A simple idea has made both hungry elephants and the agitated population of Assam’s Udalguri district breathe easy. Esmail Daimary was 26 when he came up with the idea, but it also took a nearly two-decade-long community drive to transform the region from an arid landscape to a thriving forest which now serves as a buffer between people and elephants.
Udalguri, wedged between Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, regularly grabbed headlines on account of two conflicts—ethnic militancy and man-elephant run-ins.
Loss of forest cover and illegal encroachment in the foothills often forced elephants to descend from the hills of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh into Udalguri’s border villages in search of food and water, often trampling down villagers and their homes. Elephants too have died in the conflict, with irate, frightened villagers setting up electric wire-traps to deter the marauding jumbos. There were no winners in this battle.
Once a thriving forest and a biodiversity hub teeming with elephants, leopards, monkeys and birds among others species, the Bhairavkunda Reserve Forest was reduced to a 22 sq km barren patch of land along the Assam-Bhutan border, after two massive floods in 1979 and 1989 washed away the entire vegetation. This devastation triggered the region’s man-elephant conflict. “Plantation would solve the problem (caused by the) flood as well as the conflict. So, I initially started motivating youth from six villages around the area to introduce saplings and plants in the area,” Daimary tells Outlook.
Slowly, more youth joined hands with Daimary, planting trees in the reserve forest. In 2005, a Joint Forest Management Committee was set up with 35 youth working towards the cause of conservation. At present the Gethsamane Joint Forest Management Committee is headed by Prinson Daimary. The journey was slow, but after 10 years, 15 lakh trees and lush green vegetation has replaced the barrenness. The trees have been chosen keeping in mind the diet of the elephants and the other species.
Now known as the Gethsamane Joint Reserve Forest, with a spread of 56k bighas, the area is once again home to elephants among other animals. Elephants no longer maraud the nearby villages, because there is enough fodder and water in the jungles of Gedshimani.
Now 53, Daimary, looks at the jungle with satisfaction. Apart from tackling the decades-old man-animal conflict, the Gethsamane Joint Reserve Forest is now a hub for domestic and international tourism and boasts of an eco-camp, hosting researchers and tourists. “It is slowly changing the way people see the region. It was once famous for militancy, ethnic conflicts. But now people come to see how this small region managed to contain a burning problem with a simplistic idea,” says Daimary.
(This appeared in the print edition as "And Then he Created the Forest")
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