with an abundance of botanical rarity pose great curiosity for botanists from around the world. The insectivorous plants include two species of Drosera (Sundew) and the endemic and endangered Nepenthes Khasiana (Pitcher plant) which is enlisted in Schedule VI of the Wildlife Protection Act of India- 1972 and Appendix 1 of CITES (the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

The proposed Ajagar WLS being contiguous with the hill forests of North Garo hills
provide a corridor for the natural transition and proliferation of floral
diversity between the Meghalayan plateau and the Brahmaputra valley. This
forest shows the presence of wild citrus species which is called Dawa by
the local people.

The fruit of this tree is an important food for the Asian Elephant populations of this forest. The vegetation of this forest comprises of ground orchids along with tree species like Sal (Shorea robusta), Teak (Tectona grandis), Bhumura (Terminalia bellerica), Monisal (Indian soapberry-Sapindus mukorossi), Cane (Saccharum oficinarum), Korai (Siris – Albizia procera), Ficus sp., Simul (Bombax ceiba), Modar (Indian coral tree – Erythrina variegate L.), White Kanchan (Bauhinia forficate), etc. This floral diversity and forest contiguity of the Ajagar forest provides home to one of the largest and most threatened populations of Asian Elephant in India. The proposed Ajagar WLS is connected with Urpad beel on its south-western periphery. Urpad Beel is the largest fresh water wetland of Goalpara district, it supports very healthy populations of avifauna including many migratory winter visitors like, Red Headed Pochard, Pintail Duck, Rudy Shelduck, Gargany, Malard, Widgeon, etc. This wetland is home to a wide diversity of resident species like Ibis, Cotton Teal, Cotton Pigmy Goose, Bronzewinged Jacana, Pheasant tail Jacana, Indian Moorhen, Purple Moorhen, etc. It also provides habitat for freshwater turtle species like Indian softshell turtle, Gangetic River softshell turtle, Peacock softshell turtle. Apart from this, Urpad beel is known to harbor a very healthy population of Indian Otter. Bestowed with very rich aquatic vegetation, this biodiversity rich wetland is an important source of food and water for the wild animals of the Ajagar forest. This wetland is an inseparable part of the Ajagar forest ecosystem, it is vital for the survival of large mammals like Asian Elephant. The proposed area of Ajagar WLS includes a portion of Urpad beel in its ambit. The wetland and the adjacent hill forest exist in an ecological continuum where in the hill forest acts as the catchment area for the wetland, and the large expanse of the wetland working as the source of food and water for the wildlife of the forest. This wetland provides rescue to the wild animals especially during the dry months of the year when food and water becomes scarce inside the hill forest.  The terrain of the proposed Ajagar WLS consists of numerous water streams viz, Hirakuti Jhara, Pagoli Jhara, Ketkibari Jhara, Chaplengkata Jhara, Rowrua Jhara, Chandubi Jhara, Wathegiri Jhara, etc. These streams furnish water and food security of the nearby villages apart from being the source of life inside the forest. These fresh water streams also indicate the health of this forest, healthy forests act as source of clean water that flows out of the forests as streams and rivulets which eventually becomes rivers. This forest is home to a rich diversity of mammals, a total of 37 species of mammals have been enlisted which includes Sloth Bear, Slow Loris, Hog Badger, Lesser cat species – Leopard Cat, Jungle Cat, Golden Cat, Fishing Cat, Clouded Leopard, Capped Langur, Rhesus Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Flying Squirrel, Sambar, Barking Deer, Hog Deer, Wild Boar, Pangolin, Indian Civet, Indian Palm Civet, Yellow Throated Martin, and many more.  According to a baseline study of Nature’s Beckon a total of 270 bird species have been checklisted in the proposed area of the wildlife sanctuary. The bird’s list includes Khaleej Pheasant, Imperial Green Pigeon, Great Horn Owl, Black Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Shikra, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo, Green Billed Malkoha, Crow Pheasant, Alexandrian Parakeet, Pale Capped Pigeon, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Large Whistling Teal, etc. Apart from these, 22 species of reptiles and amphibia have been checklisted in this area. These baseline studies have been conducted by Nature’s Beckon. 

The Ajagar forest is an important habitat for Asian Elephant in Goalpara district. The long-term conservation of the proposed Ajagar WLS along with the proposed Pancharatna WLS is indispensable for the survival of wild Asian Elephant populations in the Goalpara forests. Once the hub of thriving populations of Asian Elephants in Assam, the last remaining forests of present day Goalpara district are fighting a steep battle for its future survival. With large tracts of forests already lost due to human encroachment, agriculture and degradation, these forests need immediate protection under the Wildlife Protection Act of India-1972. The forests of Goalpara district face greatest threats from human encroachments; huge forest area has already been sacrificed for the settlement of migrant populations which continuously flooded this part of Assam since the independence of India. Other threats include conversion of forestland for non-forestry purpose like agriculture, the rapid conversion of forest areas for unplanned and illegal rubber plantations is further aggravating the situation in Goalpara district. Historically, the culture of Goalpara district reflects a rare man-Elephant confluence which grew due to proximity of human civilization in this area with very healthy Asian Elephant populations which roamed the forests in great abundance. Ironically, the present day Goalpara district portrays the worst man-Elephant crisis in Assam, it is one of worst affected districts of Assam. The reason behind such mounting conflicts is the rapid destruction of Elephant habitats in Goalpara and the nearby areas. Forest lands and wetlands are continuously getting degraded and converted for various economic needs of human populations, the biggest sufferers are long ranging wildlife species like Asian Elephants which are losing their living spaces and sources of food in this battle for resources. 

The immediate protection and future conservation of the proposed Ajagar WLS and the proposed Pancharatna WLS is very important to mitigate the rising man-Elephant crisis in Goalpara district. Protection of these forests is essential to facilitate long term Elephant conservation in Assam. These forests of Goalpara district constitute some of the primitive most habitats of wild Asian Elephant populations in this region, preservation of these habitats is vital for the survival of Asian Elephants in this landscape of NE India in the coming years. Nature’s Beckon’s campaign to provide permanent legal protection to the Ajagar forest and the Pancharatna forest is the first ever initiative taken for conservation of this major Elephant habitats of Goalpara district. It is very important to upgrade these two forests to the legally secure status of Wildlife Sanctuary as per the Wildlife Protection Act of India-1972 because the Reserve Forest category does not provide any immunity to forests from resource exploitation and other forms of anthropogenic threats. Legal protection of forests as a Protected Area (Wildlife sanctuary/National Park) is the only way to safeguard these forests under the constitutional framework of India from future exploitation and destruction. The protection of Ajagar WLS provides the scope for holistic conservation of a wide landscape of natural forest in Western Assam which is flanked with the expanse of Urpad beel on the South west and the contiguous forests of North Garo hills on the other side. Permanent protection of this forest will prevent the future fragmentation of an important Elephant habitat in Northeastern India, it will be a significant step towards Elephant conservation in India. This will also create avenues for economic growth of Goalpara district through responsible eco-tourism in future. Nature’s Beckon remains committed to contribute towards holistic conservation measures for the protection of the last surviivng natural forests of Goalpara district like the proposed Ajagar WLS and the proposed Pancharatna WLS. The organization is spearheading its grassroots movement amongst the village communities along with advocacy and other activities to strengthen this camapaign.