While browsing through the old British documents in regard to the natural history of the present India’s Northeast, I came across the mention of the Surma Valley as one of the most naturally diverse regions of British India. Later tracing the roots I found out that the region mentioned is the Sarma River and Raima River region, following into the Gomti River and continuing into the Chittagong Hill tracts in present Bangladesh. Ajoy and I had then done this expedition on the Gomti River and were left wonderstruck with the nature and more with the huge sculptures on the stones of the gorges of Gomti. This was love at first sight with Tripura and the travels to Tripura continued with excuses and invitations to come back everytime.
This time it was a trip to plan ecotourism initiatives for Tripura, North to South, giving people a chance to realize and revive their natural history.
Jeopardized Jampui Hill
India’s Northeast consists of 07 sisters and brother, the least known to the country and world at large being Tripura. Landlocked on three sides by Bangladesh and the Indian states of Assam and Mizoram, Tripura like many other Northeast states has observed settlement of political, communal (ethnic clashes) and economical refugees.
On the 17th of March, 2011, I was on a survey visit to the Jampui Hill in North Tripura. Based out of Vanghmun, I was to cover Tlangsang, Sabual and Phuldungsui to explore the possibilities of village tourism in these areas. Working at day and travelling at night during this period was an experience of the mystic ambience created by the super-moon (the largest moon seen in the last 18 years). Also what worried me most was the burning for zoom cultivation (slash and burn) and I could see the forests burning at night and the charred hills at day.
The zoom culture all over the Jampui Hills for agriculture, for Government subsidised coffee, betel nut and banana plantation almost denuded the hill tops with rich wilderness. There was an immense use of fire wood for cooking fuel and this loss of cover resulted to acute water crisis all over the Jampui Hills. This dry season existed for 05 ton 06 months a year and is in the increase. The problem is so acute that all water harvesting systems have fallen short.
This crisis has been doubled by the drying of orange trees, the economical backbone of the Mizo people living in this part of Tripura. As per one of the Mizo Youth Association members from Sabual it was known that the village earned a revenue of about 46 lakh rupees during the orange harvesting season, but now the revenue has dropped by almost 70%. I suggested that let there be an annual Orange Festival during mid-November, an ecotourism and livelihood festival to promote peace within the Mizo, Reang and Chakma communities in and around Jampui Hill. Through this initiation, homestays and community lodges to be introduced in this area. An Assam-Tripura-Mizoram, three sisters circuit to be also promoted through this initiative.
If these initiative is not taken and the people be motivated into nature conservation and sustainable livelihoods, they would soon become environmental refugees.
While returning from Phuldungsei, it was already dusk and while crossing through Sabual, the sky was dark with black smoke from the burning of forests below. There was a significant local crowd watching from the top and they confirmed that the burning was for zoom cultivation. I exclaimed within myself ‘what an enormous forest fire, the animals would all die’. The next day the news was even worse, 16 people were burnt to death and 25 serious with burnt injuries from the village of Gochirampara-Naisingpara under Dasda block of Kanchanpur, the fire that we saw from the Jampui Hill had gone out of control.
The Bru people or the Reangs of this area fled their homeland Mizoram, following ethnic clashes with the Mizo communities in 1997 and about 30,000 of the Reang people came to stay in 06 refugee camps of Tripura. Whatever little they had were burnt down including their refugee I-Cards. Though the Tripura Government has rushed immediate help, yet a long term global support is required to stabilize this section of the human race.
I had heard from my mother-in-law that before her birth, her parents, who were from Dhaka Bikrampur in now Bangladesh had settled in Dharmanagar in Tripura, where her father worked for a tea garden. From here he went to work for a petrol pump (fuel/gas station) in Siliguri, which he finally owned. I had made it a point to spend some time in this busy trading town of Dharmanagar. The next day I spent at this one and only of its kind site in world, Unakoti. With hardly any traces of its roots, some sculptures seem to be from the 5th to 12th century AD, but the major sculptures seems to be some tribal expressions of the Hindu Gods, Goddesses and vehicular animals (bahan) on stones. Very little is known about these unique sculptures and decided to spend the night in the full moon night, waiting for the spirits of Unakoti to come and tell me the secrets.
This is believed to be a Shaivite site (dedicated to Lord Shiva) and local priests who helped pilgrims to offer prayers are mostly Deb Burmans. I decided to join a villager, Dhuti Nandan Deb Durman to walk to his Chinibagan village (the nearest village from Unakoti or the guardians of Unakoti) and walk further to Kailashahar. A wonderful walk through the bird rich forest trails, with encounters with sought after trogans, paradise fly catchers, racquet tailed drongos etc.
After I reached Agartala, I thought of enjoying a fish meal at one of the famous pice hotels. They still continue to sell turtle meat, when I first visited Agartala it was Rs.35/- a plate, now it is Rs.350/- a plate. It just reminded me of the discussions the other day at the Chief Wildlife Wardens (CWLW) office on the sale of turtle meat at the fish markets and their strong lobby to continue selling the same. Immediately after lunch I visited the Netaji Market only to find turtles being sold openly. The price range was between Rs.800/- to Rs.1000/- a kg of turtle meat. My friend Kaushik confirmed me that there were 02 schedule 01 species being sold Indian Mud/Flap shell turtle (Lissemys punctata granosa) and the larger one being Peacock soft shell turtle (Aspederetes/Trionyx). I remember the CWLW had told me that these turtles were from Bangladesh.
Immediately with my friends Kamal and Kaushik we decided to start an awareness drive among the consumers of turtle meat in Tripura, ‘Kacchap Bandhu’. With our little capacity we bought a small Indian Mud shell turtle weighing about 02 kilos and motivated our driver to drive us the same night to Belonia. We looked after the female turtle for the whole night to make it strong and next day we started for Rajnagar, the entry to Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary.
The approach road of brick was cut at different places and the reason was to stop hand carts to enter in the forests to bring firewood and bamboo in bulk. The exercise of illegal extract of the above produce still continues with some difficulties for the people who now carry them in bicycles and head loads. Initially a lot of cashew orchards had replaced the forests of Trisna, but the Forest Department is reclaiming back the same with acute livelihood concerns for the huge population who live around the sanctuary.
While proceeding towards the water body near the tower, we met Srichandra Tripura from Marak Busty and Helal Mia from Muslimpara. They confirmed the fact that more than 2000 cattle enter the park everyday with every family around the park having 04 to 05 cows. With lot of enthusiasm our driver friend, Dipankar took the turtle to the water body in wilderness and with great wonder observed the turtle swimming freely in the waters. He promised to bring back a male with the next tourist group and release it in the same water so that the female can get a company and grow a family. Hence, he became the first ‘KACCHAP MITRA’ of the state.