Connecting Kaziranga National Park to Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar through Nagaland is a long-term project initiated, which has major implications for wildlife.
From working to secure wildlife corridors between various states or regions, to aiming for connectivity between national borders is a big leap. But a natural leap worth taking, for the connectivity expert and scientist duo from Wildlife Conservation Society, India. Dr. Varun Goswami and Dr. Divya Vasudev are working on a long-term vision for cross-border wildlife movement in a landscape where the habitat has been fragmented.
Connecting the source population of tigers and other carnivores from a high-density site like Kaziranga National Park to potential destination habitats, like the 2000-km2 Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar, through the forests of Nagaland, is the dream. Considering that these forests were once connected, allowing free movement of tigers, elephants and other animals, this is nothing more than winding the clock back for wildlife. But to make it possible calls for a lot of groundwork.
Tiger in Kaziranga National Park © Varun R. Goswami
Htamanthi, with its semi-evergreen and deciduous forests, houses a resident, albeit low density, tiger population. Re-establishment of connectivity with Kaziranga over time, with occasional movements of single transient tigers, could help secure this population. But any such possibility of transboundary, large-distance movement of wildlife depends on securing habitats in the intervening space in Assam and Nagaland.
This is where the duo believes that community involvement holds the key. Large-scale wildlife movement of the sort envisioned would be impossible without the support of people living in this region. “Our focus is to help animals move while safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of people. Community-based conservation is the foundation of our project,” says Dr. Goswami, senior scientist at WCS-India, who is leading these efforts.
This science-based conservation project from WCS is supported by the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Program (sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and KfW). While the focus of the project is on tigers, the efforts invested will help other species, the ecosystems in which they are found, and the local communities that share space with such wildlife.
As a starting point, the WCS India team needed to know where wild animals persist, and what may prevent them from dispersing. WCS India thus began large-scale surveys in 2016 to assess wildlife distribution across the region. Ecological and social surveys have since been completed in 32 villages of Nagaland.
Animals do not always move through demarcated corridors, clarifies Dr. Vasudev, senior scientist and connectivity specialist at WCS India. “They use routes that they view as less threatening.”
WCS - India team exploring and surveying the area to identify the locations most suited for wildlife conservation. © Pragyan Sharma / WCS - India
Changing the attitudes of people needs a lot of work on the ground. For instance, hunting has been a traditional practice in Nagaland, with wild meat contributing towards meeting daily protein requirements in the diet. Certain Naga communities, such as the village of Khonoma, have proactively strived to secure the future of their wildlife through community regulations on hunting, but not everywhere in Nagaland do such conservation measures exist.
A watershed moment in how local communities engage with wildlife in Nagaland perhaps came with the case of the migratory Amur Falcon, where hunters turned protectors due to constructive and dedicated engagement from conservationists, such as WCS India’s partner, Ms. Bano Haralu. Thousands of the falcons would arrive from Siberia en route to their final destination in Africa, covering a distance of up to 22,000 km in a year. In Nagaland, the birds would land on forested banks of a reservoir to roost, from where they used to be caught using nests. Around 12,000–14,000 birds were likely killed annually till the year 2012 before global spotlight on the issue and resultant conservation action brought about a positive change.
Nagas have a strong sense of pride and soon rallied together to turn the story around. Protecting the birds and building a model of ecotourism where the villages benefitted from tourists soon caught up. Today, the falcon flies free. Following this lead, hunting is banned in many villages in Nagaland now.
The WCS-India team works in areas where the presence of wildlife coincides with the willingness of local communities to conserve these species, supported by a strong and functional Village Council.
Nagaland has good forests but not the required prey population to sustain large carnivore populations due to competition from human quarters. Tigers have not been sighted for over a decade, triggering much panic in Medziphema village, when a young dispersing big cat was sighted.
Community-owned forests of Nagaland © Biang Syiem / WCS - India
Unfortunately, the tiger was shot, but within a few days, there were rumours of yet another tiger in the area. This time around, thanks to the awareness built after the death of the first tiger, the community sought help from the Nagaland Forest Department, who in turn requested the WCS-India team to set up camera traps and monitor the area to establish the presence of the second tiger. After seven days of intensive camera trapping, there was no sign of a tiger.
“It is unlikely that there is a resident population of tigers in the area. There is habitat for tigers, but little prey,” says Dr. Goswami. “Tigers, however, can disperse into Nagaland from multiple directions––the forests of Karbi Anglong towards the northwest, or perhaps, Myanmar to the southeast.” WCS-India research has shown that tigers can travel around 300 kms or more.
On closer interaction, residents of Medziphema revealed that tigers do occasionally pass through the area.
Bringing back healthy prey populations and securing corridors of safe movement for wildlife is no small task. Both Dr. Goswami and Dr. Vasudev do not expect immediate results. This is a long-term vision, they emphasise, with wide-ranging implications.