What with informers being ‘allegedly’ killed and nexuses ruling the roost, Suheldeo Wildlife Sanctuary may soon lose most of its timber and trees, reports Himanshi Shukla...
Sitting just beneath the lap of the mighty Shivalik Ranges of the Himalayas in the Bhabhar Terai Ecosystem is the Suheldeo Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly known as the Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary). Located in Shravasti, Balrampur and Gonda districts of Uttar Pradesh, Suhelwa was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1988. Occupying an area of 452 sq km, the sanctuary is covered with Sal, Sheesham, Khair, Sagaun (Teak), Asna, Jamun, Haldu, Phaldu, Dhamina, Jhingan and Bahera trees. The fauna found in the sanctuary includes leopard, tiger, bear, wildcat, wild boar and various birds. Sohelwa Wild Life Division is situated on the Indo-Nepal International Border. In the wild life sanctuary there are five ranges – Tulsipur, Barahawa, Bankatwa, East Sohelwa and West Sohelwa. Its total area is 452 sq-km. With this, there is 220 sq-km of buffer zone which is divided in Bhaber and Rampur ranges. Unfortunately, the lush green, lively patches of forest cover face extinction threats due to felling of trees, especially the Khair trees. This has an adverse impact on the entire ecosystem of the area.
Khair (scientific name: Senegalia catechu or Acacia catechu) is a deciduous, thorny tree that is found primarily in Asia and South East Asia in countries including India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, etc. It grows throughout India from the Himalayas in the north to Nilgiris in the south. Khair tree is the source of important flavanols like catechins, catechols and catecholamines. It is also the source of catechutanic acid and tannin kattha(catechu), which is used in paan (betel leaves and areca nut), is derived from an extract of the heartwood of Khair. Being the source of kattha, it provides a lucrative market price and hence the problem of illicit felling and smuggling. The heartwood extract also finds uses in a wide range of industries- especially in tanning and dyeing. The extracts are also used in the dyeing of khaki. The timber from the tree finds use in ship building. It is also used to make wooden ploughs and the pounding log for rice. The heartwood extracts also find other uses in leather tanning, as a preservative for fishing nets and as a viscosity regulator for oil drilling. Khair wood is much prized for posts in house construction and used for making oil and sugarcane crushers and parts of boats. Its flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for bees. The pale-yellow mucilaginous gum exuding from the tree yields one of the best substitutes for true gum Arabic. The branches of the tree are cut and often used as a fodder for goats, though they may as well be given to cattle. The wood from the tree is also used as a firewood-- both for personal and religious uses- (in yajna ceremonies). Khair seeds are an important source of protein. The bark, heartwood and its extract are used in traditional medicine. The concentrated aqueous extract, known as khayer gum or cutch, is an astringent. Khair tree is very useful in dental problems. It gives relief in dry cough. It is also given in stomatis, anaemia, leprosy, bronchitis, pruritus, diarrhoea and polyuria. It is used externally for ulcers, boils and eruption of the skin. The juice of the fresh bark is given in haemoptysis. It is used to treat painful throat and cough.
Vikram Singh, former DGP of Uttar Pradesh, points out the nexus: “The illicit felling of Khair trees and the transportation of Khair woods has been a problem with the forest officials and the police department for decades together, for the simple reason that it is a very valuable commodity because of the extraction of kattha. And therefore, everybody seems to have a pie in this gamut of depredation. There seems to be a very well-oiled and greased racket the likes of which serve those involved in the smuggling of Khair. This is not only taking place in Uttar Pradesh but also Uttarakhand forests and other states as well. The forest department has not made any action plan, nor has there been any convincing arrest or recovery of the lost wood. The arrests and recoveries are shoddy and, in fact, the local staff seems to be complicit. That is the reason why such a problem persists and nothing seems to be happening on the ground. The big money involved in the smuggling of Khair wood is responsible for the sorry state of affairs.”
Anuj Kumar Saxena, former IFS officer, also agrees: “The invaluable trade involving the heartwood of Khair from which kattha is extracted is responsible for its illegal smuggling. Since the main material is the heartwood and not the big logs of trees, it becomes easier to transport and smuggle it.” On the question of whether it is being carried out on the cross-border scale (since the area falls near the Indo-Nepal Border) or at an interstate level, Saxena says: “The smuggling and illicit trade has to involve big money and that is very much possible on the interstate level. In fact, most of the smuggled wood is supplied to western states like Haryana. Hence, it doesn’t seem to be a cross-border problem.”
