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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Human cost of saving the wild

Tribune Article
Naveen S. Grewal
Tribune News Service

Gushaini (Kulu): The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) was formed to preserve the unique flora and fauna of the western Himalayas. But four years after the area located in the four valleys of Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwa and Parvati in the Kulu region was declared out of bounds for human habitation, the marauding of wild life continues.

Poaching of musk deer brown bear and ghoral (goat-antelope) and looting medicinal plants like vallerina (Nainu), pichroriza (Kauru) aconitum (Patish) and incense (Dhoop) continue unabated. Birds like monal and western tragopan are on the verge of extinction due to hunting banned in Himachal Pradesh since 1982. The magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the fact that not a single case of poaching or stealing has been registered in the known history of the region. Monal happens to be Himachal’s state bird, while musk deer is the state animal. Estimates put the number of musk deer killed in a year in this area to about 50 and ghorals to around 100.

For the past five years, the forest guards posted in the region have officially abandoned routine patrols in the area because they feel that it is a futile exercise in trying to catch people who will never be convicted due to the state’s lacking will to implement the existing law. There has been not a single conviction in Himachal during the past five years for violating the Wild Life Act. No wonder that the 349 families who have received Rs 1.56 crore in compensation for surrendering various rights in areas falling under GNHP continue to ingress the park, thereby defeating the very purpose for which it was formed.

The GHNP has over 900 types of medicinal plants, about 500 types of butterflies plants such as gucchi that fetch about Rs 5 to 7,000 per kg, taxol, a plant known to retard growth of cancer cells whose oil sells for as much as $ 10,000 for 4 millilitres.

According to Mr Ses Ram, a senior guide to the GHNP, during a search operation in 2001 the raiding party came across 108 traps for animals in four days. “It is not possible to scan each and every corner of the jungle, especially when the GHNP is spread over an area of 754.5 odd square km.

Director of the GHNP, Mr Sanjeeva Pandey, during one of his treks in the area confiscated about 20 quintals of dhoop dug out by one single team of medicinal plant mafia. “Since, we did not have enough men to carry the dhoop back with us, I ordered my men to set it on fire so that it would act as a deterrent to mafia”, Mr Pandey said, while adding that the only way to curb the menace of poaching and theft is to educate the people living in the area rather than using force, which he feels is not possible given the vast area in question.

In one year, comprising two seasons for the extraction of medicinal plants, mainly May-June and October-November, one family is able to collect around 2 to 3 quintals of plants that fetch them about Rs 15,000 in the market.

The poachers are able to sell a musk deer for anything between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000. The black bear is hunted for its bile that is used in making medicines. Mr Pandey admits that killing of animals and theft of plants continues, but adds that the past few years have witnessed a downward trend in these activities. A local NGO, Society for Scientific Advancement of Hill and Rural Areas (SAHARA) is using street theatre to spread awareness among the hill people for preserving nature, he says.

However, many locals are adamant and say, “killing may be bad, but it is our right to extract and sell medicinal plants”. Mr Ram Singh (name changed), a porter from Kauncha village adds “almosts all families from my village go for picking of medicinal plants, the government has thrown us out of our homes notifying it as a national park, but till we are provided alternative avenues of livelihood, how does the government expect us to survive”. Similar views are expressed by residents of villages like Dingcha located on the periphery of the park.

An employee of the GHNP, who does not wish to be identified, says “the state government is just not committed to the cause of nature and wild life otherwise the GHNP would not have remained without the grant of a single paise from the time the park was created in 1999 to 2000. The only money that came to the park was the salary of the workers. After 2001, the GHNP receive something between Rs 15 lakh to Rs 20 lakh annually for the maintenance and running of the vast area.

There is a growing demand among the conservationists in the area for separating the Forest Department from the Wild Life Department as it has been done in some states, including neighbouring Haryana. Since, wildlife is a Central government driven issue and states hardly have any role to perform, environmentalists and nature lovers who work in scores of NGOs in the region want the wild life protection projects to be funded directly by the Central Government.

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