Shrinking green cover

Arunachal Pradesh has nearly 60 per cent of its area under forest cover.

Published : Nov 09, 2016 12:30 IST

Firewood consumption is so high in Arunachal Pradesh that the existing forests cannot withstand such pressures for long.

Firewood consumption is so high in Arunachal Pradesh that the existing forests cannot withstand such pressures for long.

AN incredibly wild stretch of blue mountains lay in front of us as we stood at an altitude of 3,352.8 metres and looked eastwards. The mountains appeared to have developed white wings as clouds floated around them. As the clouds cleared, one could see rhododendrons of vibrant hues draping the mountain slopes and the valleys below. In the distance, a slim silvery-white cascade assured us that there must be a full stream running by. And, surely there was the Nyamjang chu (river), flowing freely from Tibet into India. The cloud-capped mountains of Tibet rose into the sky in the east and the densely forested mountains of Bhutan stood like a fortress in the west. There was a Chinese outpost in the valley along the right bank of the Nyamjang chu, and not far from it, on the mountain slope to the west, was an Indian Army camp.

We were in the higher altitudes of western Arunachal Pradesh to evaluate the three community conservation areas (CCAs) established by the World-Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India. The major ongoing programmes in the CCAs aim at promoting ecotourism, protecting the black-necked crane and its habitat, safeguarding the future of the red panda and its habitat, and introducing Biolite’s HomeStove in order to reduce the amount of firewood used in cooking.

Status of Arunachal forests Arunachal Pradesh, spread over 83,743 square kilometres, has nearly 60 per cent of its area under forest cover, that is, 51,540 sq. km. It is situated within the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot, a globally important centre of biodiversity. The population density of the State is just 17 per sq. km. Approximately 60 per cent of its forest cover is classified as “unclassed state forest, or USF”, and is largely under the control of the local communities. Pressures on these ecologically fragile forests were negligible some decades ago. Today, several factors have increased pressures on them. These range from development of extensive networks of road to connect every nook and cranny of the State, primarily for security reasons, and change in people’s lifestyle, from being one that is largely sustainable to one emulating those in developed States. In addition, there is tremendous extraction of wood for various purposes. It is hardly surprising that the State of Forest Report (2011) has recorded a decline of 74 sq. km in the forest cover in the community-owned forest land in the State. Hunting for pot and the wildlife trade has been a serious issue in the State.

Conservation work by WWF-India Keeping these facts in mind, WWF-India has been engaging with members of the Monpa community in the western Arunachal landscape (WAL) since 2004-05. The WWF-India WAL covers 7,000 sq. km, including snowbound areas, within Tawang and West Kameng districts, which together have an area of 11,000 sq. km. Its efforts have resulted in the establishment of the three CCAs—the Thembang Bapu CCA (635 sq. km) in West Kameng district, and the Pangchen Lumpo Muchat CCA in Pangchen Valley (98 sq. km) and the Pangchen Lakhar CCA (85, both in Tawang district. The Bugun, Miji and Sherdukpen tribes inhabit West Kameng district while Tawang is largely inhabited by Monpas, who are Buddhists.

We started our journey to western Arunachal Pradesh from Tezpur (Assam) in mid May; the rains had just started.

Rhododendron arboreum was the first variety of the flower we sighted as we drove up the mountains inhaling fresh mountain air. But as we reached human settlements the stench of garbage and the smoke of burning garbage overpowered the atmosphere. A nullah near the Baisakhi Army camp was filled with plastic water bottles, plasticised cardboard cartons and other garbage. One problem associated with the accumulation of garbage was the proliferation of free-ranging dogs, which are a threat to wild ungulates such as the barking deer and the sambar. The dogs are wont to kill the arboreal red panda, the State animal of Sikkim, when the mammal moves from one patch of forest to another. Although a carnivore, the red panda is not agile on the ground. Leopards thrive on dogs but as a result of poisoning of livestock kills and elimination of wild ungulate prey by poaching, both the leopard and the tiger are extremely rare in western Arunachal Pradesh. A solitary stalking predator cannot afford to be injured and, therefore, it is possible that leopards avoid free-ranging dogs when they scavenge in a group at garbage sites.

The garbage problem can be addressed by opening a plastic recycling factory at Bhalukpong. Burning of plastic should be banned. The Army’s help should be sought to remove the plastic waste from the northern areas to Bhalukpong for recycling. The local people should be made aware of the need to segregate garbage. Collaborative efforts with the Army can reduce the scale of the garbage problem.

