On a winter morning this past December, a person sat on the roadside outside the court compound in Hailakandi town in Assam’s Barak Valley with several animal body parts, intending to sell them. It piqued Amir Sohail Choudhury’s curiosity. Choudhury, a young research scholar from Assam University, was passing by.
Choudhury, a local of Hailakandi who is researching the population and conservation status of ungulates and primates in Barail Wildlife Sanctuary, could immediately identify the items put on sale. He identified remains of Indian muntjac, porcupine, old claws of Bengal tiger, two turtle shells, sambar and muntjac skin, snails, one vertebral bone of python, among others. Choudhury was particularly concerned with the source of the seller’s haul, particularly the tiger claws. Tigers are no longer reported in the Valley, named after the Barak River, the second largest river of northeast India, and comprising three districts: Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi.
“When I asked the person who was selling the animal body parts about his source for items like the tiger claw, as they are not even found in Barak Valley, he said he procured these from Kaziranga. He said he is doing this for quite some time, and there are specific buyers for these items. He claimed that these animal parts have medicinal value and could even cure kidney stones and other types of pain,” Choudhury told Mongabay-India.
Choudhury later informed the forest department about the man. The unsuspecting man was seen again in the same place the next day with the usual goods. This time, however, cops were waiting for him. He was picked up and subsequently handed over to the forest department. The man was identified as a resident of a village in Hailakandi district. According to Kulendra Nath Deka, Additional SP, HQ, Hailakandi, they are now trying to trace the person who sold the items to the seller.
In July this year, in a major bust by the Cachar Forest Division in the Barak Valley, a truck carrying exotic animals was seized near Lailapur in the Assam-Mizoram border. The consignment consisted of rare animals such as red kangaroos, six hyacinth macaws, two capuchin monkeys and three Aldabra giant tortoises, none of which are found in India. Two truck drivers were detained in connection to the case.
Speaking on trends of trafficking of such rare animals through this route, Sunnydeo Choudhary, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Cachar said, “The animals were coming from Mizoram to Guwahati, and from there the destination would have been some other big city like Kolkata. It might be possible that this has happened before also, but we are not sure. The truck drivers we detained couldn’t tell much about it.” The seized animals are presently housed in Guwahati State Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
A string of recent incidents has shown that Barak Valley serves both as a destination and route of wildlife trafficking. While there are people who are seriously working towards protecting this region’s faunal biodiversity, the general view is that compared to Brahmaputra Valley, wildlife conservation is ignored in Barak Valley.
Located in southern Assam, the region lies in a strategic position, sharing inter-state borders with Meghalaya in the north, Mizoram, and Tripura in the south, Manipur in the east also international borders with Bangladesh in the south.
All the three districts of Barak Valley have better individual forest covers than Assam. As per the Indian State of Forest Report, 2019, while Assam has 36 percent of its total geographical area (GA) under forests, the three Barak districts, i.e., Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi have 58.70 percent, 47.07 percent, and 58.35 percent forest cover, respectively.
Assam is famed for its rhinos, but they no longer roam the Barak Valley. The Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus), gayal (Bos frontalis), Indian bison (Bos gaurus), buffalo (Bubalus arnee), barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii), royal Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris), and gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) are some of the other globally threatened species that have vanished from the area in the last few decades.
But the Valley has much to boast in faunal diversity. Known as a primate’s paradise, Barak Valley is home to eight primate species namely Bengal slow loris, Rhesus macaque, Assamese macaque, northern pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, Phayre’s leaf monkey or spectacled monkey, capped langur, and Western hoolock gibbon. The Asian elephant is the only large mammal that roams a slice of land in the valley abutting Bangladesh. Gangetic dolphins, Indian muntjac, sloth bear, civet, Chinese pangolin, Bengal monitor lizard, pythons, etc. also call the valley their home.
Hunting and selling of wild animals
On a Sunday morning last month, Sarbani Giri from Silchar was shocked to see a fish seller at her doorstep trying to sell a live turtle. Giri, the head of the Science and Bioinformatics department at Assam University, offered to purchase the turtle, an Indian peacock softshell turtle, from the fish seller and informed the forest department. The turtle is marked as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened species.
