By Nandkumar M Kamat
For the last 56 years India has celebrated the week October 1 to October 7 as the Wildlife Week. Goa has celebrated this week for the last 45 years. I still remember the Goa agro-expo held in 1971 at Campal where the Kala Academy stands today.
There used to be beautiful sand dunes there then. The Pavilion of the Forest Department especially comes to mind.
Today the same department has modified the pristine sand dune habitat along the Miramar-Caranzalem stretch and raised a coconut plantation instead. The workers of the department uproot and burn the dune vegetation, treating them as weeds. Over the years the forest department has drifted away from society. Sometimes its dynamism depends on its officers.
I remember IFS officers Kishor Rao, Rohidas Naik, Achalendra Reddy and Richard D’Souza who meant business. They had close links with wildlife enthusiasts. The present Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Dr Shashi Kumar was even associated with the preparation of Goa’s biodiversity strategy and action plan in 2000-01.
There are several good ground level officers in this department, but their voices have become weaker and actions delayed. This is the cumulative impact of general corruption. This is the International Year of Forests, Year of the Bat and the UN Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020). The Government of Goa forgot all these three events. Why then is the forest department celebrating the Wildlife Week?
It has not yet resolved its confusion over its jurisdiction. It only looks at government forests and the wildlife that dwells within these forests. Has it involved the real forest dwellers- the tribals of Goa - and their NGOs? Or is it just getting more and more academic with only educational activities?
It wants to promote ecotourism in forest areas without framing strict guidelines on the basis of international norms. It has no rules for forest trekkers, campers, picnickers. Anyone can pitch a tent inside any sanctuary, cut wood and light campus fires and leave behind a trail of litter. Anyone can take foreign tourists to roam the sanctuaries and organise moonlight parties in the Dudhsagar valley or Tambdi Surla forest.
Plunder of Goa’s forest resources continues. Hundreds of small and big streams inside sanctuaries are being exploited for polished pebbles for decorating luxury homes, private pavements and gardens. The Forest Department cannot think of protecting wildlife unless it is alert 24 hours 365 days a year. But it functions only during office hours without any hotline to report offenses. Most of its officers are inaccessible. It has admitted several times that it is toothless, powerless and helpless. But this is mainly because IFS officers do not assert themselves in the spirit of our constitution. Instead they obey orders of politicians and their local sycophants. In fact, all the state forest departments are empowered with the central acts have the support of the Supreme Court of India.
IFS officers from other states, who I had met during several training programmes, vouched that they have adequate powers to protect forests and wildlife and only need support of the locals and media. Our forest department has never brought issues like forest policy and giving clearance to iron ore mines on the agenda of the statutory wildlife advisory board, which rarely meets. In north Goa more than one thousand illegal firearms have been reported. Why not confiscate these firearms in joint action with the Goa Police? But who would trust the Goa Police since senior officers allegedly enjoy holidays hunting wild game in forests above the Mayem Lake? Poachers and hunters use illegal firearms to kill wild animals. The Forest Department doesn’t see any wildlife outside protected areas. It has permitted sale of banned seashells and marine conches. It has turned a blind eye to killing and marketing of banned species of sharks. It knows that corals from Sunchi reef in the Marmagoa Bay are poached.
Conservation of marine mammals is its duty. But it doesn’t take any notice of marine mammals of Goa- Indo-pacific Humpback dolphin, common dolphin, spinner dolphin, back finless porpoise, fin whale and dugong. Several whales beach in Goa due to drifting or accident. The Forest Department needs to look at the decaying mangrove habitats. Sea grasses like Spinifex are now very rare on sand dunes. In the coming years many new mini and micro-reserves would have to be established - a slender lorris reserve, a reserve for Indian flying foxes, another coastal reserve for anteaters/pangolins, a reserve for Indian wild dogs, vultures, sloth bear, monitor lizards.
Even the Bengal fox and barking deer need attention. Forest department is silently watching the habitat fragmentation, which destroys wildlife habitats and drives animals near settlements. A megaproject is out to finish the last citadel of Taleigao’s wildlife - the lush green Odxel valley - habitat for hundreds of species. If miscreants burn wildlife habitats near urban areas the Forest Department hesitates to take action. If mining opens an artificial corridor fragmenting wildlife habitats then the forest department doesn’t object. How did a panther reach Miramar? Why are wild boars creating havoc in Bicholim and Sattari? Why are primates attacking crops in Canacona and Sanguem? If anti social elements use explosives to kill fish in rivers and streams that pass through wildlife sanctuaries, the Forest Department pleads helplessness. If illegal mines are opened, blasting and stone quarrying begins within government forest areas the Forest Department blesses the projects. It is an environmental crime to divert forest areas for dumping mining reject.
This is the year of bat but the Forest Department doesn’t wish to do anything for this flying mammal. Despite repeated requests to the Forest Minister, the Forest Department did not show any enthusiasm in celebrating International Year of Biodiversity - 2010 and the International Year of Forests. Wildlife week means a full commitment to protect every wild species - big or small, plants or animals; species that are now totally at the mercy of a single species - that’s us – man. But the enthusiasm of the 70s and 80s has disappeared.
The Forest Department should not think of erecting compound walls and permanent fencing around sanctuaries by diverting central funds. Forests are not municipal gardens. Forests are living ecosystems with smooth, porous boundaries. A simple tool like Google Earth shows the terrible conditions of fragmented forests of Goa.
Using historical imagery it is now easy to pinpoint the blunders of the Goa Forest Department. Green belts and wild animals in Tiswadi, Salcete, Marmagoa and Bardez would vanish in five years. By AD 2020, no wild animals would be sighted in Pernem and Ponda. By AD 2025, axes of urbanisation would impact, fragment and wipe out the existing wildlife sanctuaries. Tiger reserve would be a breeding centre to create man-eaters. Forest department would then expect us to find more money for expensive zoos.