Dr Kuruvilla Thomas, former CCF of the Sohelwa division, points out the administrative challenges. “Understaffing is a major constraint. There is poor working versus sanctioned workers ratio. The administration works at only 40-50% of their capacity. Monitoring such a large and dense forest and that too in a tough terrain is definitely a daunting task.” The same is also pointed out by former IFS Anuj Kumar Saxena. The Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) report points out: “The forests of Bahraich/ Srawasti districts are under jurisdiction of DFO, Sohelwa and are also important as a viable tiger conservation habitat but there needs to be an action plan for coordination between the two. Similarly, there needs to be more meaningful dialogue with authorities of adjoining Nepal forests. Many artificial and natural water bodies in the protected area attract migratory birds during winter and their protection is part of the Protected Area management.”
Niharika Singh, former member, UP Wildlife Board and environmental activist associated with the Suhelwa region, claims: “There is a long history of tree felling in Suhelwa. The region has a linear shape and there is no buffer area around the villages at the fringe. This leaves ample scope for illicit felling. The volume chart of the Van Nigam shows how administrative loopholes are exploited. Then there are administrative lacunae – there is double jurisdiction at the district level as the East Sohelwa range falls into Balrampur and Shravasti districts. There is wrong policy at the departmental level- fixing responsibility: Forest Guard (FG), then RO then DFO and CCF leads to concealment and further felling of trees. The villagers are roped in by the ‘thekedars’ (contractors) so this forms a felling ring- thus this is a result of the team work.” Niharika also alleges: “There is conservation-averse attitude of the local people due to falsified H2 cases. One of the informers, Nanhey Chauhan of Gabbapur Village of Sirsiya region, was killed on 3rd January 2021 after he informed about the dumped consignment of Khair in Paikori village. His body was thrown in a nullah near Rampur Bandha.”
As highlighted by the enquiry report of Alok Kumar Srivastava, IFS, the Van Nigam Volume chart is devised for calculating the volume of wood in logging operations in the forest. The chart has categorized the girth into a range of values, rather than an absolute value. The volume is at best an approximation and can vary significantly as the trees of dissimilar girth are clubbed together. The values derived are applied for estimation of volume of wood from felled trees on the revenue land (grameen trees) without any correction. This results in a paper value in excess of actual volume obtained. The difference in two values is then made up from the trees felled illicitly on revenue or forest lands.
Action by the authorities
Prakhar Gupta, DFO, says: “The SSB task force and the Police Task Force have been formed which take the strictest possible action when any irregularities are reported. More often than not, a joint search team is dispatched when we get information about the felling by mukhbirs (informers). Then matter is probed and cases are registered under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. In fact, the number of H2 cases have increased threefold in the past year as can be seen by the records of the Preliminary Office Reports (POR),” he said. “We use technology to create a digital infrastructure. The m-STRIPES app is used by the Forest Guards and the locals to report any irregularities on the spot. This forest falls into the category of Very Dense Forest as per the India State of Forest Report, 2019. Maintaining it in this category is our responsibility,” he added.
The Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) report points out: “The strategy for protection is continued patrolling by frontline staff, vigilance, intelligence collection and checking of illegal activities like grazing, fuel wood and NTFP collection, checking of poaching and illicit felling etc. No regular patrolling scheme is drawn nor there systematic intelligence network.” Niharika Singh says: “My associates and I have been working for the restoration of the habitat for years. This has led to several representations to successive Principal Secretaries, Forest, Govt of UP. Based on these several enquiries have taken place and administrative measures enacted.” These include:
1. Enquiry by Shri Alok Srivastava, IFS, followed by that of Mr Sunil Rastogi, I.F.S (ordered by Shri Chanchal Tiwari in 2011)
2. G.O. 2013, regarding misuse use of felling and loading permit
3. Use of Information Technology based systems in awarding felling and loading permits to control illicit felling- Permit Tracking Software.
4. An administrative demarcation of boundaries between Shrawasti and Suhelwa forest divisions, absence of which was leading to illicit felling in Suhelwa WLS.
