Passage To Survival - Restore The Gola River And Golai Elephant Corridors
October 2009: The sal dappled glades of the Corbett Tiger Reserve and the evergreen forests of the Upper Dehing Reserved Forests are a perfect example of how India can use her forests to fight climate change. The healthy biodiversity and connectivity of these forests to nearby landscapes make them ideal carbon sinks.Yet,government officials remain least concerned over the importance of ensuring the contiguity and sanctity of these landscapes.
The Gola River Corridor, Corbett
Corbett’s connectivity with the Chilla Range is already under tremendous pressure due to encroachments in many places, overgrazing and sand and boulder mining along the Bijnor Plantation Division (PD). Bhotia and Gujjar settlements in the Lansdowne Forest Division between Laldhang and Kotdwar to the north of the PD, which is already impacted by numerous villages to the north, further choke up the connecting corridors.
The Gola river corridor (GRC), which was already scarred by boulder mining, anthropogenic pressure and heavy traffic along the Haldwani-Bareilly road (soon to be a four-lane highway) had the potential to connect the Corbett Tiger Reserve landscape all the way to the Nepal border. Now it lies almost decimated – first in the form of a railway sleeper factory and now the Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOC) storage depot and establishments of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).
All these three major infrastructures lie right in the middle of the GRC, which has been used by elephants from time immemorial. They destroy forever the vision of managing the tiger and elephant tract in Uttarakhand, close to 7,000 sq. km., as one continuous wildlife habitat. It is an important part of the Terai Arc Landscape, which was identified by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority as one of three viable habitats for the tiger’s long-term survival in India. The Rajaji-Corbett Tiger Conservation Unit is also identified as one of the 11 Level-1 Tiger Conservation Landscapes. In 2008, the Uttarakhand Forest Department gave away 34 acres of reserve forest in the corridor to the ITBP. Construction of a boundary wall and other infrastructure is now in full swing.
The final nail in the coffin – the IOC depot has a 15-feet high wall that encircles the busy oil storage complex for almost a kilometre and acts as a barrier for animals. While the IOC maintains that it has received all the necessary clearances, one wonders at the sheer lack of intelligent planning. Though a No Objection Certificate (NOC) is required for land transfers under the Forest Conservation Act and the corridor is part of the Shivalik Elephant Range, the Chief Wildlife Warden has suggested that since this was not a Protected Area it was not required. The District Forest Officer (Terai East) claims that he was unaware of the corridor’s importance. Bivash Pandav, scientist with WWF-International, writes, “With the loss of the Gola river corridor, the entire Terai Arc Landscape from the Yamuna river near Kalesar Wildlife Sanctuary in Haryana until the Bagmati river in Nepal is now virtually split into two halves.”
Eminent field biologist Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh adds, “The Gola river corridor would have easily enabled us to link Corbett Tiger Reserve landscape and Nandhour river landscape (Sanctuary, Vol. XXVIII No. 2, April 2008) and together, these would have been one of the most fabulous landscapes in the whole of Asia.” Fragmented habitats do not only affect wildlife – 40 people have lost their lives in clashes with elephants between 2000-2007 in Uttarakhand and over 150 elephants have died in road and other accidents. Unable to move across their range, elephants raid adjacent fields leading to a great deal of conflict.
A thorough investigation must be carried out to clarify that all necessary permissions for the construction of the terminal have been obtained from the government and that land has been acquired through proper channels. At least part of the boundary wall must be demolished so that a forested stretch of 400 m., which will be the narrowest part of the corridor, is cleared for wildlife passage.
The lease given to ITBP must also be cancelled. When Ravi Singh, CEO, WWF-India, contacted ITBP officials, he received an encouraging reply that they will be willing to move if an alternate site is given. A 13 sq. km. isolated Gabua forest patch in Terai West Forest Division can be used as an alternate site and this should be immediately explored. The encroachments between the land allotted to ITBP and the Government-sponsored Bhindukatha encroachment of the 1970s, which has its core area south of Lalkuan, should be resettled in Gabua so as to have a corridor of atleast one kilometre width.