In the fragile Himalayan terrain, road-building activities can cause landslides. At altitudes above 1,828.8 metres, adder trees, Alnus nepalensis , grow from wind-dispersed seeds and naturally form dense cover on scarred slopes. Rapid revegetation of scarred slopes can be done with the sowing of A. nepalensis seeds and by planting species such as the common ringal bamboo ( Arundinaria maling ), Sikkim knotweed ( Polygonum molle ), and broom grass (Thysanolaena maxima) in order to give more stability to the slopes. In lower altitudes, species such as false nettle ( Bohemeria macrophylla) , sahyaru ( Debregeasia hypoleuca) , malata ( Macaranga pustulata ), castor ( Ricinus communis) and sandpaper tree ( Trema politora ) can be used to revegetate the scarred slopes. Local people should be educated about these plants and encouraged to work with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to reforest the mutilated slopes.

The most disturbing development we saw in West Kameng district was tomato cultivation in the river valleys. In fact, the cultivation was encroaching upon the mountain slopes, destroying the ecologically precious forests. Heavy pesticides and fertilizers are reportedly used to cultivate the tomato crop. Residues of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals eventually drain into the river, decimating the aquatic life and valuable fish such as the snow trout endemic to the region. Organic cultivation of the type attempted in Sikkim should be adopted in West Kameng district. People of the north-eastern region are generally averse to low-paying jobs such as tomato cultivation and so cultivators are forced to import labourers from other States. This migration of labour into Arunachal Pradesh is likely to affect the culture of the mountain people and even lead to poaching of wildlife because of the immigrants’ lack of awareness of the mountain ecology.

Beautification of the landscape

The road construction work between Bhalukpong and Tawang has been going on for decades. Its impact on the roadside vegetation, particularly along the stretch on both the southern and northern slopes of Sela Pass (3,962.4 m), which experiences heavy rain in the summer and heavy snow in the winter, has been disastrous. This is where the primula species— Primula stuarti, P. sikkimensis and P. calderana —grow alongside high-altitude rhododendron species such as R. companulatum, R. campylocarpum, R. falconeri, R. glaucophyllum, R. hodgsoni and R. thomsonii . Wherever the roadwork is complete, the BRO should be persuaded to plant these species on either side of the road to recreate the splendour of the landscape.

Along the route from Sela Pass to Tawang, there is a memorial for three Army soldiers who fought valiantly against the Chinese in November 1962 at the Battle of Nuranang between Sela and Jang. India is reported to have lost nearly 160 soldiers and China 300 in that battle. The three soldiers were decorated by the President of India—Jaswant Singh Rawat was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously; Trilok Singh Negi and Gopal Singh Gusain were awarded the Vir Chakra (Negi, posthumously).

Between Sela Pass and Jang, we came across the government-run trout hatchery on the banks of the Nuranang stream. At the entrance, an old and ill-maintained noticeboard warned against the use of explosives, which was an indication of the dismal scene within. There were many fish tanks but most of them were empty. The few fish found in some tanks were the size of a little finger.

Wood extraction What struck us as the main conservation problem in Tawang district was the enormous extraction of wood. Oak is the preferred fuelwood as it is believed to generate considerable heat. Wood as fuel has more use in Tawang than in West Kameng as it is located at a higher altitude. Tawang town is located at an altitude of 2,743.2 m, while Dirang, the main town of West Kameng, is at 1,600 m. Government offices also consume enormous amounts of wood for heating rooms in the winter. We learnt that a large amount of wood for Tawang district came from areas such as the Mandala-Naga grazing grounds in West Kameng.

Three steps are urgently needed to reduce the levels of forest destruction caused by wood extraction. One is a dedicated effort involving the local communities to grow trees solely for firewood. People should not hesitate to grow even exotic varieties to generate wood fuel in order to save the oak forests. Oaks are important for water conservation and for keeping the mountains cool. Oak leaves and acorns are good forage for ungulates. Firewood species that can be planted are earleaf acacia ( Acacia auriculiformis) , brown salwood ( A. mangium) , Siamese cassia ( Cassia siamea) , whistling pine ( Casuarina equisetifolia) , shisham ( Dalbergia sissoo) and bluegum ( Eucalyptus globulus) . In the lower altitudes, D. sissoo grows well even on barren hills.

The effect of climate change is visible in the Himalaya as snowfall frequently misses even Bomdila (2,667 m), the headquarters of West Kameng district.

