In 1997, Community Conservation (CC) initiated The Golden Langur Conservation Project to protect the golden langur within its Indian range. The golden langur is endemic to western Assam and southern Bhutan. Its main Indian stronghold is within the Manas Biosphere Reserve that borders Bhutan. Community Conservation initially worked with the Indo-U.S. Primate Project that ended in 2001. In addition to CC, the initial partners were Natures Foster based in Bongaigaon and Green Forest Conservation based in Kachugaon.
The Manas Biosphere Conservation Forum formed about 2001-2. It is composed of Aaranyak of Guwahati www.aaranyak.org, Green Forest Conservation of Kachugaon, Green Heart Nature Club of Kokrajhar, Natures Foster of Bongaigaon and New Horizon of Koila Moila. Together these NGOs covered most of the Assam range of the golden langur. Aaranyak served as the in-country coordinating NGO through 2006 and that role has been taken over by Natures Foster as Aaranyak concentrates on its other projects.
Each of the organizations focused on sections of the golden langur range and on specific aspects of work, while all working with the villages within their focal areas.
The forests of the Manas Biosphere Reserve in western Assam, India have been threatened by illegal logging since the early 1990s. In just over 15 years, approximately one half of the forests of western Assam including the Manas Biosphere Reserve (285,000 hectares) have been deforested. These Reserve Forests and the Royal Manas Sanctuary of Bhutan that borders to the north are the main range of the golden langur, a leaf-eating primate species occurring only in Assam and Bhutan. In Assam, the species also inhabits a number of “island” fragments south of the main range such as the Kakoijana Reserve Forest (RF), Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary (WS) and Nadangiri Reserve Forest.
A complex political situation led to this major deforestation. Political agitation in western Assam began in the late 1980s by Bodo tribal groups frustrated by the changing emigration of non-Bodo peoples into Assam, creating a minority of the indigenous Bodo tribal people.
Two militant groups sprung up as an answer to the situation and began an armed struggle for Bodo autonomy from the Indian government. These groups had somewhat similar but competing aims basing their armed struggle from within the forests of western Assam and Bhutan. These were two of over 15 militant groups that emerged in Assam, creating a chaotic atmosphere with resulting deforestation and ethnic violence.
Targeted for killing and kidnapping, the Assam Forest Department staff were unable to enter and protect the forests allowing illegal log smugglers to cut the forest. The ethnic violence additionally resulted in 250,000 refugees living in camps adjacent to the Reserve Forests by 1998 which have been slowly repatriated back to their forest homes.
Each NGO works with communities adjacent to the Reserve Forests or protected areas to initiate community forest protection and reforestation programs. The strategy can be easiest seen when looking at the southern "island" forests of Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary, and Nadangiri and Kakoijana Reserve Forests where the participating villages surround the protected areas.
The Forum NGOs worked with village groups under the Joint Forest Management system that began in 1998 in Assam or in forming informal forest protection groups. Each village has been replanting, maintaining and protecting forest adjacent to their village both for the wildlife and for their own future use and benefit. Tree seedlings are grown in village nurseries and then replanted.
Villagers are actively protecting their forests by keeping encroaching woodcutters out and even placing signs declaring village ownership. They also contact the Assam Forest Department to stop the encroachers. In the larger Reserve Forests in the Manas Biosphere Reserve a similar approach is being taken but because of the larger forested areas, protection is more difficult. Thus within the Manas Biosphere Reserve a recent dynamic program was begun.
The NGOs also worked with villages to form Self Help Groups (SHG) to relieve economic dependence on logging. These are village groups made up of 10-20 members of the same sex that come together to benefit economically. Each member deposits a small monthly fee into a common account of the SHG. The NGO coordinator trains SHG members in record-keeping, financial concepts and running meetings. Once the groups are running smoothly after about six months, they are linked to rural banks where their money is deposited. The collective deposits can then be loaned to SHG members to begin micro-enterprises. This method empowers villagers and works especially well with women. Thus far the Forum has developed over 30 SHGs that have created micro-industries in fish, goat and chicken production, growing bananas, ginger, tumeric and arum crops, and in weaving related activities.
