Sonai Rupai on road to recovery

Sanctuary on revival route
- No encroachment, deforestation reported in Sonai Rupai in the past four years
Sonitpur, June 21: A red-wattled lapwing floated over the Sonai Rupai wildlife sanctuary with a loud call. Pygmy hogs seen all over and encroachers fled as they heard the footsteps of forest guards on patrol.
These are all signs that the sanctuary in Assam’s Sonitpur district is regaining health and all is not lost as was once assumed. However, to regain its past glory, the sanctuary still needs to recuperate and should be left undisturbed, sources said.
“The sanctuary is in good shape now compared to five years back,” Satya Vashishth, the district forest officer of western Assam wildlife division, Sonitpur, under which the sanctuary falls, told The Telegraph.
The 220 square km sanctuary had lost 85 square km to encroachment before 2007. According to the state forest department, there are at least 12,000 illegal settlers within the sanctuary. But not a single encroacher has been able to enter the protected area since.
“In the last four years, there has been no further encroachment as we have tightened our control. But there are threats and we have to be vigilant,” Vashishth said.
A forest official said frequent patrolling had put fear in the minds of encroachers. “Whenever encroachers hear the sound of a patrolling vehicle, they run away. There is a psychological fear amongst them which has been created. There is no other way.”
Naren Daimary, a forest guard, said he and his colleagues had risked their lives to save the sanctuary from encroachers.
“If Sonai Rupai falls, the pressure is on nearby Nameri National Park,” he added.
But can the land lost to encroachers be reclaimed ever. “Certainly, if the government acts tough by evicting the encroachers,” Daimary said.
Sources said this would be a tough proposition as the encroachers were a major vote bank.
Daimary also said a massive plantation programme was the need of the hour. The sanctuary had lost 35 per cent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2005, the worst affected being the central areas of Batasipur and Golai.
But things have started looking up. Vashishth said there had been no movement of boulders or timber logs on the 15km road from Kamengbari, on the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, to Kalamati range in the sanctuary since 2007. “The movement of boulders and others disturbs a sanctuary,” he said.
Two-thirds of the 35 pygmy hogs that were released in the Gelgeli grasslands of the sanctuary between 2008 and 2010 have also survived.
Revamped infrastructure has ensured that at least 20 to 25 per cent of the forest guards can now stay with their families at Kalamati range, Vashishth said. “Infrastructure has been done up nicely and houses have been given a fresh coat of paint,” he added.
The guns have also stopped booming at the army’s short firing range located inside the sanctuary following protests and an order from the ministry of environment and forests. The order asks the army not use the firing range till it has obtained all the statutory clearances for using the sanctuary land for firing.
However, it was not easy to take the tough decisions as pressures from various quarters were high.
Conservation organisations like the WWF, which runs a North Bank Landscape Programme, speak highly of the forest officer. “He has done a tremendous job. The question is what will happen after he goes away,” a senior WWF official said.
This question has been on every mind concerned about the future of the sanctuary that was created in 1998 and handed over to the wildlife division in 2006.
In the meantime, a new signboard — Paradise for Wildlife — is ready to adorn Sonai Rupai. And why not? The sanctuary is already on its way to regain its wildlife paradise.


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