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According to a recent report, felling down trees helped contain militancy in Garo Hills! Such an encouragement for timber smugglers! Forest officials were quoted saying the villagers are against afforestation activities. Villagers claimed the crime rate in an area along NH-62 in East Garo Hills came down after the locals cleared the forest there. They say they cannot keep the forests when their lives are in danger. Although illegal, tree felling is already a lucrative trade, and those engaged in it now have the local support. The extent of rampant denudation of forests in Meghalaya, for whatever reasons, can be gauged by this example. At this juncture, the state government’s plan to declare an area of 1,331 square kilometres dotted with 179 villages in West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills districts as elephant reserve sounds ambitious. The Centre has already agreed to the proposal in principle and a notification is awaited. This will be second such elephant reserve in the state after the one already notified in Garo Hills covering 3,500 sq km.

The narrow plateau of Meghalaya overlooking the Brahmaputra valley on the north and the plains of Bangladesh on the south is an ideal habitat for elephants. But geographical boundaries especially the barbed wire fencing along the Indo-Bangla border has hindered free movement of the giant animal despite creation of some so-called elephant corridors. However, the main reason that led to human-animal conflict is the rampant denudation of forests. The government move to declare the elephant reserve is to contain the menace of deforestation. However, the idea is not to displace the locals from their villages, but to bring changes to their lifestyle in order to protect the forests around them and educate them to reduce the man-elephant conflict. The reserve in Garo Hills is several times bigger than the state’s biggest national park Balpakram (352 sq km) in South Garo Hills district. According to forest minister, the people there are reaping the benefit of Project Elephant. The state would be spending 60 per cent of the funds to be sanctioned for the two elephant reserves under the Project Elephant.

However, the government says, the state’s complex land tenure system has been a handicap in protecting the forests. Of the state’s total forest area of 15,657 sq km, only 1,027 sq km is under the control of the forest department. To go ahead with the elephant reserve project, the government must take into confidence the community leaders. Besides tree-felling, the elephant reserve will also bring restrictions on activities like mining of minerals, which the villagers would find tough to accept. Merely declaring the area as elephant reserve without retraining the human activities destructive on the environment would not serve purpose.