Reports of a golf course coming up in the township of Numaligarh Refinery Limited in Numaligarh near Kaziranga National Park in Assam created ripples and troubled many; some also regarded it as one of the ‘regular’ depressing news on the wildlife conservation front. Why — one wonders though — does a Miniratna Public Sector Unit need an arena for a sport usually associated with the elite, that too within a ‘No Development Zone’. Golf courses are ‘infamous’ for their water guzzling abilities; an average 18 hole course’s annual water consumption can fill up approximately 130 – 140 Olympic-sized swimming pools. To add fuel to the proverbial fire, pesticides are applied in golf courses at higher concentrations than almost any other type of land; and their extensive use could contaminate waterways and damage wildlife habitat. Above all, a golf course, one understands, has no connection with or benefit for the local population — one of the major stakeholders in wildlife conservation.
In July 2015, a site inspection report by two senior Forest Department officials stated that hundreds of trees have been felled without any clearance. The boundary wall of the golf course has since resulted in the death of a male elephant calf. In its order, the National Green Tribunal’s principal bench chaired by justice Swatanter Kumar said, “The photographs have been placed on record to show that the golf course has been made right in the midst of the Kaziranga National Park and the animal corridor in Kaziranga National Park is being interfered. That will not only disturb the animals but also effect the environment and ecology of that area.” It also directed that no activity of any kind would be carried out by the refinery in the ‘No Development Zone’ in Kaziranga National Park until further orders.
“While the golf course may have no or little impact on tigers the elephant habitat and movement would surely suffer,” shares Firoz Ahmed, a leading wildlife conservationist in Assam. “Setting up a golf course is akin to using a razor to wipe out species like spiders and insects. In this case these smaller species could possibly carry pesticides from the golf course into the Kaziranga National Park ecosystem,” said Dharmendra Khandal, a leading spider expert.
This has hit us in the face regardless of the tags of National Park, Tiger Reserve, Elephant Reserve, Important Bird Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site bestowed on Kaziranga. Even the money and efforts invested on preserving the ecology of the area has gone waste.
Kaziranga — the proverbial jewel in our wildlife crown — is the first Protected Area (PA) in the country to put in place laws which allow forest guards to shoot poachers at sight. It is also one of the few reserves or landscapes in the country which benefits from the expertise of several major conservation organisations that are present in the country.
Not just Kaziranga
What then went wrong? These pressures are not new to the landscape which is home to, besides a host of other species, approximately three-fourths of one-horned rhinos (great Indian rhinoceros) and wild water buffaloes (Bubalus arnee). The National Green Tribunal had passed an interim order in February 2012 asking the state government not to renew or issue fresh stone-crusher licenses in the ‘No Development Zone’ around Kaziranga.
Unfortunately, Kaziranga is not an exception. The oil-palm plantations currently coming up in the buffer zone of Dampa Tiger Reserve in Mizoram threatens to wipe out the rich biodiversity values of the landscape. A landscape famed for its rich diversity of forest birds and cats may end up being a ‘green desert’. Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand has become a victim to the onslaught of insensitive and unsustainable tourism. We appear to have failed to protect our conservation priority landscapes from ‘absolutely avoidable’ actions like golf courses and tourism which cater to a few and end up restricting movement of wildlife species. Will our protected areas soon end up being islands surrounded with not-friendly-to-conservation developments? The situation is distressing but possibly also a stark reflection of the state of conservation in our country today.
Is this an indication of our general apathy to forests as we rush towards the seemingly unending path to ‘development’? In other words, the price we are ready to pay for ‘development’ even if it threatens to wipe out our remaining forests and with them the entire range of ecological services they provide.
Have we over-stressed on the fortress approach to conservation in a country like ours where lives of people continue to be intertwined with forests they share with wildlife? Despite recent learning from across the globe putting the spotlight on land use and landscape level planning we have not put enough efforts in the direction and failed to engage with stake-holders and join hands for conservation. Ironically, we plan rehabilitations of entire villages from select protected areas and seek permissions to use drones to monitor our wildlife in the face of such situations. If this is how we treat these well-known tiger reserves what to say of lesser- known wildlife sanctuaries?
Are we investing energies on research at a time when pressures on remaining habitats from the development onslaught and state policies warrant our energies to be channelised in a separate direction? Have we started treating ‘science’ itself as ‘conservation’? If we continue to lose wildlife habitat and block their movement paths, where will the species end up? Is the group which played a pivotal role in establishing a network of Protected Areas and which fought many battles over dams and other policies to protect these refuges of wildlife, which rest of Asia looked up to, missing from action today?