(Above were done under the aegis of Shri V.N. Garg, former Forest Secretary, Government of UP.)
5. Several combing operations were conducted on my complaints to both the State, Divisional and Departmental level. These included site visits by Shri Rupak De, Shri N.K. Srivastava, Shri Javed Alam, among others. In 2020 and 2021, Shri Premshankar Tiwari, R.O. Paschmi and R.O. Suraksha conducted combing operations with the active participation of my associates and myself in which large scale felling of khair was unearthed.
6. A petition was also filed in Central Empowered Committee of Supreme Court, which is still pending.
“However, much still needs to be done to stop the illicit felling of the Khair trees,” she adds.
The Administrative point of view
The District Forest Officer of East Sohelwa, Prakhar Gupta says: “While it cannot be denied that the illicit felling takes place at some level, yet it cannot be said that the forest department is not well equipped to deal with the issue.” And, adds: “The question we must ask is that whether the instances of illicit felling will increase once the forest department is out of the picture and the answer is a definite yes. The role of the forest department must be acknowledged and we leave no stone upturned to obtain the cooperation and confidence of all the stakeholders involved.” He also points out the administrative challenges involved in the monitoring of the area. “The structuring of the divisions is such that they overlap with multiple districts. For instance, I have 10 divisions under me and they fall into three districts of Gonda, Shrawasti and Balrampur. This creates a coordination problem at the trans-district level. Also, once the matter is out of the forest it falls in the purview of the police department. Since it is border area, the SSB is also there. The forest department tries its best to cooperate with the mukhbirs, but sometimes the information is true and sometimes false claims are also reported.”
The MEE report points out about the resource deficiencies: “The position of four-wheel vehicles is satisfactory but motorcycles and bicycles for frontline staff needs urgent attention. Though the position of firearms is good, their upkeep & training of staff to efficiently handle them are lacking. Most of the buildings are old and need repairs. Wireless network needs expansion. Resource is insufficient and more support is needed under CSS & also for the State Govt. Front line staff position is good but the training is lacking and average age is high. The vacancy in ACF level needs to be filled for better supervision of works as DFO has to remain busy with miscellaneous duties at district level. Frequent changes of DFOs (7 during past 7 years) has not helped the management to push forward the planning and implementation.”
Developing Ecotourism in the region
The MEE report says, “There is heavy dependence of the local people on forest resource of the Protected Area. No management strategy is there in place to reduce this dependence by providing alternatives except the policing. The women are by and large illiterate and poor and their livelihood issues need to be addressed urgently.” The state of affairs is also aggravated by Shrawasti District being an aspiration district.
To reduce the heavy dependence of the people on the forests, there needs to be ample opportunities in the ecotourism sector which the region can provide. DFO Prakhar Gupta says: “I’ve taken charge on 1st February, 2021. My strategy while I am posted here will be to develop ecotourism that is also supported by religious tourism. There is Devi Patan Mandir in Tulsipur which is one of the most important Shaktipeeths, the Shravasti District also falls in the Buddhist circuit and also there is Baba Vibhutinath Mandir, which is a famous Shiv Mandir, situated in East Sohelwa Range. The tourism here should be developed keeping in mind these destinations as the centre. Then this must be supplemented with the ecotourism. The Parvati Aranga wetland in Gonda district has recently been declared a Ramsar site. There are 12 dams here but the Chittoragarh Dam, the Bhagwanpur Dam and the Rampur Dam are the most beautiful and scenic sites. They are home to many migratory birds like little Grebe, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Darter, Indian Pond Heron, Cattle-egret, Great-egret, Little-egret, Common Teal, Spot-Billed Duck, Black-Shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Greater Spotted Eagle, Long-Billed Vulture, White Rumped Vulture, Grey Francolin, Sarus Crane, Water Cock, Common Moorhen, Purple Moorhen, Pheasant-Tailed Jacana, Bronze-Winged Jacana. In migratory birds Painted Star, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey leg goose, Bar-Headed Goose etc.”
