- DEPLETING ALARMINGLY DUE TO LOSS OF HABITAT
New motorable roads are being randomly opened in sensitive hillocks instead of repairing the old ones – thereby hundreds of Rhododendron and Sorbus spp forest have been massacred
There is considered opinion about the fact that Darjeeling Hilly Region is one of the richest biological reservoirs among the other hilly regions in the country. As far as record tells us that the richness of its biodiversity is due primarily to its great climatic variations and corresponding to the diverse habitats. Much of the interesting factors that contribute to its wonderfully attractiveness of this sub- Himalaya Region lies in the possibilities of seeing a vast varieties of plant species, animals, birds, butterflies, insects within a short distance. It is nothing but the altitude that causes to happen various climatic conditions at different heights which further combine together to create contrast in forest formation, topography and the physiographic of the land surface, soil type, habitat of animals, availability of varieties of food for biotic components. Geo-climatic variation is so finely defined that an ordinary lay man living in the vicinity of the forest could tell the occurrence of particular species of plants, animals ,birds etc at certain pockets of the hilly region very easily and accurately. Sultry hot climate of the tropical zones to the freezing zones of the semi- Alpine Region are the diverse climatic factors in which diverse biological components are known to occur enabling them to not only survive but they have become successful in their life cycle in the best niche. . Inspite of all these natural factors combined together to harbor a vast variety of flora-fauna, avifauna in the hills of Darjeeling a number of certain species of these are becoming endangered and their presence in the physical environment at this present situation. counts to be very scarce.. The tragic scenario is such that some of the plants, animals, birds have become very much threatened and if the trend is not checked in time and concerted efforts are not being made for reverse the ensuing trend these species will surely get extinct from this area for good. If these tragic scenarios are allowed to happen due to our apathy and selfishness the loss will be a ecologically disastrous in years to come as these species will be extinct before we could assess its scientific, ecological , medicinal, and economical values.
It has often been misinterpreted about wildlife and consequence was that there were conflicting views always persisting among the general people and the government Forest Deptts. It is pertinent to refer here the definition of wildlife which actually means: a comprehensive definition of wildlife may be given as- any or all non-cultivated or non-domesticated life including both plants and animals ( wildlife protection (1972) Act. In USA federal government has kept fishes separate from wildlife category but the Indian Government has gone one more step further to include plants of terrestrial, water , butterfly, moths, birds, orchids, snakes, fishes all these are not domesticated are kept in the wildlife category
Importance of wildlife : The wildlife resources provide aesthetic, recreational, educational, economic benefits and at the same time are important ecologically in our physical environment. Plants and animals go hand in hand and one cannot exist without the other so they are interdependent in their survival. Birds and insects are necessary for the cross pollination of flowering plants and these with other agents(animals) also serve for seed dispersal and propagation of vegetation. Not only this the health of vegetation depends on natural browsing and grazing. Among these, birds play very important role in nurturing the plants in the most natural way. Most important is the balance of nature of which wildlife is an integral and an important part. Importance of conservation of wildlife : Along with the topic of conservation of wildlife arises a question why should we care about disappearing animals, plants organisms etc? The answers to such questions can be attributed to many reasons. Some of them are as follow :
Survial value : Every species plays an important role in maintaining an ecological balance in the ecosystem of the earth. These system must continue to function if life is to survive : Loss of any species threatens the survival of several species inclusive of human beings. It is revealed that one disappearing species takes with it about six to ten other corresponding species which are interdependent : the study of wildlife provides valuable knowledge about life processes which has helped scientists to understand the functioning and the behaviors of human body. Scientists have also gained lot of important medical knowledge about numerous diseases by testing on wildlife.
Economic value :The study of wildlife shows that wild species of animals, birds provide meat of high class for food and skin for fur and other leather products. Those countries which are having rangelands are earning foreign exchanges. The U.S.A. is the major country to earn from rangeland. The financial value of wildlife species is of major importance in the economics of many nations
Aesthetic value : Wildlife includes diversity of species that contributes in a special way to the beauty of nature. Animals, birds are the living ornaments of nature. Wildlife is very important for enjoyment of camping and outdoor recreation. Wildlife represents an environmental heritage of the past world once surrounded our ancestors. We were fortunate that our forefathers had taken extreme care to conserve wildlife respecting the laws of nature and passed on to us but we the present so called civilized people, tragically failed to understand the laws of nature, and inflicted so much harm to the wildlife that more than fifty percent of it has been push to the brim of extinction. We now responsible to the coming generation to learn as an inheritance an unspoiled world with intact living beauty and richness.
