Aid for Pachyderms

PARINITA DATTA highlights a unique initiative of the Balipara Foundation.

India has lost vast swathes of land to urbanisation in recent decades. As a result, the human-animal tussle for space is reaching new heights. Elephants seem a lot more like human beings. They live about as long as we do. They mourn their dead and they bear grudges against people who have hurt them, and sometimes go on revenge sprees.

Of late, conservationists in Assam have sounded an alarm over the escalation in elephant deaths  recently, a lot of tuskers have been mowed down by trains and more than 60 elephants were killed last year due to poisoning and electrocution in the State.

To offset the human-elephant tussle, the Balipara Foundation, Assam, has started habitat restoration work in the forest areas of Udalguri since December 2016. Says Ranjit Barthakur, founder-trustee of the Balipara Foundation, "We are engaged in the work of restoration and repair. Our story is one of humans restoring elephants."

Informs Saurav Malhotra, Designer, Rural Futures, Balipara Foundation, "The habitat restoration work began in the month of December, 2016. The project in Khalingduar area is just the beginning. We aspire to do similar projects across the Indo-Bhutan landscape and further all over the Eastern Himalayas. The overarching theme of this whole project is 'Community Conservation through Rural Futures'."

The Balipara Foundation is aiming to restore five square kilometres of degraded Asian elephant habitat in the Khalingduar Reserve Forest area (situated along the remote Indo-Bhutan international border) in Udalguri district and create a community asset that provides direct economic, social and ecological benefits to the forest fringe communities.

Robin Eastment, Programme Manager, informs that the said area suffers from the highest human-elephant conflict incidences in the country, with as many as 64 elephant and 105 human fatalities reported in the past six years (2011-2016).

The Balipara Foundation, head-quartered in the Sonitpur district of Assam, is taking a human-centric view of conservation and are firm believers of the fact that without social mobility of the forest fringe communities, no forest and wildlife can be saved and that the responsibility for "conserving our rich natural heritage lies in the hands of the people that live alongside it."

The committed conservationists at the Balipara Foundation have already begun planting trees, with the aim of planting over one million trees over five square kilometres of degraded Asian Elephant habitat. Five square kilometres of wild habitat will be added to the adjoining 76 km 2 Khalingduar Reserve Forest, thus, increasing the functional capacity of the forest by eight per cent. Puts in Robin, "All these efforts have resulted in direct income generation for the local community. Very soon, 30,520 days of employment will be generated for the forest-fringe communities. So, 30,240 MT of carbon will be accumulatively sequestered over 30 years. Last, but not the least, further revenue will be generated accumulatively through timber and bamboo harvests (Sustainable Forestry) - the benefits of which will percolate down to the local community."

Since its inception, the Balipara Foundation has challenged and questioned the narratives that drive conservation efforts the world over. Talking about the concept of 'Rural Futures', Saurav explains, "Our conservation policy has allowed us to develop and implement socially participative conservation programmes and propose the concept of Rural Futures or RuFu as we like to call it. RuFu is a holistic plan encompassing all human needs and one which allows wildlife to thrive alongside."

Bibhuti Lahkar of Aaranyak NGO, who is doing similar work in the Manas National Park area, sums up by saying, "We are doing restoration of elephant habitat work in the Subankhata Reserve Forest by the Pagladiya riverside in the buffer area of the Manas National Park. Despite a lot of claims that the elephant population is on the rise, the fact is that it is declining and elephant habitat is also shrinking. Bursting of crackers and chasing away marauding tuskers by lighting flames is just a short-term effort. It just acts like a band-aid. The long-term plan will have to be concrete. We are taking measures like construction of electric fences and are involving the community in it".

(parinita.datta@gmail.com)

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