Bridge to Survival (State of Meghalaya, India)


Angela Paljor, Daily Pioneer

Date Published

See link for photo. 

It is a conflict that has played out in different places and with different species. But deforestation and the rapidly rising human population have been a threat to animals everywhere. And this is true for 1,000 elephants who call two treasure houses of biodiversity — the Nokrek and the Balphakram National Park — their home. The Garo Green Spine, a natural pathway, connects the two areas.

However, it has been severely encroached upon which in turn has resulted in the fragmentation of the habitat of elephants. Thus, there is an urgent need to regenerate forest areas while linking the wildlife-rich habitats which will allow animals to travel more widely in search of mates, helping them survive.

A CSR initiative of the Body Shop along with the World Land Trust and Wildlife Trust of India has launched the Bio-bridges’ scheme in Garo hills, Meghalaya, under which they will restore corridors of natural habitat to prevent threatened wildlife populations from being cut off from each other. 

The area covers 60 per cent of the total forest area in Meghalaya. It has been richly endowed with nature including some of the most exotic species of flora and fauna. Home to the largest number of Asian elephants in India, one can spot everything from the Pitcher plant to the Himalayan panda or the Red panda, tigers, wild buffaloes, the Western Hoolock Gibbon as well as various species of birds, reptiles, insects and other small mammals.

The new Bio-bridge project aims to protect two key endangered species – Indian elephant and the Western Hoolock Gibbon. The Indian elephant is one of the three subspecies of the Asian elephant and native to mainland Asia. It is also listed by the International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN) as endangered species. Over the last 70 years their population has declined by at least 50 per cent.

More than 90 per cent of the area is under the Garos who call themselves A chik Mande (the hill people). They are the second-largest tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasi. They comprise about a third of the local population. 

The tribe is known for the Jhum agriculture – slash and burn of the forest area for irrigation which is abandoned after it loses its nutrients. However, with the growing population, nature is unable to restore itself, leading to habitat loss. 
This has become a major area of concern over the years. Adding to it, is the growing number of human-elephant accidents that have been on a rise.

Also, the number of Western Hoolock Gibbon has dwindled by half, over the last 40 years. It is estimated that the total population has come down to 2,600, as a result of hunting and habitat loss.

Talking about the issue, Sunil Kyarong, joint director and head  of the Wild lands, Wild Life Trust of India said, “Garo Green Spine used to be a natural pathway for the elephants that connected the two forest areas. Due to deforestation and rise of human population, the two have been disconnected and habitats have been destroyed.

The Garo community along with our support will stitch together this spine in order to enhance the survival prospects of wildlife in the region. There will be workshops for tribal heads to create awareness about  Jhum agriculture. They in turn will spread the message among the villagers. This is the only way to establish a connect between the masses who own most of the land and the elephant’s habitat.”

Under this programme, they will protect and regenerate 75 million sqm of habitat. During this process the tribals will be provided agricultural support, awareness about medical and educational systems. The tribals will also be helped in fostering the cultivation of betel leaf which is found across the region.

Commenting upon the time period under which the restoration will occur, Mrinal Pande, Trustee of Wildlife Trust India, said, “It’s a natural process, we can’t hurry and make a forest grow. This is a case of animals fighting for their survival and in order to keep the ecological balance intact we have to create awareness among the tribals.” 

She stressed on the fact that without the involvement of the local community it would be impossible to recover 30 per cent forest cover that has been lost over the years.

Jacqueline Fernandez, the brand ambassador of The Body Shop, India, feels closely attached to the initiative. She will be accompanying the rest of the team to the Garo hills, working towards spreading awareness about the issue.

Every customer purchase will help restore and protect one sqm of habitat.