Dr K Thomas, former CCF, pointed out that they had developed Vulture Parks to develop the ecotourism in the region. Niharika Singh’s efforts have led to the inauguration of the Nanhey Bird Cycling Point in the Gabbapur Village of Sirsiya by the Eco-Development Committee. The point will act as store of 10 cycles which will be rented out to the tourists who come to visit the forest. The revenue thus generated will be given to the family of the deceased. Also, various exhibitions and plays are being organised by Niharika Singh wherein the children of the government school shed light and awareness about the importance of forest conservation and local handicrafts and souvenir crafts are promoted to generate income for the locals.
The Management Effectiveness Evaluation Report of the Suhelwa division, “The biodiversity value of the site is that this is a connecting link of Terai Arc Landscape and the landscapes if secured has tremendous biodiversity value. In the North-West there are following forest blocks with few gaps in between and it then gets connected with Katarniaghat Wild Life Sanctuar-. Sohelwa- Kakadari-Charda-Chakia- Katarniaghat Wild Life Sanctuary. In the North are the Churia hills of Nepal with some contiguity with this Protected Area. There is a big gap in the Eastern portion of India but through the forests in Nepal it has some connectivity with the eastern most tiger habitat comprising of Chitwan N.P. in Nepal and Sohagibarwa Wild Life Sanctuary (UP) and Valmiki Tiger Reserve (Bihar) in India. The PA is linear in shape but has a vital linkage value for survival of tigers. During recent past wild elephants in small groups are visiting Sohelwa Wild Life Sanctuary every year.
Anuj Kumar Saxena says: “This is a riverine forest in the Bhabhar Terai ecosystem. The deciduous forests encompass rich biodiversity. As such the trees like Babul and Khair are the pioneer species of riverine succession. The leaves from the trees, when they fall down, they enrich the soil. The fertile soil then further supports ecological succession. Thus, when the trees are felled, the entire ecosystem will be impacted in an adverse way.”
So, what’s the solution
Vikram Singh points out: “Exactly what the forest department and the police should do to prevent the illicit felling of Khair trees and the clandestine operations that take the Khair wood to Kattha factories for illegal extraction and manufacture of Kattha: Those who are responsible for cutting, illegal procurement and supply of Khair wood to Kattha factories should be treated as being involved in an organised crime and those responsible for perpetrating the organised crime – both the suspected and the actual receivers of the stolen Khair wood - should be taken into custody under the UP Gangsters and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 1986. The National Security Act and other acts pertaining to the theft and organised crime and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 can be used.” He also points out another angle: “The forest department has a major role to play for the census of the Khair trees and the plantations. The use of technology can be supplemented to increase the vigilance and oversight. Now it is possible to do satellite imaging and video and still photography to have a faithful and a proper census and the numbering of trees. This will make doubly clear that any chopping of Khair trees illegally will have serious consequences under the aforementioned legal provisions.”
Anuj Kumar Saxena points out: “It is best to stop this at the consumption point that is the Kattha factories. The manufacturing records and the Transits should be checked. Since only the Van Nigam can supply the wood, it is easier to check the discrepancies if any. The wood supplied can be measured against the Kattha manufactured and the ratio can be matched. If any discrepancies are found, the factory should be sealed immediately. Once the factories are taken under the radar, they will themselves shy away from illegal procurement. This will make the lucrative trade not-so-attractive. Secondly, the forest department needs to increase the vigilance and oversight. A robust information and communication system needs to be developed. The informers of the village (mukhbirs) should be taken into confidence.” He adds: “The villages at the fringes must also be taken into confidence. One needs to differentiate between the ‘need-based’ and the ‘commercial-based’ felling. On the former, there needs to be less strictness because once you have the support and confidence of the villagers it will be easier to crack down on the perpetrators.”
Dr Thomas, former CCF of Suhelwa Division, says: “The Khair felling problem has persisted for a long time but it will be wrong to say that it hasn’t come down. To make it nil, other measures can be taken. The forest guards should be rotated so as to ensure that no comfortable give-and-take relationship can be established. The help of the Sashatra Seema Bal (SSB) must be taken as and when possible. The monitoring should be increased and the help of private entities can also be taken. Also the government must ensure that the resources with the administration are increased so that they have everything that they need at their disposal. The understaffing is a major problem and so the working staff strength must also be stepped up.” In a nutshell, there is a lot to be done and we hope that it gets started right after reading this report!