Fading fauna, forgotten people

There are a hardly any tigers left in Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. But, says aparajita dutta , the park is rich in biodiversity, and the fauna could bounce back if park authorities work with local tribals

Published: Thursday 15 September 2005

Fading fauna, forgotten people

-- We had set out early from Hornbill camp. After walking five hours, we touched the banks of the Noa-dihing near Firmbase camp: on the river's sandy bed was a tiger pugmark. Japung, a forest guard, quirky and irrepressible, exclaimed " Bhagwan ke moti jaisa ek bagh toh hai, Namdapha mein " (There's just a solitary tiger in Namdapha -- like the proverbial divine pearl). That was in 1999. In essence, Japung's words sum up what everyone -- local people, forest guards, high-level officials, conservationists and scientists -- think about the status of tigers in Namdapha Tiger Reserve and National Park, Arunachal Pradesh. Few believe that any are left.

In 1997, intensive camera-trapping yielded no tiger photos and just 7 scats after biologists surveyed 363 kilometres (km) of the 1,985 square kilometre (sq km) park. Since then in 3 years, covering over 1,000 km, I have seen pugmarks -- no other signs -- only thrice. Yet, official census figures show a steady increase in tiger numbers; the latest figure is 61. These figures appear to justify spending crores of rupees on a tiger reserve. But monetary largesse aside, Namdapha has never received the care or attention it deserves. Namdapha, away from national eyes, slowly deteriorates. In a sense, Sariska has already happened in Namdapha.

However, Namdapha is richer and more complex than the narrow focus on tigers allows for -- and the park's problems run deeper than the dying tiger.

A unique site
Namdapha National Park, with few trails and no roads fit for cars, lies in the easternmost corner of India, in the insurgency-ridden Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. In its prime, the park would be quite a treasure. Among the last of the great wilderness areas in south Asia, Namdapha is flanked on the south and east by the Patkai hills, and to the north by the Himalaya. Its altitudinal range -- from 150 metres to 4,500 metres -- is unparalleled. This, along with the heavy rainfall it receives, has made Namdapha congenial for 1,000 plant species, around 90 mammals -- including at least 15 of global conservation importance -- and 400 bird species. Namdapha contains the last large tracts of lowland dipterocarp forests in India, and the world's northernmost rainforests. No national park in India can boast of such biodiversity.

90 per cent of Namdapha remains unexplored. The park continues to record new species; even tigers, though extremely rare, could possibly bounce back, given the large area. Apart from hunting, other pressures on the forest are marginal, relative to the huge human, livestock and developmental pressures in other parks of India.

Some argue that legal protection and Namdapha's steep and near-inaccessible terrain have acted as deterrents for large-scale destruction. I argue, instead, that it's precisely this remoteness and perceived 'inaccessibility' that has resulted in its slow deterioration. Inaccessibility is a relative term. The park area is certainly not so for the tribal people (especially the hunters). Namdapha conceals a long-running struggle between the officials and local people. We should not misread the park's stagnation as peaceful existence.

The park's headquarters lie in Miao town around 9 km from Empen, the only entry to the park via the Miao-Vijaynagar Road. The road is barely negotiable up to Deban (the only range, 26 km from Miao); there is a forest camp along the way at 10 th Mile. Permanent field staff number 11; a handful sit in the few camps playing carrom, bored and listless for the most part. A few sometimes set up snares and traps to catch small animals. Sometimes, the guards go patrolling. Once, they caught poachers going after an elephant herd. But there was hardly any encouragement from their bosses and the poachers later got out on bail.

Besides Firmbase, three other tourist camps -- Haldibari, Hornbill and Bulbulia -- existed up to the late 1990s. Today, they survive in name only: visited by only a handful of tourists in winter, one or two biologists and by hunters, who often use the camps' building material to light their campfires, and sometimes to burn them down entirely. At these places, one often finds charred feathers and animal parts -- once, even the tail of a clouded leopard -- strewn around. Gunshots are heard at night.

Regular patrolling could have checked such activities in relatively accessible areas close to Deban. But for the few field staff, the distances and dangers are too great. The camps across the Noa-dihing become inaccessible during the monsoon, and capsizing boats cause deaths. The few patrols hardly get any encouragement and are not sustained on a regular basis. Once in a blue moon, Namdapha receives whirlwind visits from forest officials for a few hours, at most a day: a glimpse of the precipitous cliffs, the formidable river, apparently impenetrable vegetation and of leeches and everything appears fine.

