In 1985, the Bengal government had notified a 10 acre land near Sukhiapokhri in the Darjeeling hills as a “Jorepokhri Salamander Sanctuary”.
But 34 years down the line, the sanctuary at Jorepokhri is yet to be demarcated and not a single salamander was sighted at the place which used to be swamped by the amphibian.
Instead, in the past three decades, the marshy land was converted into a concrete lake and tourist lodges have come up at Jorepokhri.
Pasang Dukpa, 56, a resident of Jorepokhri, said: “Since 2016, salamander sightings have been few and apart and this year, we could not spot a single salamander.”
The sighting of the amphibian which is characterised by lizard-like shape takes place between April and mid-September.
On March 14, 1985, the governor issued a notification declaring the 10-acre marshy land as a sanctuary and asked the then Darjeeling deputy commissioner (the post was later replaced by district magistrate) to take necessary action as per the provisions of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and report to the forest department “at an early date”.
From May 1986, the hills were engulfed in the Gorkhaland agitation and after the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council was formed in 1988, its then chairman Subash Ghisingh started constructing a tourist lodge in the area and converted the marshy land into a concrete lake.
A reservoir to supply water to Sukhiapokhri town, situated about 20km from Darjeeling, was also set up in the area.
The concrete lake at Jorepokhri The Telegraph
Asked about the status of the sanctuary, Jiju Jaesper, DFO, Darjeeling Wildlife Division, said: “As per our information, the land has not been transferred to our division.”
Following the notification, the forest department has to prepare a 10-year management plan of the sanctuary that needs to be approved by the chief wildlife warden. The sanctuary then gets listed with the Union government which allocates funds to the tune of 60 per cent for its conservation. The rest of the amount has to be contributed by the state government.
The sanctuary can be de-notified only after receiving clearance from the National Board for Wildlife, source said.
In the Union government’s understanding, the area is still a sanctuary as the Centre made a submission to that effect in the Supreme Court in a forest case some years ago.
While the state has been sitting on the issue, concerned locals have formed a group called REOHS (Restoration Efforts of Himalayan Salamander).
Rinzing Namgyal Bhutia of REOHS said: “We have noticed that salamanders have moved away from the place. A group of students and individuals from other walks of life have come together to goad the government into starting the conservation.”
The area is under the control of the GTA now but the land is still with the district administration. Bhutia has, however, said there is space to start the conservation project.
Darjeeling district magistrate Deepap Priya P. told The Telegraph that she would get the Jorepokhri proposal “verified”. “After I had joined, I received a proposal for salamander conservation at Namthingpokhri near Kurseong. We have transferred the land for the same and a biodiversity conservation committee has also been formed.”
Forest department sources have said the salamander is found in Maneybhanjyang, Latpanchar and Chattakpur in the hills.