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Foresters call for better guns

- Rise in timber smuggling

Tura, July 2: Rampant smuggling of timber from reserve forests in Garo hills has again come to light with police revealing today that two trucks loaded with timber were illegally smuggled out of Williamnagar in the East Garo Hills last night.

A senior police official, who did not wish to be named, said, “We had received information about timber being smuggled late at night but we did not want to launch an operation as the situation in the region is very fragile.”

There have been reports of largescale smuggling from the Rongrenggre reserve forest and Chisobibra, both which are located around 12km from Williamnagar.

A forest official said in the last decade, smugglers have cleared at least 60 per cent of the forest area. Asked why the department has not been able to check them, he said, “Efforts were made but timber smugglers operate in the dark and we do not have enough manpower to man the forests round-the-clock.”

“Felling of trees is being done with impunity during the night and it is dangerous and difficult to stop the smugglers,” said the police officer.

Two months ago, some forest officials were beaten up when they tried to stop a gang of smugglers who were cutting trees from the reserve forest. “We are scared to man the reserve forest round the clock. We don’t have guns to protect ourselves,” said a forest guard. Another guard said, “We were provided guns a few months ago but militants attacked our office and took them away.”

Villagers living near the reserve forest had made an effort to protect it by constituting a vigilance committee but it is not functional at present.

Meghalaya environment and forests minister Prestone Tynsong said, “We are looking at ways to ensure the workforce is better equipped to protect the forests.”

He said his department was working on the modalities to modernise the workforce. “Our forest guards use the .303 rifle and we are looking at ways to improve their weaponry. We are aware of the situation in the Garo hills and hopefully with modernisation, smuggling will be brought under control.”

“Unless there is some modernisation of the weaponry and other equipment used by the forest guards, attempts to stop the illegal timber trade will not bear fruit. The police are struggling to control militancy problems and hence, we need a more modern forest force to stop smuggling,” said a senior forest official.

Timber smuggling is also rampant in the plains belt areas of Garo hills, including Phulbari and Tikrikilla.

In the South Garo Hills, the Baghmara reserve forest is one of the most densely forested areas, where timber smugglers take advantage of the monsoon to fell the trees and push them down the Simsang river, which flows into Bangladesh.

The reserve forest is home to a wide variety of fauna, including elephants, marbled cat, hoolock gibbon, leopard, Malayan giant squirrel and clouded leopard, among others.

There has been tremendous demand of timber in the neighbouring country and many Bangladeshis are involved in smuggling timber from the Balpakram National Park in the South Garo Hills, according to the police. Wildlife activists said smuggling of timber continues despite border fencing as smugglers mostly use the riverine route.