Classification scarce wildlife :
Broadly three major categories have been taken into account in order to classify wildlife that is facing extinction.
1.Endangerd species : They face the most severe threat of extinction and require direct human protection for survival.
2.Threatened species : They are abundant in certain areas but face serious dangers never the less. Dangers being caused due to unfavorable environmental condition, extensive hunting , fishing poaching, trapping or even collection by hobbyists, laboratory testing etc.
3.Rare species : They have small population. They live in protected environment and their numbers are not decreasing. Besides these a few more can be added to understand more easily.
4.Vulnerable: These are believed likely to move into the endangered category in near future if the
causal factors continue operating. Their number is depleting because of over exploitation, extensive destruction of habitat or the environmental disturbances and whose security is not assured.
5.Out of danger : They were formerly included in one of the above categories but which are now considered relatively secure.
Intermediate :They were suspected of belonging to the above three categories but for which sufficient information is not correctly available..
How the richness of biodiversity of Darjeeling was lost? Its contributing factors are too many but a few pertinent reasons are enumerated hereunder.The openness of landscape, facing towards south and south-east, the Darjeeling Hills landmass receive maximum amount of precipitation almost 120” to 200” rainfall annually due to the moisture laden wind being blown up regularly by formation of depression frequently in the Bay of Bengal and also from other numerous sources like rivers, wetlands which are being heated up in the plains and water vapours are being carried over by the up going wind in the regular manner and as a result luxuriant vegetation has been thriving well all over the hills. The seasonal climatic factor is such that the foothill remains very hot during summer, sometimes above 30 degree Celsius but the Alpine zone remains within 5-7 Celsius during summer but during winter it remains under zero degree Celsius. The alpine Zone is being frequently hit by snowfall during the winter months and more or less remains freezing. The cold wave generated by this climatic factors influence the Temperate, Sub-temperate regions thereby causing forceful migration of some of the species of animals and birds to the lower altitude during the winter months. So also the same way some of these species move towards higher elevation during hot summer months. As influenced by the climatic factors other insects also make their movements as their hosts thereby keeping the attachment perfectly in harmony as inter-dependency Though the record gives us a vast range of list of the wildlife of this region, the compilation of information that had been started since last eighteenth century onwards now invariably needs to have its updating from time to time.. Many species of plants, birds, animals, smaller insects have already been disappeared from this region and many more are in queue for their turn for pushing to the oblivion. On the other hand Darwinian theory on life teaches us that the biological extinction is a fact of life. As species evolve, the old give way to the new. Many of the so called extinct species are represented today by their descendants. Many species did not die off as such but were simply altered during evolution. But this type of evolution, the process needs to have millions of years for which certain factors such as congenial atmosphere, external and internal forces are working together in harmony. Our constant observations and study show that the whole wildlife in the hills of Darjeeling is not in the safer position due to the fact that its eighty percent prime forest has been depleted already. As a result the habitat of wildlife has been badly affected and shrinking very rapidly. Birds, animals and other organisms as their numbers have been going down drastically during the last two decades. Many plant species like orchids(cymbidium spp, Vandas.)etc which hang on the trunks, branches of trees are disappearing with the cutting down of trees. Edible fruit bearing trees in wild are facing extinction. These trees are Mechilus edulis, Juglan regia, Elaeocarpus lanceaefolius, Pyrularia edulis, Symplocos spps and Ornamental flowering plants like Rhododendron spp, Magnolia spp., Medicinal plants are now badly threatened. Among the animals Himalayan Black Bear, Serow, Red Panda, Thar, Goral, Spotted Dear, Spotted leopard, Plam cevet , Crabeating mongoose, Indian pangoline, High altitude Squirrel and in birds Crimsonhorn pheasant, owls,eagles, vultures, Partidges, Bush Quail, Hoopoe, Indian Roller, Wild Pegions, Barbet, Woodpeaker, Nuthatches are some of the wildlife that have been awefully threatened and endangered in this region. It is well understood that if concrete conservation measures are not implemented in time it is certain that we would be losing these major components of the ecosystem for good. There are certain insects, butterflies which are very much threatened due to illegal trade by local collectors in connivance with the forest staffs and the foreign businessmen concealing as tourist from Japan, Thailand, Russia, Chez and hosts of other countries. A glaring example is two Chez nationals were caught red handed by the forest officials while collecting a huge number of insects in the Siri Khola jungle within the Singalila National Park in the month of June 2008.
