Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No Home for Leopards!

Guwahati is a unique city. While it is a hustling and bustling metropolis on one hand, on the other hand it is a city that has ample amount of unabashed natural beauty. The hills that surround Guwahati are special as they house some of the wild beauties that other city goers don’t usually get to see at such close quarters. And yet this natural beauty has been upset by the increasing urbanisation and encroachment into the forest areas. And the worst casualties in this mayhem have been the leopards.

Guwahati has been home to a sizeable leopard population that has thrived in its surrounding hills and the forest areas. Over the last three decades, Guwahati has expanded in all directions and this growing urbanisation has eaten up most of the city’s natural forest cover that has been a part of it since time immemorial. While the need to create houses for the increasing populace of Guwahati continues to exert pressure, the traditional leopard habitat has been hit hard with most of their homes been taken over by the concrete structures. This has resulted in increased man-leopard conflict over the past few years that has reached a worrying level today.

Once, leopards were found in almost all the hills in and around Guwahati. Over the last few decades, their habitats have been destroyed due to encroachment and destruction of forest covers over the hills. The city is no longer a safe zone for leopards as per most conservationists and experts and it is only a matter of time before the resident leopards of Guwahati go completely extinct. Leopards have already been exterminated from the main hill of Nilachal, the GMCH hill and the Nabagraha hill. Today most of the leopards in the city areas are concentrated in the hills at Maligaon and Pandu, where thankfully, the forest cover over the hills has also been largely intact so far.

But these habitats are also being threatened as more and more houses are being built adding more woes to the survival of Guwahati’s local leopards. Leopards normally live within rocky structures or caves where they rear their young. Most of such rocks on the hillsides are taken away and used up in the quarrying process for cement, leaving the leopard homeless. The loss of their habitat also means that they lose out on their natural prey due to the vanishing forest cover. As a result of this, they have to venture out into the city areas in search of food that brings them in direct conflict with man. The result is that we have had several news of leopards straying into the city areas and then being brutally put to death by a mob of panicked people.

The largescale encroachment of people into the forest areas over the hills has put the leopard population at stake today. What is surprising is that most of the encroachment has happened in the reserved forest areas of the hills as well but forest authorities are completely helpless in removing the encroachers from there. This is because of the political backing that these encroachers get due to vote bank politics and often we see violent resistance for any eviction drive.

The worst part is that the forest department seems to have no response mechanism to this growing threat of encroachment to Guwahati’s forest areas. There is no presence of any rapid action force in the forest department to look into immediate cases of encroachment. And it seems the government is not interested in forming strong anti-encroachment laws in the areas because of their rotten vote bank politics.

It is extremely important to save the leopards of Guwahati as they are the oldest residents of the city and not us humans. There should be strict laws whereby further encroachment should be stopped and strong mechanisms should be undertaken to empower the forest department to tackle the issues concerned. Translocation of the big cats should not also be ruled out and they can be taken away and resettled to other reserved forests where they can get ample food and shelter. It is still a better option than to silently watch these magnificent felines be killed due to mindless mob violence.

As per an estimate that is several years old, the total forest cover in the hills was just 13.60 percent. Today it is bound to be far less, given the ongoing encroachment, illegal logging and earth-cutting on the hills. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, about 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests but a major part of even these protected forest covers lie destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.

Something needs to done fast in this regard before we have to experience the misfortune of lamenting the demise of the last leopard of Guwahati. Afterall, if you think deeply, it is we who have invaded their territory and not the other way around. 
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