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Loktak Lake: A Ramsar Site In Trouble

With natural habitats of wildlife shrinking, a big question arises: Is it really possible to prevent wildlife from extinction? If it is, then we ought to ask ourselves whether the threat to wildlife could be given a higher priority and find out ways and means to check it.

Perhaps, extinction is the ultimate end of wildlife considering the ever-growing need for food and fuel forcing men to depend on the animals and forests. Besides poaching of wildlife, deforestation and lack of maintenance of forest, all contribute to its extinction.

Biologists around the world predicted that by the year 2100 AD, of the 23,000 species of four-limbed animals, we are going to lose more than 6000 species or a fourth of the total. In India alone, the number of officially declared endangered species has risen from 13 in 1952 to 140 in 1992.

In the early seventies, a number of international organizations felt the need to conserve the vulnerable Wetlands around the world. A resolution was adopted in 1971 at Ramsar, a city in Iran, to this effect. However, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially on waterfowl habitats, or simply known as Ramsar Convention came into force in 1975. India joined the Convention in 1982 after which six Ramsar sites have been identified.

Among the six Ramsar sites, Loktak Lake in Manipur has been identified and listed in 1990 and in 1993, the Montreux record categorized it as “where ecological changes have occurred, are occurring or likely to occur”. The other five Ramsar sites include Chilka Lake (Orissa), Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur in Rajasthan, Sambhar Lake (Rajasthan), Wular Lake in Kashmir and Harike in Punjab.

Loktak Lake area is a home to a wide range of wildlife. It provides refuge to at least 116 species of birds, both migratory and resident (Prof. H Tombi, HOD, Life Science, Manipur University) besides being the only natural habitats of the most endangered mammal, the Brow-antlered deer (Cervus eldi eldi) or locally known as “Sangai”.

The population of Sangai has risen from 14 in 1974 to 106 in 1991. This sub species of deer are especially adapted to their characteristic floating habitat locally known as “Phumdi”. This particular area of 40 sq km called Keibul Lamjao, at the southern part of Loktak Lake, is the only floating wildlife reserve in the world. It was only in 1977, the Government of India declared as a National Park, since then it is known throughout the world as Keibul Lamjao National Park.

In a bid to preserve the native species, a “Mid winter water fowl census” was conducted at Loktak Lake. The pilot survey, the first of its kind, which began in the mid-1996 was proposed and conducted by Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, chief executive, Rhino Foundation for nature in the North East India, Assam and co-ordinated by Manipur Association for Science and Society (MASS), Center for Research Education (CORE), all three from Manipur.

The aim of the survey, according to Dr Anwaruddin, is to make a quantitative assessment of the migratory aquatic birds besides identifying the rare species, which has been dwindling rapidly. Documentation of the deteriorating changes and to formulate a comprehensive conservative strategy to maintain the Loktak Lake, “the extremely hospitable winter quarters of the inter-continental avian visitors” was the broader mandate of the survey.

The census operation was participated by nine members from different organizations (NGOs), covering an area of 100 sq km or one-third of the Lake and conducted entirely on three dug-out (from a single log) local canoes, locally known as “He” hired from the fisher folks of Khoijuman village from where the team including this writer started. A total of 1975 water fowls were sighted of which 23 different species were identified by Dr Anwaruddin. The team also discovered that the eastern guard tower and the quarter of the National Park to be in a dilapidated state. For how long the post has not been manned is anybody’s guess.

Dr Shyamananda RK, senior scientific officer, who was also in the team, noted the weevil species still controlling the growth of the water-hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) biologically. The weevils were first introduced in 1988 by Mr. Nambiar, chief engineer, Loktak Hydroelectrical Project to control the growth of water-hyacinth. A total of 12,500 weevils were introduced within four months period in two batches – 2,500 on April 22, 1988 and 10,000 on August 25 also during 1988 which were procured from the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, Bangalore.

An investigation conducted by Prof H Tombi confirmed absence of impacts on non-target species. Within two years, no more than five per cent of water hyacinth remains today. However the existing problems in and around the Lake remain unsolved. Clearing of underwater weeds, dredging activities to de-silt the bed and changes in hydrological regime have been a significant reason for water fowl population decline in the Lake.

Floating hutments in the Lake have increased from 100 to 1,500 in the last few years. Even, unregistered “floating restaurants” or “Phumdi restaurant” has come into existence, where the team had their lunch. Farmers spread rice grain soaked in chemicals, such as Dieldrin, DDT etc, near their fields, which detract or kill the animals and jeopardize the environment.

The ever-increasing human population increases pressures on the natural resource in and around the Lake. It may be recalled, years back, more than 600 villagers raised objection against reserving the Park area for a “few heads of Sangai”. The villagers even burnt down two-thirds of the Park area besides beating up the Forest officials. They vie for space is still going on till date.

Is the idea of preserving wildlife with a higher priority an illusion? Top officials and lawmakers understand the environmentalists’ concern and are doing their best to shift those priorities. But it is an uphill struggle and if things go the way as it is now; the future of Ramsar site in Manipur is more in doubt than ever. At least for the foreseeable future, the enthusiasm of its success has yet to show itself.

*The article is written by Namaram Kishalaya

(ManipurOnline Media Services)

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