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Where have all the big animals gone? Indian park devoid of many species, further threatened by forest loss

Researchers working with local communities in effort to stymie environmental damage

Namdapha National Park, the third largest in India at 200,000 hectares, is located in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Its extensive dipterocarp forests are the northernmost lowland tropical rainforests in the world. Temperate broad-leaved forests cloak the higher elevations, and beyond the treeline lie alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks that reach 4,571 meters (14,997 feet). However, the region has lost thousands of hectares of forest in the past decade, and studies project the situation may simply worsen in the coming years.

Namdapha, being part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, is supposedly the only park in the world to harbor four species of large cats — tigers (Panthera tigris), snow leopards (Panthera uncia, of which there is only one record), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), and leopards (Panthera pardus). In addition, these forests host India’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon (Hylobates hoolock), and a range of ungulates from montane species such as red goral (Nemorhaedus baileyi) and takin (Budorcas taxicolor) to hog deer (Axis porcinus) in the river valleys.

Clouded leopard in Namdapha. The clouded leopard is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.
Clouded leopard in Namdapha. The clouded leopard is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.

However, all this richness looks good only on paper, with any large mammal remarkably hard to come by in the forest.

A study published in Biological Conservation in 2008 revealed the terrible wildlife situation. During the three-month camera trap study, which captured more than 1,500 days of footage, a research team led by Aparajita Datta of the Nature Conservation Foundation in collaboration with various institutions did not detect any tigers or leopards. Large herbivores such as sambar (Rusa uniclor), gaur (Bos frontalis), and serow (Nemorhaedus sumatraensis) were also uncommon. With the exception of Indian muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), other species were in far lower numbers than similar forests in Southeast Asia.

In subsequent transect surveys conducted between 2008 and 2012, Datta and Rohit Naniwadekar recorded only 29 sightings of the four ungulate species even though they walked 842 kilometers (523 miles). In contrast, in a better protected reserve like Pakke Tiger Reserve in western Arunachal, they had 141 ungulate sightings in 453 kilometers (281 miles) (unpublished data).

However, wildlife numbers weren’t always so dismal. The 2008 study notes anecdotal information indicating healthy populations of tigers and elephants until the early 1990s.

Paradoxically, Namdapha has a remarkable diversity of other wildlife. Biologists have found species that were unknown to occur in India. These not only include large mammals such as the leaf deer (Muntiacus putaoensis) and a dark muntjac (Muntiacus crinifrons/M. gongshanensis), but also cryptic reptiles such as Venning’s keelback (Amphiesma venningi) and Medo pitviper (Viridovipera medoensis). The park clearly is an important wildlife and ecological zone.

For many indigenous tribes living around the park, hunting is a way of life. They hunt for the pot, as a means of recreation and ritual, a source of medicine and ornaments, and to augment incomes.

Male Bengal tiger caught on camera trap in Namdapha Tiger Reserve. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.

At 17 people per 100 hectares (Census of India 2011), Arunachal Pradesh has the lowest human population density in India, which has a national average densiy of 365 people per 100 hectares. But the state’s population grew by 26 percent in the decade 2001-2011, when the country’s average growth was only 18 percent. Besides intensive hunting of birds and animals of all sizes by a growing population, rising deforestation compounds the problems of Namdapha.

The Chakma and Miji Mishmi communities living along the park’s western boundary hunt, fish, and harvest firewood and minor forest produce from within the park. Some Chakma settlements line the road from M’pen, the park’s entrance, to Deban. But the community that affects the park the most is the 3,000-strong Lisu community. They inhabit a piece of land between the park and the international boundary with Myanmar. This is arguably the most remote and least developed corner of India.

The River Noa-Dihing, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, severely eroded arable land, and the remaining land is inadequate for a growing population. Left with no choice, families moved into the park, some right into the core area. From 65 families in 2004-05, the number increased to nearly 160 in 2012-13.

According to data from Global Forest Watch, approximately 100,000 hectares of forest were lost from Arunachal Pradesh from 2001-2013, representing more than one percent of the state’s entire area. Namdapha is a part of Changlang district within Arunachal Pradesh, which has experienced an even greater rate of forest cover loss at about 2.5 percent. It’s small comfort that most of the loss has so far outside the park. Unless the status quo undergoes a dramatic change for the better, the protected forest may not be immune from deforestation pressures.

Changlang district (highlighted), in which Namdapha National Park resides, has lost approximately 2.5 percent of its forest cover since 2001. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch.Click to enlarge.

An assessment of the forest cover of Arunachal Pradesh published in Conservation Biology in 2001 noted that 70 percent of the state was forested in 1988. By computing projected population growth and its resultant resource extraction pressures, the study estimated 50 percent of the state’s forests would be lost by 2021. It also predicted that the Namdapha and its surrounding landscape would be almost completely deforested by then.

