Dehing Patkai National Park, located in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, is known for its exceptional diversity of flora and fauna. About 48 mammals have been recorded here including eight species of wild cats, which forest officials deem the highest in the country. These include the tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, leopard cat, golden cat, jungle cat, marbled cat and fishing cat.
However, other than a study by biologist Kashmira Kakati back in 2010, not much scientific research has been done on these cat species in the region. Now, the forest department is initiating a camera-trap programme to study the cat populations and formulate better conservation strategies. As part of the programme, a total of 95 camera traps – cameras with infrared triggers to monitor animals – are being installed in the national park, which will provide data on species location, behaviour and interaction as well as population.
Small cats in focus
Also known as the ‘Amazon of the East’, Dehing Patkai National Park harbours the longest stretch of tropical lowland rainforests in India. It was first declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2004 and then upgraded to a national park in 2021, the sixth in Assam. From 114.19 sq. km., the area was doubled to 234.26 sq. km. It is part of the larger Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve (937 sq. km.). The National Park is divided into three ranges — Saraipung, Margherita and Jeypore. While Saraipung and Margherita come under the Digboi Wildlife Division, Jeypore comes under Dibrugarh Wildlife Division.
“This forest boasts of perhaps the most diverse population of primates and wild cats in the country. Among primates, species like slow loris, Assamese macaque, stump tailed macaque, pig tailed macaque, rhesus macaque, capped langur and hoolock gibbons are found here. Also animals like elephants, binturong, flying squirrel, Gangetic river dolphin, yellow-throated marten, sambhar, barking deer, wild pig, series, Malayan giant squirrels, dholes, are found in this forest,” says Rajib Rudra Tariang, Head of the Zoology department at Digboi College, located 20 km. from the National Park.
Between 2007 and 2009, renowned wildlife biologist, Kashmira Kakati, set out to study the wild cats found in Dehing Patkai. She and her team set up camera traps in the Jeypore-Dehing lowland evergreen forests and recorded a total of seven species. This was considered the highest diversity of cats found in a single region in the country.
More than a decade after Kakati’s study, the forest department has now launched a programme to study the population of the small cats found in the forest.
Ranjith Ram, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Digboi Wildlife Division of Dehing Patkai National Park says, “Since then (Kakati’s study), a lot has changed in the forest. The area has increased. We thought this is the right time to study the population of lesser cats. In my area, last year we set up 35 cameras.” Apart from the increase in area, according to Ram, during this period, the status of the forest has changed, the roads and wireless connectivity in the forest has improved and also the staff in Dehing Patkai has increased.
The forest department study will include marbled cats, golden cats, jungle cats, leopard cats and the elusive fishing cats. Clouded leopard, leopard cat, golden cat are found on trees and deep tropical rainforests while marbled cats, jungle cats and fishing cats are found near wetlands and water bodies. As per IUCN Red List, leopard cat and golden cat are vulnerable, fishing cat is endangered, marbled cat is near threatened, and jungle cat is considered least concern.
Over the last three months, the department has been setting up camera traps. “This will be a year-long project where we will cover the entire area for a sign survey. Right now, we have set up 60 cameras on a rotation basis,” says B.V. Sandeep, DFO, Dibrugarh division of Dehing Patkai, who is in charge of the programme. Sign survey is a method to collect data on wild animals by studying signs such as pug marks, scat and scratch marks.
Smaller wild cats in the region are essential to keep the ecosystems in balance, says wildlife biologist Jimmy Borah, who works with the NGO Aaranyak. “Wild cat conservation in the Dehing Patkai landscape is of paramount importance for both the conservation of these magnificent feline species and the ecological balance of this unique region. These feline predators not only help control prey populations but also have a cascading effect on the entire ecosystem. By conserving them, we can also protect the vast array of plant and animal species that depend on a balanced ecosystem,” he says.
However, along with all other species in the forest, the wild cats face several threats. Primarily, mining for oil and coal extraction which are found in the entire belt of Dehing Patkai.
“While mining doesn’t take place inside the national park, it does in the larger Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. There are oil collection stations inside the forest and a storehouse for explosives called Bomgudam,” says an environmentalist from the area, on conditions of anonymity. He adds that sometimes crude oil seeps into the Digboi nullah that passes through the park, which can lead to accidents in case of a forest fire or other ignition sources. “Just a few years ago, we had a terrible accident in Baghjan. If something like this happens at Dehing Patkai, the impact will be much greater,” he says.
The authorities however deny any disturbances inside the national park. “No oil extraction is allowed within 10 km. radius of the national park. However, there are few oil drilling locations and oil wells in the reserve forest area. Historically, mining has taken place in the Dehing Patkai forest for many years,” says Ram, DFO of Digboi Division.
Timber logging and illegal hunting are other threats to wild cats in the region, and protection has been increased to prevent them. “We have got 40-50 new staff and all of them are now armed with Self Loading Rifles (SLRs), which was not the case before. We are working to improve wireless and mobile connectivity because some camps are at least 10 km. away from the nearest human settlement. Hunting and logging have definitely gone down because of these measures,” says Ram.
Presence of big cats
Though not much is officially known about the populations of these small cats, villages near the park report sightings often. “My village Saraipung is just on the fringes of the park. During the night, we sometimes see fishing cats, marbled cats, and golden cats. They come to the village looking for hens and ducks. Clouded leopards don’t really come into the village. They are found in the interiors of the forest,” says Gokul Tanti, a bird guide and temporary forest guard in Dehing Patkai.
Though the region is considered as a tiger bearing habitat, no sightings have been reported in a long time. Sandeep, DFO of Dibrugarh division says, “The presence of tigers was detected in Dehing Patkai during Kakati’s research. However, now there are no regular sightings.”
“Sometimes during winters, security working at Jurajan oil field inside the reserve forest have reported encountering tigers at night, but this is not concrete evidence,” says a forest guard, who has served in this forest for more than three decades.
Leopards are more commonplace, with sightings reported in many fringe villages of Dehing Patkai like Gelipunj, Thekelajan, Sapatoli, Bhaduri Nagar, Borbari and others. “They kill goats and pigs sometimes. They are also found in the nearby tea gardens. They are not known to attack humans,” he says.
by Nabarun Guha
This article is republished from Mongabay under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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