This sorry state of affairs about the wildlife of Darjeeling Hill region have manifold reasons to be accounted for. In the first place the faulty policies of the government forest department particularly with regard to the hill forest has to be blamed. At the high altitude the growth rate of plant is very slow but the forest deptt. as per their studies conducted at the lower altitude region tried to apply techniques at the higher region which were tragically failed. To hand over the total management of hill forest to the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation Ltd in the early seventies was a great blunder on the part of the Govt. of West Bengal. Once the high ridges and slopes are denuded it becomes well neigh impossible to cover with forest due to its slow growth, on the one hand and the other the external forces like hailstorm, snowfall, freezing cold, strong gail, dryness , landslips and most importantly the human selfish activities. Added with the faulty planning and mismanagement, corruption is the dominating factor to become the major cause for the total failure of the forest department in maintaining the hill forest and biodiversity conservation. After the formation of Darjeeling Grokha Hill council, in the early nineties, the department of Tourism, DGHC appeared another giant destroyer of the environment of Darjeeling hills. In the name of Tourism promotion in the Darjeeling hills it started plundering the forest, environment like anything. Even it did not spare the forest of the highest point of Darjeling i.e. Sandakphu-Phalut( known as Singalila National Park) causing irreparable loss. The huge rocks at Sandakphu hill lying very uniquely which were not only the ordinary stones but these were the expression of the inner earth crust, have been broken down into minute pieces and used for the construction of the Trekkers’ Huts and road walls and stone stairs at Sandakphu. within the Singalila National Park. Hundreds of valuable silver fir trees(Abies spectabilies), Sorbus spps Quercus lamelosa, Quercus fenestrata, castanopsis hystrix, Castonopis pachyphyla, Rhododendron sps were mercilessly cut down for the construction of tourism huts and thousands of trees were smuggled out from the SNP to different destinations in the joint venture of the forest officials and the local contractors. The grand-daughter of Lord Viceroy of Bengal late Mr Liton had come to Darjeeling in the year 2004 and went to Sandakphu carrying photographs of her Grand Mother sitting on the big rock at Sandakphu.The writer of this article himself was present there at Sandakphu while she was desperately looking for that rock where her grand mother was sitting She wanted my help in this regard so I quickly identified that rock and pointed -- that is there…But that big rock where Mrs Liton had climbed on and enjoying the thrilling moment there projecting herself in front of snowy peaks of the Himalayas in the morning sun now has been reduced to dwarf size. That rock was broken down into pieces for constructing the walls of trekkers huts and also carpeting the stairs. When I narrated the sad story she was almost crying. What a tragedy indeed!Actually these huge rocks are not merely a ordinary stones but these are the expression of the inner earth crust through which scientists can tell the geological make up of the region. The Gorkhaland agitation has to its credit for another additional aggravating situation as the minds of the people have changed to destructive activities which led to think themselves as the king of the land and forest became the easy victim for their easy earning source. In the meantime another culprit took the advantage of the situation was the Tea Garden management.
Instead of supplying the fuel they started giving money to the labourers and in turn labourers without spending a single paise cut down trees of nearby forest on which it is almost an invasion at that moment. Population in the hills is alarmingly increasing as a result people are encroaching upon the forested lands and the deptt. is helpless in this regard. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council even did not spare the habitat of Himalayan Newt( Himalayan Salamander) at Jorepokhri where they have converted this beautiful hill, the home of Salamander into concrete jungle, cemented pond. While constructing the tourist resort at Jorepokhri the labourers working there, killed about three hundred Salamanders on the strict instruction of the Chairman of the DGHC, Darjeeling. The alarming rate of forest destruction in the hills and the disappearance of wildlife, its immediate fall out in the form of problems like water crisis, fuelwood, fodder, non-timber forest produce, climatic changes, changes in temperature, rainfall pattern, biological imbalances in ecosystem like increase in certain species and drastically decrease in certain species are some of the major concerns. Dovetailing the whole gamut of the situation it is to be suggested that the Department of forest, Govt. of west Bengal should go in for a hollistic planning in order to improve the forest in the Darjeeling Hills. The approach should be need base,researches conducted at the spot. The indigenous knowledge and techniques should be given top priorities and be incorporated in the project planning. Other important things are that the project should take care of time frame, transparency and involvement of NGOs and the people of the localities in the planning processes and at the implementation stages.