As the village groups have become more empowered through both SHGs and forest management committees they have become more sophisticated in forest protection. We are encouraging the village groups to work together and eventually hope to bring groups together into federations that can think and act in terms of regional forest protection.
The Golden Langur Conservation Program also creates educational materials for local people to promote primate and forest protection principles. The NGOs with the help other scientists have censused golden langur populations within their areas.
Currently there is a federation, the United Forest Conservation Network composed of 18 community groups that work with the Bodo land Territorial Council and the Assam Forest Department to protect almost the entire Manas Biosphere Reserve. Most importantly the Indian population of golden langurs has increased from about 1500 in 1999 to almost 5600 langurs. In addition, due to the community protection, UNESCO has removed the “Manas in danger” listing.
Kakoijana Reserve forest and the Southern “Island “ Populations of Golden Langurs
When the Golden Langur Conservation Project began in 1998, Natures Foster wanted to focus on the 17km2 Kakoijana Reserve Forest where they had discovered a small population of golden langurs. However the forest was almost completely deforested and CC advised Natures Foster to abandon what seemed to be a hopeless situation. Not only was Kakoijana almost totally deforested but all of the many isolated Reserve Forests were in similar situations and without corridors between them. It seemed as though these small “islands” would soon disappear and the langurs with them. However, Natures Foster began working with the communities asking their help in bringing back the forest. The communities began tree nurseries and a reforestation program. Each village protected specific areas until the Reserve Forest was fully protected by the 34 communities surrounding the forest. Eventually the villages formed two federations (Green Conservation Federation and Natures Guard) to protect the forest. By 2008 the forest returned from 5% canopy to over 80% canopy and the langur population increased from less than 100 to over 500 langurs. In 2009 a small subgroup of golden langurs living on the southwestern part of the Reserve Forest left Kakoijana and wandered west evidentally looking for a new home. They came close to Bongagaon and after 2-3 months they arrived at Bhumeshwar, another isolated Reserve Forest. Since this group of 4 langurs showed us there were corridors between the islands we are now working to reforest the other islands and strengthen the corridors between them. Given the success of Kakoijana we think that these southern islands could probably support a population of 2000 golden langurs.
Golden Langur Conservation Project, narrated by Dr. Rob Horwich - video by Josie Chambers
As the Golden Langur Conservation Project began attracting more communities who then formed conservation groups it began to focus on the Manas Biosphere Reserve which was the forest habitat for the largest population of golden langurs. The Manas Biosphere is also home to many other species of animals including the endemic pigmy hog and is a major corridor for a viable population of Asian elephants and is one of the more important areas for tiger conservation. In 2004, the complex political scene in western Assam changed when the two Bodo tribal militant groups settled with the Central Government. The Bodo Liberation Tigers signed an agreement with the Central government and eventually formed the Bodo Territorial Council which came to administer about a quarter of Assam under the Assam Government which included the Manas Biosphere. The second militant group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland declared a cease fire and established a complex outside of the forest. Despite this political settling the illegal loggers still “owned” the forest and still threatened the Assam Forest Department staff and the local villagers. The late Rajen Islari, President of Green Conservation approached Shri Kampa Borgoyari, minister of Environment for the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) requesting funds so he could create a Forest Protection Force to protect the western Reserve Forests of the Biosphere. This became successful and other community organizations formed to protect their area forests until today there are 18 community groups protecting the entire Biosphere, an area of about 285,000 hectares. In order to encourage BTC, CC obtained grants from the US Fish & Wildlife Service Asian Elephant Program. Together the BTC and the UF&WS have been supporting approximately 300 Forest Protection Forces across the Biosphere to protect a population of about 1200 elephants and an uncensused population of tigers as well as an area of great biodiversity. Until that time only the Manas National Park, an area of 500km2 had adequate protection. Now the complete Biosphere is protected by Forest Protection Forces of the 18 community organizations forming the Unified Forest Conservation Network.