The timber depot in Lalkuan that sits in the middle of the corridor must also be shifted closer to Halwani and the entire corridor area should be protected from further encroachments. Reforestation must be started by planting species such as Holoptelia integrifolia, Dalbergia sisso and Pongamia pinnata which are not browsed by ungulates. Solutions must also be sought to minimise roadkills on the Lalkuan-Haldwani road and to stop boulder mining along the river at least for five kilometres covering both sides of the proposed corridor.
The Golai Corridor, Digboi
The Digboi Forest Division in Assam has borne the brunt of oil mining operations, timber logging, cultivation and tea estates for over a century. As a result, the contiguity of the Upper Dehing West and East Block Reserve Forests has been completely lost. Only elephants still use the Bogapani Elephant Corridor which passes through a tea estate to the north of Digboi town. Here too accidents on the railway line have led to elephant deaths. The Golai elephant corridor (4.65 m. long, 950 m. wide) to the south of Digboi town, through paddy fields, has been impacted in several ways. To the north, private properties including the Indian Oil Corporation’s residential area and the Digboi Golf course block elephant passage.
The more recent threat of an IOC product dispatch terminal, which had received clearance from the MoEF (now withdrawn) has hopefully been warded off thanks to the efforts of environmentalists and scientists. However, the boundary wall constructed for the terminal blocks 600 m. of the corridor. Heavy traffic due to the oil terminal will also lead to disturbance. Further, a hotel has been built at the southern end of the corridor. The construction of the terminal will also bring in subsequent development such as dhabas, garages, etc. The terminal coupled with residential constructions on either side of the highway will completely cut off elephant movement and lead to greater human-wildlife conflict.
An alternative location, which will even have access to a railway line, beyond the northern boundary of the Upper Dehing West RF has been suggested by conservationists. Additionally, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has planned a road parallel to the existing NH 38 that will run through the Upper Dehing Reserve Forest (East Block).
In response to a letter from the Inspector General of Forests, Project Elephant, IOC has agreed to move their proposed oil terminal towards the golf course and leave some land for the corridor. Due to the actions of the DFO, the NHAI has partially realigned the proposed highway and also agreed to build two flyovers over the two corridors near Digboi town, and through the section of the road that will pass through the forest. However, they have not given any written commitments.
Immediate steps must be taken to ensure that both the corridors – Gola and Golai – are kept free of all disturbances. Readers should bear in mind that the Digboi Forest Division is home not only to elephants but is also the first site in South Asia to confirm seven species of cats, including the tiger.
Write to IOC authorities stressing the importance of the Gola and Golai corridors. Ask them to be responsible and work with scientists and conservationists who are familiar with the area to find solutions. Also write to the state Forest Departments requesting them to ensure the sanctity of these corridors.
1. Isolation will eventually lead to the extinction of tiger and elephant populations. The long-term survival of Corbett’s tigers and elephants rests on ensuring that the Yamuna river, Chilla-Motichur, Rajaji-Corbett, Boar river, Nihal-Bhakhra and Gola river corridors are cleared of all disturbances. To restore the Gola corridor, the lease issued to the ITBP must be revoked and land returned to wildlife.
2. The IOC depot in Gola and terminal in Golai must be shifted to another area where wildlife will not be adversely affected.
3. Boulder mining must be banned and stricter traffic regulations should be enforced on roads passing through the region.
4. The NHAI must find an alternative route that does not bisect any forested area or corridor.
5. No permanent constructions should be permitted in the corridors. Lands used as wildlife corridors must be purchased and reforested by the goverment.
Send your letters to:
Shri Sarthak Behuria,
Chairman, Indian Oil Corporation,
3079 / 3, J. B. Tito Marg, Sadiq Nagar,
New Delhi – 110 049.
Shri Jairam Ramesh,
Minister of State for Environment
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex,
Lodi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.
Fax: 91-11-24362222; E-mail:
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests,
Government of Uttarakhand,
Rajpur Road, Dehradun.
Chief Conservator of Forests
(Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Government of Assam
Rajgarh Road, Guwahati – 781 008.
Ministry of Road Transport and Highways,
1, Parliament Street, New Delhi –110 001.