What happens in the rest of the park is anybody's guess. It is not that people are completely unaware of the threats the park faces, or has especially over the last ten years. There are government files galore on the problems. But the thinking seems to be if you don't notice the problems -- or get to notice them -- things are okay.

Things aren't okay
Apart from the poaching of tigers -- at least 15 from 1994 to 2003 -- musk deer, bears and otters are commonly killed. Elephants have almost disappeared, one herd of 25 occasionally sighted. Hunting is widespread and intensive, especially for household consumption and sale in surrounding villages. Wild meat (Rs 80 per kg) and fish are also bought routinely in Miao. The only relatively common species in Namdapha is the barking deer; apart from hoolocks and squirrels, wildlife sightings are rare.

Empty forests? Fortunately, not quite yet. Namdapha should not be rejected as a lost cause with problems too complex and insurmountable to warrant an effort. That would be too easy. To act, however, we first have to understand the reasons for its current state.

Who rules?
In reality, most of the park is out of the control of the authorities. There are several tribal communities in the area; the two that affect the park significantly are the Chakma and the Lisu. The Chakma, Bangladeshi refugees, were moved to the western boundary in 1983, occupying five villages. 1,900 people live here, hunting, fishing, removing fuelwood in the more accessible western areas of the park.

However, the main community both affecting and dependent upon the park are the Lisu. The Lisu villages of Gandhigram, Sidikhu, Hazulu and Vijaynagar (Dawodi) lie in a valley beyond the south-eastern boundary of the park. A community that currently numbers 2,300, the Lisu originally migrated from Myanmar. The Lisu settlement was 'discovered' in 1961 by the Assam Rifles, who settled 192 families of Nepali ex-servicemen in the valley in 1965. There are now nine Nepali villages in the valley with about 2,100 residents. Miao -- the nearest town for medical treatment, supplies, work and better schools -- is a walk of three to seven days away, depending on the season.

I know the inaccessibility of the park is a myth after working with three ex-Lisu hunters: their jungle skills are formidable, crossing swollen rivers with only a jerry can to keep afloat. Many spend up to a month or longer looking for quarry like musk deer, carrying only rice and living off the jungle.

The Lisu are, according to an anthropological expert on the tribe, "fiercely independent and individualistic". Most forest department staff remain in perpetual scare of these tribals, attributing almost superhuman skills to them. There is also a view among officials and many conservationists -- who have little interaction with the Lisu -- that these tribals are untrustworthy, poachers and liars. These perceptions are largely based on rumours. My closer experiences with the community have revealed that this perception might be true for a few Lisu (as among people in any community), but an entire community is branded.

Survival in adversity
The Lisu have to do with more than prejudice. They currently depend on wet rice cultivation. Based on recent mapping, the average landholding for rice farming in Gandhigram is 1.4 hectare; this is simply not enough. Jhum, the earlier mainstay, is on the decline -- the hilly terrain gives poor returns. Now it is only practised by a few, usually to tide over rice shortages or grow other crops.

Lisu have no scheduled tribe (st) status, few job opportunities and few sources of cash income in such a remote locality. For most, there is no alternative to cultivation. Hunting is thus perpetuated -- even educated youth who fail to find jobs take to it. People marry young; have lots of children; despite high infant mortality and a total lack of healthcare facilities, population is growing.

Every monsoon, the Noa-dihing alters its course, stealing away land and depositing sand. Frequent floods result in crop losses. Stopgap measures of flimsy stone embankments fail to solve the problem. The Lisu assert their primary problem is their lack of st status, and second is the absence of the road to Miao. Almost unanimously, the Lisu worry about future land shortages. "Hunting does not help us fill our stomachs, we have to do agriculture."

Some Lisu have thus migrated into the park to survive. There are now 65 families with a total population of 317 resident inside. Considering larger settlements in other protected areas, this appears marginal, but with no controls or alternatives, more areas will soon be occupied. Already around 20-30 sq km of the park is degraded or lost to settlements and cultivation.