It is the burgeoning human population in this hill region as elsewhere in the country .that demand on forests are more than what the shrinking ailing forests can supply. Environmentally and ecologically the relationship between existing forests and the depending population of the region has not been clearly defined. But for all practical purposes the present carrying capacity of this region and the sustaining capacity of the available resources seem poised for a near disaster.
The forest villages and the forest fringe villages in Darjeeling Hills are now a real threat to the forests. The swelling up of human population in these villages is quite alarming because of the simple fact that in the villages manual manpower is very much needed without which they cannot survive. Till mid 1980s there were 24000 forest dwellers in 84 forest villages of the three hill Sub-divisions of Darjeeling District. This has since increased manifold Till then they had good employment in various forestry operations of the Forest Department almost throughout the year .But with the imposition of total ban on felling of trees above 1000 mt elevation above sea level and in natural forest below this altitude as per National Forest Policy Amendment Act 1988,all these twenty four thousand population and their dependants have been thrown completely out of employment. Under such tragic circumstances they are resorting to illicit felling of trees and unlawful exploitation of forest minor produce for their economic survival. Their plight is further aggravated by the fact that these forest villages fall beyond the jurisdiction of the various Rural Development Departments and Panchayats. Consequently ,they are totally denied the benefits of any rural development schemes of the government implemented through Panchayats.In the wake of formation of DGHC the Panchayat system in the Darjeeling Hills totally disappeared and the existing panchayats were forced to be non-functional due to political conspiration. Added with these the Forest Deptt craftily.took the advantage of political disturbances in the hills and started all construction works including engineering works though the departments conspicuously lack competent technical hands yet they did themselves keeping utmost secrecy of the nature of work and budget denying the forest villages contractors the tender works.Forest Departments are now in race for making sophisticated, huge luxurious bungalows at beautiful hillocks for their holiday programmes. Costing of construction of huge ,expensive bungalows is no problem but plantation programme and meager labour wage payments are great burden to them... There appears frequently ugly dispute between the officials and the poor villagers just for petty wages.The huge fund for the Joint Forest Management programme funded by World Bank in the hills of Darjeeling was totally went into the drain and the total programme was tragically failed in the case of hill forest development.
There are 76 Tea Gardens in the three hill Sub-divisions of Darjeeling District .Two thirds of the hill population lives in these tea gardens. They consume as high as 80% of the locally exploited timber and firewood, whereas their own forest produce is alarmingly negligible in case of very few tea gardens but majority of gardens have no forest at all-a major threat to hill forest However Tea Gardens were somehow arranging fuel supply to their people through market but at present Tea Managements are not arranging fuel themselves instead they are giving cash to the labourers in liu of fuel and in turn Tea garden workers happily keep the cash money for other purposes but they invaraibly go to the nearby jungle and recklessly cut down trees free of cost. As per our social survey in the three hill sub-divisions we found that 85% percent people consume alcohol. Most of the forest fringe villages and even some of the forest villages within the forest are running some sort of cottage industries manufacturing local drinks (Rakshi,Jarn).It is to be noted that to manufacture local liquor firewood is invariably needed and that is also in good quantity .It is an irony that one has to take much pains to find grocery shops in the hill towns but it is very easy to find liquor shops that is also in plenty and these are always remain crowded.
The depleting trend of forest and wild life is alarmingly increasing in the hills of Darjeeling and its fall out in the form of dramatic changes in the rainfall pattern, micro climate changes, scarcity of drinking water, landslips occurrence, low productivity in the agricultural sectors, nuisance of wildlife in the cultivated lands are some of the issues to be reckoned with seriously by all concern.
By Bharat Prakash Rai
Secretary, FOSEP, Darjeeling
Mountaineer & Naturalist
M. Sc. In Ecology & Environment
M. Sc. – Sustainable Development