Beautiful People Environment

The langurs south of Assam's Aie

 They stand out against forest trees like big, abnormal fruit with long ropy tails.

They stand out against forest trees like big, abnormal fruit with long ropy tails.

When a wild species is in the doldrums, we look to the Forest Department to do something, like declare sanctuaries and protect them. We expect it to stop people from hunting and cutting the trees on which animals depend. Be it tigers, elephants, or rhinoceroses, that’s the way we do conservation. But in the case of the golden langur, conservation NGOs reached out to the very people who may have had a hand in their decimation earlier.

Golden langurs are among the most endangered primates in the world. Unlike the standard langur that is grey or black, golden langurs are flamboyantly blonde. They stand out against forest trees like big, abnormal fruit with long ropy tails. Despite their unusual colour, it was only in 1955 that they were brought to world attention, by Edward Pritchard Gee, a tea planter and influential conservationist. After that initial public spotlight, everyone seemed to forget about them.

For a decade beginning in the 1990s, political turmoil rocked western Assam, and the State abdicated its role. As much as half the area’s jungles disappeared. The timber enriched the militants’ treasury and the personal fortunes of local strongmen. Villagers too cut trees for firewood. While golden langurs lost home and subsistence, stray dogs and power lines killed them.

In 1995, Arnab Bose and eight other members of Nature’s Foster, a conservation NGO based in Bongaigaon, discovered a few langurs living in the 17-square-kilometre Kakoijana jungle, 30 kilometres south of Manas National Park. The one-time deciduous forest was isolated from other golden langurs in Manas and Chakrashila. Sanctuaries in western Assam had no infrastructure nor enjoyed the affection of communities. Robert Horwich of Community Conservation, Inc. in the U.S. urged Nature’s Foster and Green Forest Conservation, another NGO, to work with villagers living around the golden langur forests.

Enroling help

Horwich had succeeded in enroling communities’ support for wildlife, from manatees and woolly monkeys in Central and South America to cranes in Russia and tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea. When he saw the devastated Kakoijana, even this champion of grassroots conservation had misgivings about turning the wreck around.

Horwich tried to persuade the NGOs to focus on Manas instead but they were adamant about giving Kakoijana a chance. Langurs living in the splintered forests south of River Aie needed all the help they could get.

For three years, Bose and his colleagues talked to the surrounding villagers about golden langurs. The primates lived only in this corner of the world, bound by three rivers — Sankosh, Manas and Brahmaputra — and the Black Mountains in Bhutan.

The people had a responsibility to protect these animals, the conservationists said. But the residents felt they had no stake in the survival of the forest or its wildlife.

The NGOs offered help in supplementing local incomes — marketing pickles and handicrafts, donating poultry, and training in making tableware out of betel palm sheaths. If people could earn more through these enterprises, then they wouldn’t depend on the forest to nearly the same degree. And Kakoijana stood a chance of surviving.

Kingshuk Das Chaudhuri, Assistant General Secretary of Nature’s Foster, says the elders in the villages didn’t need much convincing. They could see and feel the consequences of losing the forests. Weather conditions swung between the extremes: drought in the summer and floods during the monsoon. They suffered a shortage of fuel wood, fodder, and other forest produce. Between the counsel of their elders and earnest appeals by the NGOs, the residents finally came around.

First, one village formed a community group and came up with its own rules. No felling of trees, and no hunting. But villagers could collect fallen logs and mushrooms, and fish in the streams.

Village patrols

They took turns patrolling the forest to make sure no one violated these community-imposed orders. Anyone caught disobeying had to pay fines. Timber gangs tried to discourage Bose and his team, even threatening them, but failed. More and more villages asked to join the movement and created their own groups. Horwich calls this a ‘conservation contagion’. Now, all 34 villages around Kakoijana conserve it. The people belong to seven different communities: Bodo, Santhal, Garo, Koch Rajbongshi, Rabha, Nepali and Bengali.

Golden langurs marooned in Kakoijana responded almost immediately. By 2012, their numbers shot up from less than 100 to more than 500, 10% of the total Indian population. A few langurs left the forest that year and set up territory in Bhumeshwar Reserve Forest, 10 kilometres away, close to Bongaigaon town. Despite the hard work these NGOs and villagers invested, other organisations demand Kakoijana should be under the control of the Forest Department as a sanctuary. Should that happen, the people might once again be alienated from conservation, fear Bose and Chaudhuri.

The rising numbers of golden langurs could become a headache for residents. The primates descend on gardens and chomp on tender bamboo shoots. People use the woody grass for everything — as building material, to weave baskets, and make handicrafts. Loss of this raw material hits livelihoods. But villagers don’t mind the langurs, reserving their ire for rhesus macaques that take potatoes and other crops from the fields.

Nature’s Foster hopes to connect the many little chunks of forests, so golden langurs have a free passage between them. This would take the pressure off people’s gardens and prevent inbreeding among the primates.

All the golden langurs needed to thrive were minimal funds and people infected with the conservation contagion.

The author is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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Printable version | May 16, 2022 8:14:36 am |