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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Forest department bans movement of ponies in Singalila National Park, sparks ire from locals

Sources said that the Bengal forest has banned the pony movement on grounds that the ponies have 'a high probability of spreading diseases to wildlife' inside the national park

Vivek Chhetri Darjeeling Published 27.02.24, 09:28 AM
Ponies carrying goods at the Singalila national park.

Ponies carrying goods at the Singalila national park. File picture

The forest department has banned the movement of ponies inside the Singalila National Park, famous for the trekking route to Sandakphu, the highest point in Bengal.

The move has triggered protests from the local villagers for whom the pony rides have been a source of income for at least a couple of generations.

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Sources said that the Bengal forest has banned the pony movement on grounds that the ponies have “a high probability of spreading diseases to wildlife” inside the national park.

"The department has decided to ban the movement of ponies in Singalila fearing high probability of the animals spreading diseases,” said an official source, who could not immediately provide specific details of the diseases. “The decision was taken at the higher level,” the source added.

Residents disagreed. "The ponies have been with us for generations and we have not heard of them ever spreading any kind of disease,” said one of them.

The Singalila National Park which is under the administrative control of Darjeeling Wildlife Division is spread over 78 square kilometers and is home to animals like red panda and Himalayan black bear as well as around 350 species of birds.

The Singalila area in Darjeeling was purchased by the British government from Sikkim Durba in 1882 and notified as a reserve forest.

It was designated a national park in 1992 and was officially opened for tourism.

"The ban on the movement of ponies will not just kill tourism in the region but will also create a huge problem in commuting from one place to another as many villages are not connected by motorable roads,” said Amit Rai, the president of the Srikhola-Daragoan GP Nature Guide Association.

“If the government wants to ban ponies, they should first create motorable roads to connect villages,” Rai added.

Sandakphu, the highest point in Bengal at an altitude of around 11,900 feet, is a popular tourist destination that offers a panoramic view of not just the snow-clad Mount Kanchenjunga but also the Everest.

“Ponies can carry around 100 kilograms of headload. If the animal’s movement is banned, we need to hire porters. At a high altitude, people cannot carry more than 20 kilograms,” said Rai.

He and other tourism stakeholders also maintained that trekkers on this route did feel the pinch of expenses and banning ponies would greatly increase their logistics costs.

The Maneybhanjyang-Sandakphu trek typically takes around six days.

"The cost for a trekker will more than double if we have to use porters instead of ponies to carry loads,” added Rai.

"At this moment, an individual has to pay on an average around Rs 10,000 for the trek," he added.

There are around 20 settlements in the area.

“Around eight villages do not have motorable roads. Hence, ponies are the only means of transport to ferry ration to us,” said a villager.

Many tour operators pointed out that in case of snowfall and other emergencies, ponies are also used to ferry tourists and locals.

"We use ponies even to carry the sick and elderly people as vehicles are not easily available at all times,” said Rai.

There are around 50 ponies in the region, sources said.

"In fact, the district administration also uses ponies to ferry polling materials during elections in some of these areas," a local source added.

The region has around 40 homestays. "If because of the pony ban, trekkers stop visiting the region it would lead to a major revenue loss,” said a resident.

Ponies are sold for anything between Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh.

“Of the 50 ponies, some have been bought recently. Who will compensate for this loss?” asked Rai.

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