“The fish seller asked me whether I would like to buy something different and showed me the turtle. I told him that it is illegal to sell such a rare species. He said this one weighs around 7-8 kg, and he will earn Rs. 7000-8000 by selling the turtle. I saw the turtle was a female, and I felt that I couldn’t let this animal die. Then I offered to buy the turtle from him. The fish seller was a bit shaken at that point as he said someone was buying the turtle to release it for the first time. Anyway, he agreed to sell me the turtle for Rs. 4000. I informed the forest department through a colleague and they collected the turtle in the evening and later released it,” narrated Giri.
Cachar DFO Choudhary said this is the first such incident to come to light; the forest department has decided not to arrest the fishmonger and will carry out initiatives to sensitise the local fishermen. However, nature enthusiast and Anchalik Panchayat of Dwarband Gram Panchayat (GP), Dharmendra Tiwari pointed out that catching and selling turtles is a common occurrence in Cachar.
“In semi-urban or urban areas, it is difficult for fish sellers to sell turtles openly in the market. So they go door-to-door to people’s houses whenever they catch one. There is a demand for turtle meat, and customers also call these fish sellers asking for turtle meat. It is quite common in Dwarband and Silkuri area. In interiors, they are even sold in open markets,” he said.
“In some remote places, animals like deer or even monkeys are killed. Wild animals are regularly rescued from the Cachar area. A few days ago, we rescued a king cobra. Recently, an ex-BSF person rescued a python and handed it over to the forest department,” added Tiwari.
Parthankar Choudhury, a professor at the Wildlife Conservation Laboratory, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science at Assam University, has been working on the conservation and rescue of animals in Barak Valley for a long time.
He told Mongabay-India that although most turtle species (around 11 of 29 turtle and tortoise species) are listed in Schedule I of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, in India, and their hunting and selling are completely prohibited, they are still being sold openly in this region. “There are 12-14 species of turtles found in Barak Valley, and most of them are threatened. In fact, on average, 20-25 wild animals are rescued from Barak Valley every year. Sometimes owls are caught and used for black magic.”
Lack of awareness about wildlife
A few months ago, as many as 13 monkeys were found dead inside a Public Health Engineering (PHE) water tank in Karimganj district. The postmortem revealed that the animals were poisoned; apparently, they were becoming a nuisance for locals.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Jalnur Ali, DFO, Karimganj, observed a lack of awareness about wildlife among people here, which leads to such incidents. “We can control wildlife but not people. In a recent incident in Patherkandi in the Karimganj district, a man was trampled by an elephant. The man was drunk, and he went close to the elephant and tried to touch its feet in reverence.”
Choudhury narrated an incident on how lack of awareness led to people in Cachar being terrorised by a rumour of a “ghost-like creature” that turned out to be a slow loris. “In 2005, a slow loris attacked a person at night. As nobody could see the animal at night, a rumour spread that some ghost-like creature comes at night and attacks people. Things became so bad that if people from nearby districts came to Cachar, they used to return before dusk so that they didn’t have to encounter the Maanu-Khang (name of the creature in local language which means man-eater).”
“Finally, the creature was discovered near Sonai and was identified as a slow loris, and it was eventually released in the forests,” said Choudhury.
Suman Mohapatra, Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF), South Assam Division, noted that one factor for the lack of awareness could be the absence of large mammals or the more glamorous species such as rhinos and tigers in Barak Valley. “However, the region still has impressive biodiversity in the form of multiple species of primates, deers, snakes, etc. We try to generate awareness during occasions like Wildlife Week, but we need to do more,” said Mohapatra.
Noted naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury said that the Barak Valley was the habitat of Sumatran rhinos till the 1960s. “The last rhino in the region was seen in 1967 by locals at the Punikhel area of Sonai Reserved Forest in Cachar. Tigers were found till the 1980s.”
The elephants, the only large mammals in the region, are under serious threat of being wiped out. In Barak Valley, elephants are found in just two reserve forests – Patharia and Katakhal. After the death of one elephant from illness in Patharia recently, the total number of elephants in Barak Valley stands at seven.
