February 2010: Incredible Dibru-Saikhowa tells us about a relatively little-known wilderness encircled by two rivers – the mighty Brahmaputra and Dibru. Well put together, it is a welcome addition to the wildlife archives of India. The Editors, K.K. Dwivedi, A.J.T. Johnsingh, Anwaruddin Choudhury and Kashmira Kakati are to be congratulated for a job well done.
The visuals for the book have been put together by Dhritiman Mukherjee, whose photographic talent is well known to Sanctuary readers. With messages from the President of India, Mrs. Pratibha Devisingh Patil and Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam, plus a Foreword from Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, clearly the book has already made an impact in high places.
An incredibly diverse wilderness, Dibru-Saikhowa boasts as many as 36 different mammals, 502 species of birds, 104 fish species, 105 butterfly species and 680 types of plants. The main attractions are the tiger, elephant, wild buffalo, hoolock gibbon, capped langur and slow loris, but as can be imagined birdwatchers are likely to derive considerably more satisfaction, even from a short trip than those who go out in search of mega fauna. Conservationists have long known that, as with so many of our vital wildernesses, Dibru-Saikhowa too is beset by problems that include deforestation, encroachments and timber poaching. As if this were not enough, park authorities must deal with over 20,000 head of cattle that live in khutis inside the park and the constant pressure from over 10,000 people who live in Laika, Pamua and Dodhia.
With a long list of accomplished writers that includes Sumit Sen, Anwaruddin Choudhury and A.J.T. Johnsingh, the text is both lively and credible. The book takes readers on a journey through the origins and history of the park and focuses on the ecology of its different constituents, both plant and animal.
K.K. Dwivedi tells us that: “… the idea of a comprehensive book on Dibru-Saikhowa took shape with the support of experts, professionals, conservationists and photographers working in, or associated with, the area. Authoring the book has been a real team effort.” In his chapter on Birds and Birding, Sumit Sen informs us that: “Dibru-Saikhowa is a large and difficult birding terrain. No easy jeep rides here – you either trudge 20-30 m. through soft alluvium or take long boat rides along the river to climb high banks clothed in rapier sharp grass. This is no armchair birding terrain.”
Like a physician passing judgment on the status of a patient, Anwaruddin Choudhury leaves us with food for thought when he writes a virtual epitaph for this magical wilderness: “Every Eden has its problems. Even as Dibru-Saikhowa has increasingly gained recognition, a combination of natural and man-made factors has altered the landscape drastically. The proportion of woodland area has shrunk giving way to grassland and wetland, owing to the erosion of a large forested area. This in turn is due to the sudden widening of Dangori and Dibru rivers to more than three times their original widget and their capture by the Lohit River, siltation and illegal felling of trees. The domino effect is in play as grassland birds such as the Black-breasted Parrotbill and Jerdon’s Babbler are now seen relatively easily in areas close to Guijan, which once had a profusion of forest birds. Similarly forest-dwelling animals such as the hoolock gibbon are on the verge of extinction. While taming the mighty river is not child’s play, it is within our power to stop the illegal felling of trees along it that lays bare the land – to be swept away by the furious waves of flood each year.”
The ultimate food for thought, of course, lies hidden in the chapter on Managing Shifting Landscape (sic): “… the existence of two forest villages Dodhia and Laika, with 1,553 households (in 2005) within the national park, and resource dependency of fringe villages on the Protected Area, is a major impediment… Outsiders, taking advantage of the poor economic condition of the villagers, engage them in illegal felling of trees and smuggling timber by river to nearby towns for commercial purposes… The recently enacted Forest Rights Act is likely to have an adverse impact on the future of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, unless the Protected Area is notified as a Critical Wildlife Habitat and the human population shifted out.”
As things stand, the dice could roll in any direction. If rights are distributed within the reserve, roughly 20 per cent of the land area could be lost to wildlife and soon after the rest would also vanish under all the pressures that the book highlights graphically through its pages. On the other hand, if the villages agree to move out, this could well turn out to be one of Assam’s most valuable natural havens, rivaling even the famous Kaziranga. This would help the state and India counter the worst impacts of climate change.
Que sera sera!
Published by Dibru-Saikhowa Conservation Society,
Hard cover, 151 four-colour pages, Rs. 2,000
Printed by Pragati Offset
Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal