The forests of the northern Eastern Ghats have been experiencing rapid degradation over the past two and a half decades, with degradation levels higher around the villages inside Papikonda National Park – the largest protected area in the region – compared with those located in the surrounding unprotected buffer forests, reports a new study by researchers at Bengaluru’s Ashoka Trust For Research in Ecology and The Environment. It also reveals that local communities in the forests have a solid grasp of both the extent and the causes of forest degradation around their villages.

While a landscape level satellite-based analysis showed that forest degradation was greater outside the park, looking at forest degradation at a finer scale on the village level revealed that the impact around villages inside the park was in fact higher. Focusing only at landscape level can mask nuanced changes taking place inside the protected areas, the researchers point out.

The Eastern Ghats, a 1600-km stretch of rich, biodiverse forests on discontinuous hills lying parallel to the Bay of Bengal have largely remained neglected from conservation efforts compared with other regions in India. In fact, only 3.53% of their total area is protected. Home to various indigenous tribes as well as several rare and endemic species, they are facing threats from large infrastructural projects such as dams.

Using satellite imagery, the team quantified the changes in vegetation density from 1991 to 2014 at the landscape level in Papikonda National Park, which occupies an area of 1,012 square kilometers, along with five km around its forested buffers. They then zoomed in on vegetation changes within a one-km buffer around 212 villages of which 51 were inside the park. Specifically, they used the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, which is an index of ‘greenness’ or vegetation density.

Papikonda National Park, the study site, is located in the northern Eastern Ghats, which is a neglected landscape with low levels of protection. Photo Credit: Vikram Aditya

They then compared the satellite-detected forest changes at the village-level to community perceptions of forest change and drivers of the changes by surveying 138 residents from 33 randomly chosen villages from 2014 to 2015. Most of the respondents belonged to the indigenous tribes Konda Reddis (81) and Koyas (35). The Konda Reddis mostly inhabit the hills and are largely dependent on forests whereas the Koyasare found mainly on the plains and are engaged in cultivation.

Scale matters

In the first estimate of forest degradation in the northern Eastern Ghats, the researchers found that a quarter of forests in Papikonda National Park and its unprotected buffers were degraded over the course of 24 years until 2014, with greater levels seen in the lower foothills where roads and rivers were easily accessible. The landscape level analysis revealed that while degradation inside the park was 12%, it was higher for the surrounding unprotected buffer regions at 32%.

Forest loss in the buffer of Papikonda National Park. Photo Credit: Vikram Aditya

As the buffer forests are lost, this leads to isolation of the forests inside Papikonda National Park from the larger Eastern Ghats. Isolation can “have implications on wildlife populations and their dispersal ability within the landscape,” said Vikram Aditya, a PhD scholar at ATREE and lead author of the study. What’s worse, although Papikonda National Park has contiguous forested buffers in the north and east, “being the southern extremity of the NEG it is completely isolated southwards,” he explained. “Therefore, the loss of the existing buffer forests which are in the north and east can lead to total isolation of PNP [Papikonda National Park] forests.”

“Aside from isolation of course, loss of the buffers would also expose PNP to higher conversion pressures, edge effects (forest edges get progressively degraded) higher hunting pressures etc.,” added Aditya.

But the case was the opposite when looking at forest degradation at the village-level: it was higher around villages inside the park compared with those outside. Consequently, the researchers concluded that the protected area was effective in reducing degradation at the landscape level but not at the village level inside the protected area.

The researchers believed this was because communities outside Papikonda National Park have better access to roads and are closer to towns giving them a wider range of options for livelihood such as trading and transport. In contrast, those living inside the parks are relatively isolated making them largely dependent on the forests through non-timber forest produce collection, broomstick grass harvesting and podu cultivation – a form of shifting cultivation practiced in the region. While the park offered protection against mining and dams, it did not prevent degradation at the village level such as from over-extraction of forest resources.

The main drivers of forest degradation identified by the villagers were poducultivation, logging, over-extraction of non-timber forest produce and plantations. Residents of the buffer villages reported that bamboo cutting and population growth were additional factors driving forest loss.

Typical podu cultivation in the landscape, forests near the villages have been cleared for hill slope cultivation. Podu cultivation is one of the drivers of forest loss in Papikonda National Park and its forested buffers. Photo Credit: Vikram Aditya

“The findings of the study are interesting,” said PK Joshi, professor of environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “If one plots a gradient of change from the settlements to their surrounding, we will see a pattern of higher changes near to settlements, lesser changes as we move away from the settlement and it will be very true for protected areas. And then may be higher changes [in] the locations where protection is missing or least, buffer and outside protected areas,” he pointed out. “This pattern prevails in all tropical forests.”

According to him, one of the major limitations of the study is that it relies on Normalised Difference Vegetation Index values. “This biophysical parameter is highly sensitive to and dependent on rainfall (even a slight shower before the date of data acquisition changes the entire values), dryness and soil moisture,” he explained. For this reason, he suggested carrying out actual mapping where Normalised Difference Vegetation Index is used along with other band information to provide a better representation.

Satellite mapping versus community perceptions

The local communities had an intimate understanding of the extent and the drivers of forest degradation. Their observations on the extent of degradation around their villages both inside Papikonda National Park and its forested buffers corresponded well with satellite-derived patterns of forest loss, with those inside Papikonda National Park noting greater changes.

As a result, the researchers advocate the strengthening of village-based forest management committees as well as greater environmental education in schools stressing the need to conserve the last remaining forests of the Eastern Ghats.

Joshi found the correspondence between the community responses and the satellite interpretation interesting. He felt that “community information corroborated with satellite remote sensing interpretation provides much better and authentic information on the dynamics in the forested landscapes.”

A village inhabited mainly by the tribal group Konda Reddis in the buffer forests of Papikonda National Park. Photo Credit: Vikram Aditya

Curbing forest degradation

While roads are essential for the local communities as they provide them with greater sources of alternate livelihoods, they also end up affecting the forests, said Aditya. “If the existing roads are not widened (there’s very little vehicular movement anyway) that could prevent any further degradation from them,” he suggested.

He also recommends that forested buffer without any villages and with low human activity should be incorporated into Papikonda National Park, “which will afford them higher protection legally.”

“The Godavari river bisecting PNP serves as a conduit for transport of illicitly felled timber, and therefore greater monitoring along the river could greatly contribute to arresting deforestation,” he added.

In the wake of the ongoing construction of the Polavaram dam to the southeast of Papikonda National Park, which according to Aditya, would perhaps be the largest in the country with respect to reservoir size, land area that it will submerge and displacement of villagers, conservation of unprotected forests in the region need to be stepped up to ensure habitat connectivity for fauna.

The Polavaram dam construction site. The forests of Papikonda National Park can be seen in the left background and the Godavari river is on the right. Photo Credit: Vikram Aditya

This article first appeared on Mongabay.