The first complaints about the encroachments were made in 1997. Since 2002, the district administration was supposed to be looking for land to resettle the Lisu. But land for resettlement is a problem: Arunachal is a state with no land revenue records, with every tribe historically having their designated area. Ownership is also decided on who laid claim first. Flat valleys suitable for rice growing are at a premium, and all cultivable unclassed state forestland is occupied. The only option is reserve forest areas in hilly terrain.

Given their lack of st status and the volatile situation in the district, district officials say that important tribal groups in the district like the Tangsa and Singpho are likely to oppose any allotment of land to the Lisu in the Miao area, even in reserve forests. The Lisu are similarly wary, given past history, inter-tribal rivalry and current disputes. To make it really work, the government would have to give the Lisu legal ownership with a signed consensus from other tribes in the district.

The problem has acquired a new dimension: the National Social Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muviah)'s demand for the inclusion of the Changlang and Tirap districts into Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). Local people in the district are worried and confused about the future and their status. The army has been recently called in, and villagers are caught in the crossfire.

Amidst this uncertainty and complex problems, it is unlikely that resettlement of 60 families from a national park is a priority for Changlang district's administration.

As long as the problems of the communities remain, they will rely on the only means of survival they know -- the forest. It is hardly surprising people feel no sympathy for the tiger or the park, seeing it instead as a waste of readily available land. Wafali, an elderly Lisu, explains: "We have been herded along an 8-km stretch. From here too, earlier, our agricultural lands were given for Nepali settlements. On three sides, there is Myanmar and high mountains; the other side is the national park. Where do we go? If we are losing our agricultural lands, we need to grow our food".

In a recent assessment of Lisu attitudes to the park and wildlife, some even denied the park existed. Most do not understand why it was created: maybe for some benefit to the government? A few recognise the park exists to protect wildlife and tigers, but they fail to understand why. They do not derive any tangible benefit from it, nor fully fathom the importance of protection.

The Lisu believe that all the area from Deban to their villages is their territory: they feel the boundary demarcation was forced on them. They little understood the consequences at a time when there were hardly any educated Lisu and no settlement of rights existed.

Over the past twenty-two years, there have been few concerted attempts by the park authorities at a dialogue. Communication difficulties and short tenures frustrate the attempts of the few well-meaning officials, perpetuating a cycle of blame and lack of understanding on both sides. Mistrust and resentment now runs deep.

However, most Lisu are becoming open to discussion. After our work (Nature Conservation Foundation) with the community, many see us as facilitators and mediators with the Forest Department. Phusa Yobin, the primary Lisu leader, says, "My people can change if given a chance, and we can be the fencing of the forest, we will abide by the laws, but the government does not care or listen. We hear that Namdapha is world-famous but no one cares about what happens to us or our concerns and worries."

Any change will therefore have to be a two-way process.

Progress at last
Change seems to be on the cards. In April, the district administration held a meeting with Lisu representatives and forest department officials in Miao. It was decided that they will look for land for 60 families in the area between Gandhigram and Vijaynagar, specifically in Pritnagar. Pending land disputes between Lisu and Nepali here, it may not be enough for 60 families; however, this is a much-belated first attempt at a solution.

The Lisu must also change their ways. Hunting has been an integral part of their life as for many tribal groups in Arunachal. When I first started working with the Lisu, a conservationist from Myanmar said, "You are trying to achieve the impossible. In Myanmar, we have a saying that not even a bee survives in the forest where there are Lisu!" Some in the community are also sceptical that the Lisu can change. For example, Lasayu, an old sprightly traditional healer, says, "Wild animals run from Lisu, they can smell Lisu."

But the Lisu are slowly responding to the call for change. There have been village level hunting bans, no-hunting pledges and signature campaigns. We are helping the community build a health care system and formal primary education, despite the numerous problems with poor access, bad communication and high costs. Till viable economic alternatives emerge, some hunting remains, but new ideas are filtering in. Akhi, our project co-ordinator, was amazed at the wildlife he saw when he visited other parks and saw the tourists. "If someone had told us from the beginning what benefits can happen if we stopped hunting, then things would not be like this. But maybe it's not too late."

A simple answer?
So, the perceived 'problem' -- the Lisu -- could be part of the solution. The people are willing to change, given alternatives and due consideration to their needs; cohabitation with the fore

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