Nazimur Rahman Talukdar, a research scholar from Assam University who has published multiple papers on the status of elephants in Barak Valley in collaboration with Parthankar Choudhury, said, “There are just four elephants in Patharia now – all of which are female. In Katakhal RF, there is a family of three comprising of one male, one female, and one calf. There is a high chance of elephants becoming locally extinct from Barak Valley if immediate action is not taken. The government should think about bringing a male elephant from elsewhere and try mating it with the females in Patharia. Else, it will be just a matter of time before elephants become locally extinct here.”
The forest department doesn’t have any immediate plan of translocating a male elephant in Patharia for breeding purposes. DFO Karimganj, Jalnur Ali added: “This is something we have on our mind but it is a complicated process and so it will take time. We have plans to remove obstacles from their passage of movement. As Patharia RF falls on the Indo-Bangladesh border and a part of it stretches to the other side, these elephants always travel to and fro from Bangladesh.”
While the entire Barak Valley has got just one protected forest, Barail Wildlife Sanctuary, naturalist, and former bureaucrat Anwaruddin Choudhury feels that there is scope for at least two more wildlife sanctuaries in the region. Choudhury, who played a pivotal role in getting Barail getting notified as a wildlife sanctuary back in 2004, said, “Patharia RF can be a wildlife sanctuary as it has attractions like elephants and primates like Phayre’s leaf monkey. Also, Inner Line Reserve Forest, which is the largest reserve forest in the entire Assam, can become one. We can carve out a sanctuary by combining Inner Lines RF with Barak RF, which is known as Bhuban Hills.”
According to Talukdar, the declaration of new wildlife sanctuaries is the need of the hour in Barak Valley. Still, he stressed that notifying protected areas will be difficult because there has been massive encroachment in most of these reserve forests.
“Patharia Hills have been encroached by betel nut and rubber plantations. As it is close to the Bangladesh border, the area has seen a surge in population over the years. Duhalia and Badshaitilla in Karimganj have been encroached by rubber plantations, and they are reserve forests only on paper. No trace of wildlife will be found in these RFs now. Even Barail, a wildlife sanctuary, has stone crushing and timber logging inside the forests,” Talukdar said.
CCF Mohapatra acknowledges the ongoing encroachment. “The borders with Manipur and Tripura are relatively encroachment free. But there is a lot of encroachment in Inner Line RF on the Mizoram side. We have lost a lot of forest in that area with shifting cultivation taking place. There is encroachment in Longai RF in Karimganj also. In Barail, there might be few villages in the foothills, but the core area is absolutely encroachment free.”
The current forest minister of Assam, Parimal Suklabaidya, hails from Dholai in Cachar district, and he is the first forest minister of Assam from the Barak Valley. Speaking to Mongabay-India, Suklabaidya said: “The earlier governments never really gave importance to the forest and wildlife scenario of Barak Valley. But our government (the Bharatiya Janata Party) is serious about this issue. We are coming up with Barak Wildlife Division and a zoo-cum-rehab centre in Dholai.”
“We want to bring both these projects before the next Assembly election, preferably by February next year. Once Barak gets a separate wildlife division, I am sure that our biodiversity will increase among the people. The zoo-cum-rehab centre can also become a tourist attraction apart from bringing medical help for sick animals at the earliest. We had to send doctors from Guwahati for the elephant that died in Patheria recently. Once the rescue center happens, treatment will start way sooner, and in the process, the lives of many animals can be saved,” he said.
The zoo-cum-rescue center will have facilities like a veterinary health centre, food processing unit, etc. It will reportedly be set up on 200 hectares of land at Rajnikhal which falls under Suklabaidya’s constituency Dholai.
The tide in conservation awareness may be slowly turning in Barak Valley. Last year, when a Durga Puja (marquee) pandal in Udharbond in Cachar was decorated with 300 exotic birds, public outrage prompted the organisers to free those birds despite having the backing of the local member of the legislative assembly.
CCF Mohapatra is hopeful of a change once a separate wildlife division comes up. “There are certain challenges faced by the forest department in Barak Valley like lack of conservation awareness among local communities, encroachment, and a human resource crunch. We need more young forest officials here. However, we have many people who are passionate about protecting our biodiversity. Once a separate Barak Wildlife Division comes up, which will be soon, I am sure that we will see a sea of change in the way wildlife is perceived in this region.”
This story first appeared on Mongabay-India.