Securing right of passage for elephants through corridors between their fragmented habitats has been a major wildlife conservation effort. The Green Tribul’s recent order to the Numaligarh Refinery Limited to demolish a wall blocking an elephant corridor is therefore a welcome development. It will help restore a long-established elephant migration route between Deopahar proposed reserve forest (PRF) in Golaghat district and Kaziranga. The NRL authority had raised the wall in 2011 after acquiring land in the Deopahar area to build a residential township. But the area had been notified a ‘no development’ zone back in 1996 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. This was a stipulation the NRL authority should have applied its mind to, but instead it bulldozed ahead with its construction work. After the wall was erected, the trouble began. Thwarted by the wall, herds of wild elephants began spilling over into nearby villages. Locals began spending more sleepless nights, as jumbos raided their fields and graries and broke into their homes. Over a dozen elephants have reportedly died colliding against the high wall. Wildlife experts warn about such behavior — that these large creatures need space, that memories of routes once travelled get hard-wired into their brains, that they will kill or be killed to have their right of way.
Last year, the State Forest department red flagged the allocation of land for the NRL township, saying that it was done in violation of the Forest Conservation Act which empowers only the Central government to allow diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes. Meanwhile, an environmental activist petitioned the Green Tribul; it came out during hearings that the NRL authority had cut down significant forest cover and flattened an entire hill to lay a golf course. Handing down its order, the Green Tribul has directed NRL to pay Rs 25 lakh as compensation for environmental damage to the State Forest department, as well as plant ten times the number of trees it has felled. It has also prodded the Assam government to filly notify Deopahar PRF as a reserved forest, so as to prevent its further ecological degradation. It remains to be seen how Dispur gets around enforcing ‘no development’ zones within 15 km radius of NRL, particularly on its north-west side adjoining Kaziranga. After all, the Green Tribul had on earlier occasions taken the Assam government to task for allowing tea factories, stone crushers, brick kilns and other industrial units, as well as hotels and tourist resorts to operate in ‘no development’ zones around Kaziranga tiol park itself.
This tendency to flout the law and bend rules on the environmental front has been getting entrenched with governments and corporates getting chummier. Such blinkered view of development needs be contested by popular action and knocking on court doors. Around 40 thousand Asian elephants now remain in the wild, with over half in India. A little more than 20 percent elephant habitats in the country have some kind of protection. Only 88 identified elephant corridors remain; last year, five leading NGOs came together under the Asian Elephant Alliance to secure 100 elephant corridors in India by 2025. These corridors are ‘choke points’ elephants have to traverse to complete their migrations; it is these corridors that help them move safely to find food, resources and mates in other habitats. And let us not forget that such corridors allow both elephants and humans to co-exist virtually the same space, in the absence of which they will get attracted to residential areas. The area encompassing Karbi Anglong hills and Kaziranga is known to support nearly 2,000 elephants favoring some four corridors to move in different directions. NGOs like Elephant Family and Wildlife Trust of India have been getting positive responses from local villagers to relocate away from elephant corridors. This is the sort of sensitivity to environmental issues large entities like NRL should also be displaying. It is for the government to enforce the law and court orders when public and private entities do otherwise.