If hydel projects are planned in Arunachal Pradesh, the government’s priority should be to supply subsidised electricity for cooking and heating purposes to the local people rather than selling electricity to other States so that the State’s precious forests can be protected. If Biolite’s HomeStove withstands the test of time, it should be promoted so that every home in the State has a stove. WWF-India must convince companies and corporate offices to promote the programme of “Every home one stove” as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The black-necked crane’s habitat The black-necked crane, declared as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), visits two places in the WAL in the winter—Sangti valley in West Kameng district and the Pangchen valley in Tawang district. The major threat to its habitat in Zemithang in Pangchen valley, which is visited by about 10 cranes, is the proposed 700 megawatt hydel power project across the Nyamjang chu. Interestingly, the crane habitat in Zemithang is probably the only wintering habitat that is still a natural one considering that Sangti and the wintering habitat in Bhutan (Phobijikha valley) are largely paddy fields. Other threats to the habitat in Zemithang are boulder collection and erosion caused by the river.

The habitat in Sangti valley faces several problems. The local people have stopped cultivating paddy, and in some places they grow maize. This tall and dense crop makes the habitat unsuitable for cranes. There is a power line running through the habitat, which leads to occasional mortality when cranes swooping down or taking off collide with it. On the slope to the south of the crane habitat, the Horticulture Department has promoted the cultivation of apple trees with excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Residues of these chemicals eventually drain into the crane habitat, causing its degradation. As a result water flow along the gullies to the habitat has reduced significantly over the years.

In order to rejuvenate the habitat, water from the Sangti river should be used to irrigate the red rice crop, a variety unique to Sangti valley. Riverbed stones from the habitat should be collected to build a rubble wall along the right bank of the river to prevent the incursion of the river into the habitat during rains; the overhead power line should be re-aligned, and the slope to the south of the habitat should be reforested using species such as walnut ( Juglans regia ), oak (for instance, Quercus graffiti ), and Alnus nepalensis so that the water regime on the slope can be improved gradually. The youth of the valley have a crucial role to play in protecting the crane from overenthusiastic birdwatchers and free-ranging dogs that can disturb or kill the birds.

As we left the cool mountains and drove back to the hot and sultry Tezpur, we calculated that we had covered 1,146 km within the WAL—606 km in West Kameng district and 539 km in Tawang district. We had driven through some magnificent forests, but it was disappointing that we could only see three barking deer, seven gorals, 10 groups of Arunachal macaque and one male kaleej pheasant in Tawang district and a group of capped langur in West Kameng. It is obvious that poaching is still common in the mountains and is reported to be much more aggressive in the Thembang area (West Kameng district) dominated by the Miji community. In spite of the decades-long unregulated hunting, even now sightings of the takin and the tiger are reported in the Thembang area.

(During a visit to West Kameng in December 1982, the writer was told that elephants were regularly spotted near the Tippi Orchidarium at Tippi near Bhalukpong, a border town in the State, on the banks of the Kameng river. He saw elephant dung all the way up at an altitude of 2,133.6 m. At one place along the route, he met a member of the Sherdukpen tribe drying the skin of a freshly killed sambar stag. There were plenty of great hornbills in the forests around Tippi. One evening, while walking along the river, he spotted 350 wreathed and 40 great hornbills flying overhead as they went to roost in the foothill forests. With the decimation of the Balipara forests on the Assam side by insurgents and internal migrants and continued hunting on the Arunachal Pradesh side, hornbill numbers have declined drastically.)

The magnificent forests around the Sessa orchid sanctuary (100 sq. km) in the Bhalukpong Forest Division seems to be intact, but all along the highway we saw road development works, increase in human population and Army and paramilitary camps—changes that are detrimental to the mountain landscape. Elephant herds have lost the critical Pakke-Doimara corridor at Dezling, which they used for moving across the Kameng from West Kameng to East Kameng and vice versa. In Pangchen valley, the Tangyom Tsokpa Tawang (Tangyom means equal and Tsokpa is a traditional institution formed by a group of villages to address a common cause) has banned the killing of wildlife, including domestic and wild animals. The society, which was established in 2011, has adopted the motto “Jiyo Aur Jine Do” (Live and let live). This may help protect the State’s wildlife, but it may not be good for the health of the people who lead a spartan life in the mountains where even walking is an exacting exercise and where energy-rich food is a necessity to cope with the extreme cold. In fact, the local people buy meat from Assam now.

It is important to sensitise the local people to realise and protect the forest wealth and biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh as development must not take place at the cost of conservation.

(The writers thank Dr G.S. Rawat, Dean, Wildlife Institute of India, for identifying plant species, and Dr Kashmira Kakati for her help in writing the article.)

A.J.T. Johnsingh is with WWF-India and Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru. Kamal Medhi is with WWF-India.

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