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Adverse environment pushing wild animals into danger in North East India
Unraveling myths behind naming pattern of most of the villages and towns of Tripura, Rabindra Kishore Debbarma in his book, titled, 'Tathyer Aloke Gram Tripura' (Information on Rural Tripura) highlighted strong bonding between human and nature. The book referred to one of the villages of Khowai district called Manaychhera that was named so because of abundance of Maynah bird.

In the past, a large number of Maynah, the talking birds built nests on trees which were unusually soft, locally called as ‘bolfuk’ tree. People would wake up from sleep hearing chirping of Maynah birds. Centering on Maynah and Bolfuk, tribal people have composed a folk song too. Today, there are no more Bulfuk trees and Maynah are conspicuous by their absence. As a result, the folk song has lost its relevance to new generations.

The book referred to another village in Dhalai district, named Jiwalchhera. It was named so, because a rivulet flowing around the village was never left dry, not even during drought. Thus it got the name ‘Jiwal’ that means lively. Accordingly, the village was named after the rivulet. Ironically, the rivulet remains dry for most part of the year sans rainy season owing to various environmental and climatic factors. With the meaning of the village being lost, the reason behind naming is also becoming oblivious to people.

Manaychhera or Jiwalchhera villages are just two of numerous villages where natural surroundings have undergone huge change leaving rationale behind naming meaningless. Since tribal folk songs and folklores are created centering on bio-diversity and natural scenario around the hills and dales, with changing eco-system tribal culture and customs are at stack currently. Notably, Tripura has 19 different tribes with distinct ethnicity. All the tribal clans have strong bonding with nature. While deforestation is the main contributory factor, change in climatic conditions too is responsible for putting ethnic lives and culture in peril.

Similarly, climate change factors have hit hard drinking water sources too leading to a bleak picture. Though according to official communications, potable water supply system is now available in most of villages, tales of lowering water table is raising serious concern. Take the example of Agartala and its suburban area, Khyerpur. In these areas, around 20-25 years ago, one would get water at 40ft depth. In fact water at shallow level exerted so much pressure that digging at 40ft deep would let water to flow out spontaneously in all seasons. Present situation presents a gloomy picture as deep tube wells are becoming non-functional even at 200ft depth during winter. In South Tripura, Sabroom and adjacent villages are facing potable water crisis as water table is receding in every season.

Explaining the reasons behind lowering of water table at shallow level, Manik Chandra Debnath, technical expert, State watershed wing under the department of Agriculture said that erratic rainfall coupled with deforestation and rise in temperature have resulted in depletion of water pockets at shallow level. Yet, a top official from the State Water Resource Department observed, there is nothing to worry about ground water table at deeper level. In fact, according the department, only 13% of ground water reserve is being utilized in Tripura. The worrying fact is that whatever amount of ground water is being lifted and used, the same quantity is not being replenished.

The question that creeps in mind is that whether there is any change, at all, in temperature, as pointed out by Shri Debnath. A study conducted by T. Shailaja Devi of Rubber Board depicted the history of temperature of Agartala for a period of 25 years from 1984 to 2008. The study report is quoted as saying, “An increase in mean annual minimum temperature was observed in Agartala at a rate of 0.05 degree centigrade per year over a span of 25 years”.

It also pointed out that during the period, number spells where maximum temperature crossed 33.8 degree centigrade increased at a rate of 0.56 days per year. Relating to rainfall, Devi in her study report, noted, “Rainy days during SW Monsoon declined at a rate of 0.4 days per year… Extreme rainfall during summer indicated a decline of 0.03 days per year.”

Importantly, during last 7-8 years, Tripura was witnessing powerful whirlwind that lasted couple of minutes only but inflicted heavy losses to agri-produces and properties. Experts as well as commoners point to a silent but sure change in weather in this tiny North Eastern state.

Destruction of natural forests and erratic climatic conditions has cast their impact on wild life too. Pengolins and flying squirrels were integral part of eco-system in South Tripura till mid 1980s. Do they still exist in Tripura? These are now found only in few sanctuaries not in open forest areas. Monkeys of slender physique, locally known as ‘shy monkey’, which were found in abundance until few years back are no longer noticed in the forests. Local people of Laugang village at Jolaibari in South District say that an indigenous variety of pigs, locally known as ‘Bele Shoar’ are no longer seen in the state. They firmly believe that these animals have virtually become extinct.

Expressing deep concern over the condition of still existing wild animals, a farmer, Kaushal Kishore Aahir pointed out that animals were leaving forests due to dearth of food inside the forests. He said one would find monkeys not in forests, but in paddy fields and vegetable fields in present days. Information on whether mating habits of animals has been affected due to change in environment and climate is not available at present. However, a worker of Trishna Sanctuary in South district, Monoranjan Acharjee pointed out that adequate food and safety are minimum requirement for breeding.

Though no systematic study was conducted, he continued, common sense suggests that demolition of natural habitat will certainly affect the mating practices of animals. As far as natural habitat is concerned, the State Forest Department figures say 62% of total geographical area of the state is under forest cover.

What is perplexing is that with 62% forest area, animals are still facing insecurity both in terms of food and shelter. The catch point is that often natural forests are being destroyed to pave way for welfare programmes. Focusing on the puzzle of existing forest cover and vanishing animal species, Amitabha Dutta, a teacher said, “Take the example of 750 MW Palatana Power Plant in Gomati district. The sprawling plant came up in and around 77 hectare of forest land. This was followed by felling of all trees in the whole area. To supplement the environmental loss, rejuvenation works in Karkrabon forest spreading in 155 hectare have been undertaken. However, what happened to animals of Palatana forests? Where did they go? What steps have been taken to save those animal ‘refugees’?”

Amitabha Dutta remarked, “No matter whether or not the destruction of forest was needed for the benefit of people, it is doubtful whether the ‘environmental cost’ or loss of existing eco-system due to deforestation could be recovered even in long run.” However, certainly animals are the worst affected due to such incurring environmental costs, he quipped.

Sharing his experience, Shri Subrata Shib, agriculture scientist opined lowering of water table at shallow level has severely affected agriculture and the farming communities – both tribal and non-tribal. “The changes in natural surroundings have forced the farmers of Tripura to change farming crops, methods and adopt innovative practices,” he said.

Shri Prasenjit Biswas, Chief Conservator of Forests, Tripura voiced serious concern. “Over the years, quality of life of all the living beings including plants is fast deteriorating and will deteriorate even at a faster rate in future due to abrupt change in our environment caused by human intervention as well as change in climatic conditions.

(Written as a part of fellowship programme of Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi)

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