The biodiversity in Assam and the entire Northeast evokes wonder in visitors. But more astonishing is the general ignorance of the populace here about this plant and animal wealth. And the ignorance, indeed indifference, starts at the top from the Forest department. Recently the Assam Forest minister quoted departmental figures in the Assembly that only 248 leopards are left in the State, that too according to a census 15 years back in 2000. Due to man-animal conflict, 30 leopards were killed in the State between 2011 to 22 March, 2015. These figures have left conservationists and ture lover circles flabbergasted. Did the Forest minister mean leopards or the larger and much endangered tiger? Was a leopard census ever conducted in Assam? As for man-leopard conflicts, surely the Forest department figures of leopard killings is much on the lower side? The actual number of leopards killed every year on average may be around 20, conservationists fear. Media reports of leopard killings is considerably higher in frequency compared to the figures trotted out by the Forest department. The endangered tiger rightly gets much more publicity than the leopard, but it is the leopard that is coming more into confrontation with humans. An estimated 5 thousand leopards are ranging in the rugged and wooded terrain of the State. With ever widening human settlements encroaching into leopard habitats, conflicts are the inevitable and sad outcomes. The mob exultation after a leopard is chased, cornered, tortured and killed is revolting, to say the least. But what better can be expected if public awareness of our rapidly disappearing flora and fau is so abysmal? In the public perception, the Forest department itself does not seem to figure highly either. Apart from a handful of dedicated and knowledgeable foresters, many others appear to go through the motions of holding down a government job while a corrupt section operate hand-in-glove with timber mafia, poachers and smugglers of animal parts.
Government and public ignorance about our magnificent animals extends to the elephant too. Rural folk may hold the tusker in awe, but that does not prevent some exasperated farmers from laying deadly booby traps and live electric wires in their fields to protect crops. Hungry elephants coming out of forests into the fields are being poisoned and electrocuted. The Forest minister recently informed the Assembly that the total forest area of the State went up to 27,671 sq km in 2013. According to latest figures submitted by the Central government in Parliament, at least 3172.15 sq km of forest areas is under encroachment in Assam. So even as the forest area in the State is increasing, so also is encroachment therein! As we try to make sense of this, meanwhile elephants are being shot down by poacher for their tusks while trains passing through elephant corridors cut them down. What policy is the government carrying out to mitigate man-elephant conflicts in the countryside and prevent public and private bodies from putting up structures intersecting elephant corridors? The outlook is bleak for scavenger birds too, with ignorant people poisoning carcasses of dead animals in the fields. Among hundreds of vultures so killed this winter, around two hundred were Himalayan griffons. In this dismal state of affairs, comes a piece of welcome news. Despite the depredations of poachers, the rhino count in Kaziranga tiol Park has risen by 72 to 2,401. What is heartening in the just-concluded census is that 205 calves less than one-year old were also seen. Experts point to this as the sign of a healthy breeding environment in Kaziranga. Positive developments like this need to encompass other animals too in other parts of the State.