Located at the foothills of Eastern Himalayas, the Behali Reserved Forest in Assam’s Biswanath district is facing near extinction due to decades of deforestation and mismanagement but it seems that the locals are not yet ready to give up the fight.

Declared a reserve forest in 1917, this forest holds a wide range of biodiversity. Dipankar Borah, Asst. Prof of Botany at Goalpara college told EastMojo, “Normally, we don’t find so many species in one small forest. Three plant species were discovered in this forest and out of which two species are only found in Behali. Some new plants were found in Behali, which was never recorded earlier in Assam”. 

Behali is home to over 290 plant species, 49 mammals, 280 birds, 23 snakes, 12 turtles, 11 lizards, 12 amphibians and 241 species of butterflies. However, encroachment and deforestation have shrunk the forest’s total geographical area from 140 sq km to 60 sq km, threatening the flora and fauna.

Between borders: A history of neglect and abuse

Lt. M C Bora, the founding dean of the School of Management Sciences, said in ‘Natural Resources Management: Sustainable Extraction Level of Forest Production in Assam, 2001’: “Encroachment in Behali R.F started from 1980. According to the forest department. The total encroached area is 3,375 ha but in reality the actual encroachment area is more than 3,500 ha. Nepali, Karbi, Bodo and ex-tea garden communities encroached this R.F and constructed more than 1,000 huts. In Behali Reserved forest, people from Arunachal Pradesh have encroached huge areas and have settled there by constructing permanent buildings. A.P govt. has constructed many Govt. Offices and Schools in this R. F by clearing large R. F areas.”

Dr Firflia Basumatary, a ranger at the Behali Reserved Forest, told EastMojo, “I don’t have the proper idea of what happened in the past but at present, we are working very hard to protect Behali. Two IRB camps namely Dikal forest protection camp and Naharjan have been set up especially for Behali and we have set up all our camps just near Behali. We have about nine camps which are adjacent to the forest so that if something happens we can go immediately. Our battalions are also there especially for Behali as it is in the border area.” 

The Behali Forest

According to Basumatary, the forest department has set up IRB camps and Forest battalion camps, but the problem is that there is a shortage of important equipment at Behali which is creating a challenge to monitor the forest. “In our forest department there is a shortage of staff but still we are not compensating. We send three people from each range to the camp for 15 days. Being a ranger, I enter the forest at least twice a week along with sending the staff from the ranges and moving the battalions in the forest.”

The urgent need for demarcation

Kashmira Kakati, a wildlife biologist and environmental activist working in the Northeastern forests of India who announced the discovery of the presence of seven species of wild cats in the Jeypore-Dehing forests in Assam mentioned, “Recently, in the last two years or so, we have seen a new trend of elephant poaching for meat in the Behali and Singlijan areas.” 

“The large-scale encroachment and deforestation started from the 1990s,” says a local person from Behali. He further added that since then, to date it’s a continuous process. “The people of Arunachal at the border were armed, which they use for hunting rather than protecting themselves. Today if an elephant goes to the other side of the forest it won’t come out alive”. 

The residents raised concern about the demarcation which is not yet decided. “Until a proper demarcation is done the border conflict will exist and the people of Arunachal will encroach and build huts along with engaging in agricultural activities in the forest area. Moreover, the Adivasi tribes live around the forest and they depend upon hunting and trees for their livelihood.”

There are 290 plant species in the Behali forest

Regarding the demarcation of the area, a case is currently going on and a final verdict is yet to come. “Until and unless a verdict comes out we can’t do anything,” says Basumatary. She further added that for now, higher officials from both states are not allowing encroachment. “Since the time I joined I have been engaged in evacuation as much as possible. They retaliated initially but with time they have started cooperating. An agreement has been signed from both the sides that until the verdict comes out, encroachment won’t be allowed and right now that process is prevailing” says Basumatary. 

Highlighting the present scenario, she said, “I won’t say that encroachment didn’t take place before. But after I came, I am giving a lot of importance to the border issue. The people can’t encroach but they try to do Jhum cultivation and I have broken three houses after being appointed as the ranger. As the border is not demarcated so we can’t take proper action. It would be beneficial if proper demarcation is done because we can put a certain barrier for the arrival of Arunachal Pradesh”.

As mentioned in The State of Wildlife in North-East India (1996-2011): A Compilation of News from the Protected Area Update, edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria, Associate Professor at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (C-TARA), IIT Bombay, “Call to declare Behali forest a WLS: A team of geographers from Guwahati University (GU), that recently surveyed the Behali Reserved forest (RF), has suggested that the reserved forest should be declared a WLS. The Behali RF in Sonitpur district is located on the north bank of the River Brahmaputra and is close to the Arunachal Pradesh border. Increasing anthropogenic pressure is considered to be one of the biggest threats faced by forests in this region. Until recently, most parts of this 140 sq. km forest had good tree cover and provided good habitat for wildlife including elephants, macaques and a large variety of woodland birds. The GU team expressed satisfaction that unlike most parts of the northern zone of Sonitpur district, the Behali RF still had its original forest cover. They also pointed out, however, that if immediate steps were not taken for its protection this forest too would be soon lost.”

“Behali is a forest which is very rich in biodiversity and it takes time for a forest to get the status of a wildlife sanctuary. Right now the process of converting Behali into a wildlife sanctuary is going on and I hope that it happens soon. Moreover, the support of local people is also very important. If the concerned local people, the NGOs with the forest department pressurize then I think we will get a positive result”, says Basumatary.

The Behali forest is also home to a vast variety of wildlife

Dipankar Borah, who is working on the documentation of Behali Reserved Forest says, “Behali can be saved only if all the stakeholders, the local people, the researchers, the forest department and the Assam government work together. The problem of encroachment by the neighbouring state is not only limited to Behali but it is the major problem that all the forests of Assam face which shares a boundary with its neighbouring states. Behali is facing a major threat and therefore we are raising our voice. It’s high time proper actions should be taken to save this forest”. 

Mass awareness regarding Behali can be seen in the social media platforms too. “We have created groups in different social media platforms and are conducting several competitions to make people aware about BEHALI RF” says Bhargav Paneru, who is initiating social media awareness on Behali.


To read this article in Assamese. Click here!




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