In the vast Himalayas, amid snow-capped mountains, is a vast swath of evergreen forest home to majestic tigers, elusive clouded leopards, charismatic hornbills, mystical giant squirrels, enchanting butterflies and bisarre orchids.
Comprising some 1,900 square kilometers (734 square miles) in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Namdapha National Park is the third largest national park in India and is considered one of the last great wildernesses. of Asia, as well as a biodiversity hotspot that is home to more than 1,000 floral and 1,400 faunal species.
Murali Krishna Chatakonda, a professor at the Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife, India, studies the issues of diversity, ecology and conservation of small mammals in the park. “Namdapha is home to some of the unique species [like the] Namdapha Gliding Squirrel, White-bellied Heron, Western Hoolock Gibbon, Tiger, Marbled Cat, Clouded Leopard, [and] red panda,” Chatakonda said. “The list is quite long.”
Namdapha National Park is considered an Important Bird Area by the conservation organization Birdlife International, with several rare species, including goldcrests (genus napothera) and critically endangered slender-billed vultures (Gyps tenuirostris). Namdapha is also home to the Namdapha flying squirrel which has only been seen once (Biswamoyopterus biswasi) and the critically endangered Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyl). There is also a great diversity of reptiles, amphibians and insects in the park.
The endangered hermit’s spittoon (himalayan sapria) is also found here. A close cousin of the corpse flower (Rafflesia arnoldii), which has the largest single flower in the world, hermit’s spittoon flowers are about 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches) in diameter and release a putrid odor when they bloom to attract pollinators normally attracted to decaying flesh .
A treasure trove of endangered biodiversity
Namdapha National Park was originally declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1972, and became a national park in 1983, as well as a tiger reserve under the India Tiger Project. Bordering Myanmar, most of the park is in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
More than half of Namdapha is covered by dense evergreen forest, a quarter by open forest, and the rest is covered by scrubland, snow-capped mountains, and grasslands. Within the park, there are some tribal settlements, mainly of the Yobin (also called Lisu) people who belong to the Tibeto-Burman ethnic group that straddles the borders of India, China and Myanmar, and who depend mainly on the park for their livelihood. .
Namdapha is home to some of the unique species like the Namdapha Gliding Squirrel, White-bellied Heron, Western Hoolock Gibbon, Tiger, Marbled Cat, Clouded Leopard and Red Panda.
Murali Krishna Chatakonda, Professor, Amity Institute of Forestry and Wildlife
Dotted with mountains and snow-capped peaks and enveloped by dense canopies of trees, Namdapha’s landscape is a paradise for nature adventurers. The park’s wealth of plants and animals, some of which biologists believe are still unknown to science, make the park a perfect study site for conservationists and researchers from India and around the world. But this natural wealth is now threatened.
For nearly two decades, researchers have warned of anthropogenic threats to Namdapha National Park, including forest degradation and fragmentation caused by logging and poaching of threatened wildlife.
A study published in Biological Conservation in 2008 it sounded alarm bells when researchers did not record a single tiger or leopard while surveying the park for three months; they also found large herbivores such as sambar, gaur and serow which were surprisingly rare. Anecdotal evidence suggests these animals were abundant until the 1990s, and researchers blamed hunting for the low number of large mammals in the park.
But the decline in the abundance of large animals in Namdapha hasn’t dampened researchers’ hopes of discovering species new to science. In 2019, a crowdsourcing campaign by the IUCN Small Mammal Specialist Group (SMSG), Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), and the Guwahati-based conservation group Aaranyak raised $5,000 to fund researchers, including Chatakonda, in their search for the elusive Namdapha flying squirrel, which has not been seen since its discovery in 1981.
While that particular effort has yet to produce a new sighting of the rare chipmunk, recent discoveries of other new species of frogs, crabssButterflies and snails in and around the park have emphasized the uniqueness of Namdapha, and what will be lost.
“The expansion of roads that is currently taking place, although it affects [these] species [even though] cannot be considered as huge [a] threat from now on,” Chatakonda said. One such road being built and upgraded is the 150-kilometre (93-mile) Miao-Vijaynagar Highway that runs through the park and connects the remote settlements of Vijaynagar and Miao, and is scheduled for completion this year. Although the path makes it easier to patrol the rugged terrain, authorities believe it may also increase encroachment into the park as people settle along it and use it to access the forest.
Communities vs government
Satellite data from the University of Maryland viewed on the Global Forest Watch online platform shows that deforestation in the park has increased steadily over the past two decades and spiked sharply in 2021.
Preliminary data for 2022 shows that forest loss intensifies further during the first half of this year. Park authorities attribute the increase in deforestation to encroachments by members of the Yobin community, and have been working to clear villages from the park for the past several months.
The Yobin communities have been in conflict with the Namdapha Park authorities for more than half a century. While authorities have long claimed that the Yobin illegally invaded the park, cleared forests for agriculture and built settlements, Yobin leaders say they have lived here for generations and have nowhere else to go as their livelihood depends on of the woods.
Although the Indian government recognizes the Yobin as an indigenous group (known as a “Scheduled Tribe” in India) native to the region, the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department has urged them to relocate with financial compensation, which members of the community have rejected.
In early 2022, citing the need for tourism development and conservation, the Forest Department resorted to evicting the Yobin communities within Namdapha by tearing down their settlements and dismantling their farms.
“Invasions have a negative impact on biodiversity,” Chatakonda said. “Accessibility for hunting tends to increase with increasing encroachments, and secondly, virgin forests are cleared to pave the way for human settlement.” She added that with forest-dwelling species at risk, the Forest Department is “doing a great job” of removing settlements in the park.
During a May 2022 meeting between the Yobin and Mama Natung communities, Arunachal Pradesh Minister of Environment and Forests, Natung argued that the Yobin settlements within the park are illegal under Indian law and must be relocated to conserve the forest. She said that the Yobins could choose any other place to settle outside of the park and that the government is ready to help them financially if they move.
However, Yobin’s representatives at the meeting only agreed to consider the request.
“Our grandparents have lived and died here. Where are we going?” said a Yobin woman as reported by local media: “Here we will also die.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.