The Sentinel | December 9, 2020
The ‘International Union for Conservation of Nature’ (IUCN) has sounded the timely alarm bell against illegal encroachment posing grave threat to conservation of Manas National Park in Assam.
It is a matter of great concern that this national park — which was taken off the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ in 2011 — is facing a new conservation threat. The IUCN has flagged the concern that “agricultural encroachments by settlers inside the World Heritage Site (in the Bhuyanpara Range) poses the most significant threat to the property.”
If left unchecked, the area may be lost in the manner large areas in the Panbari Range of the Manas National Park (outside the World Heritage Site) were lost, warned the global environment body in its ‘2020 Conservation Outlook Assessment’.
It points out that though the eviction exercise was carried out on the 16 sq km area in the Bhuyanpara range of the park in 2017 yet settlers have now occupied about 22 square km area in the range. The State Government and the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) authorities need to seriously take the IUCN findings of former militants or powerful political groups continuing to support the encroachers inside the national park; and also take prompt action.
The IUCN mentions that the national park provides habitat for 23 of India’s most threatened species of mammals. There are 60 mammal species recorded at the site. These include the elephant, tiger, greater one-horned rhino, clouded leopard, hog deer and sloth bear.
“The wild buffalo (Bubalus arnee) population is possibly the only pure strain of this species still found in India. The site also has endemic species like the pygmy hog (Porcula salvania), hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus) and golden langur (Trachypithecusgeei) (World Heritage Committee, 2011; Das et al., 2014),” states the 2020 outlook on the site which speaks volume about the national and global importance of conservation of the nature and environment of the national park and its adjoining areas.
Manas got is first addition of 350 sq km in Chirang district under the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) in 2016 which was considered a significant move to support conservation initiatives; and the area under the park increased to about 850 sq km.
The IUCN observes that though the significant decline in insurgency has brightened hopes for better protection of the core areas yet “the capacity of Forest guards to effectively respond to any new threat” and “insufficient law-enforcement remain a cause for concern.” Although killing of rhinos for their horns has stopped since 2016, illegal killing of other animals has continued, it adds, which is a serious cause of concern and should put the authorities on the maximum alert.
The Manas National Park was inscribed on the list of ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’ in 1992 after its rhino population declined to nil in 2001 from around 100 population in 1985 due to poaching during the continued political unrest in the Bodo heartland. Following translocation of rhinos from Kaziranga and Pabitora which began in 2006, the current rhino population of the national park has risen to 40 which is a robust indicator of the conservation success scripted by the park authorities and rhino experts.
The IUCN threat assessment also highlights another potential threat to the Manas National Park which require urgent attention of all stakeholders in the conservation. The IUCN has raised a concern that the Mangdechhu hydroelectric plant in Bhutan poses a serious potential threat to the site.
“Apparently, no proper environmental impact assessment for its possible effect on the site was submitted to the World Heritage Committee despite several requests,” the assessment states. India should leverage its friendly relation with Bhutan and as a stakeholder in the harnessing of hydropower in the neighbouring country, India should impress upon the Himalayan nation to extend cooperation in conservation of Manas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the 720- megawatt Mangdechhu hydroelectric project in August 2019. The Government of India funded the Rs 4,500 crore-project through a 70 per cent loan and 30 per cent grant to Bhutan; and therefore, owns the responsibility of providing the EIA report to the World Heritage Committee.
The IUCN’s apprehension of the project posing a potential threat to the World Heritage site stems from its findings that release of excess water from the 60 mega watt Kurichiu hydroelectric project in Bhutan caused extensive flooding in the Manas-Beki river system and also blocked a channel. Making the cumulative assessment of the likely impact of the release of excess water from both the projects is critical to plan the mitigation measures against the negative impact on the sustainability of the ecosystem of the park to support wildlife.
The IUCN report has stated that potential cumulative impacts of the Mangedechhu and Kurichu dams are “unclear, unpredictable and likely not yet addressed through any mitigation measures” for lack of required information of the environmental impact assessment. All stakeholders must rise to the occasion to protect the Manas National Park and its unique eco-system from potential threats.