The Battle for Biodiversity: Conservation and the Pakke Tiger Reserve

Arunachal Pradesh’s Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary lies in the midst of the forested foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. Bound and watered by a total of 7 rivers, this unique tropical forest is home to over 2,000 species of plants, 59 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, 380 species of butterflies and a vast number of reptiles and amphibians. The sanctity and incredible biodiversity of this pristine natural wonderland has come under threat by a proposed highway project, that would cut through a major section of the park. A number of scientists, conservationists, researchers and indigenous Niyshi youth have banded together to combat this proposal, which threatens a number of species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, with many being listed under Schedule 1.

“The Pakke Tiger Reserve is a source of Nyishi pride and identity.” Says one such Niyshi activist, filmmaker Rajen Tachang, “We are known globally as biodiversity protectors, and Pakke is today a model reserve for other communities to be inspired by. As a filmmaker I have spent days in ‘silent forests’ where wildlife has disappeared because of human actions. I cannot let this happen to Pakke. The highway must be stopped. I believe it will bring more damage than good to my community. I want my grandchildren to see the beauty of Pakke as I have seen it, not just hear stories about it.”

The proposed project will see a road run from Seijosa in the Pakke Kessang district to Bhalukpong in the West Kameng district, and is part of a larger 692 km long East-West Industrial Corridor project that seeks to connect towns and villages in the foothill areas of Arunachal Pradesh, from Kanubari in the east to Bhairabkund in the west. Phase one of the project would see an approximate 49km of road passing through the Pakke Tiger Reserve which is one of Arunachal Pradesh’s best managed protected regions. This section of the highway has been proposed as an elevated corridor that would run through the reserve, and would cost an estimated 2452.8 crores.

While the development processes of any such large-scale industrial project comes with many detrimental effects on the natural ecosystems of a region, including the felling of trees that are integral to the survival of a number of species, the final road itself also raises its own set of concerns. The very presence of a road cutting through this natural oasis is likely to alter the nature of biotic interactions, favouring weed invasions and increasing the risk of predation for understorey birds. The presence of vehicles on roads that cut through forest habitats has also been known to result in road-kills of various amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species. Another concern raised by the opposition to the project is the newly-created accessibility to previously inaccessible regions such a project would incur. Hunters, poachers, and general human encroachment comes as a major threat to wildlife, and may encourage illegal practices of logging and mining in the region.

“My interest in wildlife was born from encounters with birds and animals around my home in Seijosa near the Pakke Tiger Reserve.” Explains Laxmi Langlang, researcher and Niyshi youth activist, “I went on to study at the Wildlife Institute of India and did my dissertation on human-wildlife conflict around Pakke. I have observed Pakke’s unique biodiversity and witnessed my Nyishi community’s deep love for the park and respect for Nature. The proposed highway through Pakke will fragment our pristine forests and rob future Nyishi children of the memories and experiences that I was lucky enough to have.”

A letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, signed by over 90 Indian wildlife conservationists, researchers and allied professionals, appeals to the authorities for the road to be realigned to avoid the projects detrimental effects on the biodiversity of the region. The letter cites the existence of alternative routes that run through Seijosa to Bhalukpong via Assam with numerous shortcuts, stating “The necessity of such a massive construction effort that would involve huge expenditure to save 25 km of distance seems excessive especially when no unconnected villages would get connected, and the cost to the environment and biodiversity is excessively high.”

The area of Pakke Tiger Reserve was initially constituted as Pakhui Reserve Forest on the 1st of July in 1966, and declared a game reserve on 28 March 1977. It wasn’t until the year 2002, when it was renamed Pakhui Tiger Reserve and listed as the 26th Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. With this road-building project in place, the future could very well see this natural monument regress to its previous state of existence.

“Pakke is my home and it is where I started my journey as a researcher.” Explains Niyshi youth activist and forestry student, Feppy Tayam, “I have so many memories of and from this forest. Memories of my elders chasing wild elephants from their paddy fields, and of craning my neck in the evenings to count Pakke’s famous hornbills as they flew overhead. Yes, we want development but not at this cost. Not at the cost of losing our Pakke and its unique biodiversity.”

TheVibe stands with all those who are united in efforts to protect Pakke Tiger Reserve and all of the flora and fauna that call the region their home. Speak for those who cannot, and protect your natural ecosystem- the future is in our hands, and we must fight to protect it.

All images used in this article were captured via camera traps and are courtesy of Pakke Forest Department.

©️ 2020. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.

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