A report published in Current Science in 2004 estimated 170 hectares (0.7 square miles) of forest, not including swidden areas and settlements, were cleared in five years. It also estimated that the Chakma and Lama from six villages extract 2,790 tonnes (6 million pounds) (dry weight) of forest products from the park annually. Two Lisu settlements inside the park extract about 430 tonnes (948,000 pounds) per year. In 2005, Datta estimated 2,030 hectares (7.8 square miles) of forest were degraded or cleared for settlement development, cultivation, and other uses (unpublished data).

Life for the Lisu is not easy. The Indian government views them as recent migrants from Myanmar, although their villages have existed in the vicinity of Namdapha since at least the 1940s. Till the early 1970s, they enjoyed tribal rights granted to other tribes in the state. But the government revoked their tribal status as well as citizenship in 1979 for reasons that remain unclear. The authorities restored citizenship and voting rights in 1995, but not tribal status that would allow the community members to avail of various benefits like access to hostels for students studying in distant towns and job opportunities in the government.

Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradash, India. Photo by Rohit Naniwadekar.
Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradash, India. Photo by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Malaria is a scourge, sometimes wiping out entire families. To seek medical help, the Lisu have to walk or be carried for seven days through the national park. During the monsoon, even this access is sometimes impossible to negotiate. For a long time, vehicles could not ply the 157-kilometer (97.5-mile) road connecting Lisu settlements on the far side of Namdapha to Miao, on the western border of the park, as the jungle had reclaimed it. Groceries and essential supplies are physically carried or occasionally hauled in on the backs of elephants. In 2011, the government began re-building the road but most of its length continues to be impassable for vehicles.

The Lisu’s biggest grievance is the establishment of the national park. Some claim the community owns most of it, and as stakeholders, they feel they ought to have been consulted before the park was created. Like many people living around protected areas in India and elsewhere, they don’t understand the need for the park, and this lack of understanding and empowerment has led to dissatisfaction.

In an effort to rid the park of encroachments, the department destroyed Lisu settlements in the 1980s. If park officials found any Lisu with wild meat or fish in his possession, they confiscated all his belongings. The Lisu burnt forest camps and killed animals in retaliation.

Leopard cat in Namdapha. The leopard cat is listed as Least Concern. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.
Leopard cat in Namdapha. The leopard cat is listed as Least Concern. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.

In 2003, Aparajita Datta of the Nature Conservation Foundation realized that the atmosphere wasn’t conducive for conservation. With support from other institutions, she facilitated the setting up of kindergarten schools in Lisu villages inside and outside the park as well as a health care program that also provided essential medicines for eight years. Other efforts included building embankments to prevent further erosion of arable land, setting up solar energy for lighting and heating, and generating alternative sources of income through pig rearing, handicrafts, tourism, and horticulture.

Several Lisu carried out wildlife surveys as well as monitored hunting activities within the park. Datta conducted conservation education and outreach programs. She hoped that by receiving tangible benefits and recognizing the value of wild fauna, the community would appreciate the park and cooperate in protecting it. Initial indications suggested these efforts made a difference to the Lisu’s quality of life, and they pledged to stop hunting.

In 2005, Datta initiated discussions with different levels of the government to resolve the land issue. She tried to change the government’s perception of the Lisu as poachers, bring recognition to their jungle skills and knowledge of the park, and suggested they become formally involved in the park’s protection.

Asian elephant in Namdapha. The Asian elephant is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.
Asian elephant in Namdapha. The Asian elephant is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo © Panthera, NTCA, APFD, NNPA, and Aaranyak.

Between 2010 and 2012, the district authorities and the Forest Department held a series of meetings with the Lisu. With the help of other tribes resident in that area, they had identified 200 hectares of land near the western side of the park as a possible site of relocation. However, the Lisu turned down the offer as they claimed the land wasn’t good for farming. They also felt staying in the park would be better in the long run, since the need for more land may arise in the future. While Datta had hoped for reconciliation and a negotiated settlement, the Lisu felt that she had taken sides with the government and the long-term relationship ended. This is a big loss for area conservation.

Still, there may be a sliver of hope for Namdapha and its wildlife. In 2012, conservation organizations Aaranyak and Panthera, in collaboration with the Forest Department, obtained a camera-trap photograph of a tiger and other large carnivores, indicating the continued presence of large animals in the park. However, poachers shot at the researchers and the camera traps were stolen.

If the situation remains unchanged, will Namdapha fulfill its scientific prophesy of near total deforestation in another seven years?


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