Garo Hills Conservation Area (GHCA)
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
Sputh Garo Hills disctrict and West Garo Hills district, Meghalaya
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party
The Garo Hills Conservation Area (GHCA) lies in Biogeographic Zone 9B (Northeastern India) (Rodgers and Panwar 19881) and is also the western most limit of the Indo Malayan Biodiversity Hotspots. The GHCA occurs between 89°49'-91°2' East Longitude and 25°9'- 26°1' North Latitude. Garo hills is bounded on the North by the Goalpara district of Assam, on the South it shares international boundary with Bangladesh, on East by the District of Khasi Hills, Meghalaya and Kamrup, Assam and on the West by the district of Goalpara, Assam and Bangladesh.
The GHCA comprises of three legally designated Protected Areas - Nokrek National Park (49.44 km2), Balpakram National Park (220 km2) and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary (5.18km2); and the Reserved Forests of Tura Peak (4.19 km2), lmangiri (8.29 km2), Rewak (6.47 km2) and Baghmara (43.9 km2). The total core area of the proposed nomination is 337.48 km2.
The buffer area includes Baghmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary (0.027 km2), Angratoli Reserve Forest (30.11 km2), and several Community-owned Forests and this also coincides with the boundary of Garo Hills Elephant Reserve.
The forest types as classified by Champion and Seth (1968) are Tropical Moist Evergreen, Tropical Semi-evergreen and Tropical Moist Deciduous Forest and largely come under the regional classification of Tropical Moist formation (Holdridge and Grenke, 1971). Due to its unique shifting agricultural practices (locally termed as jhum), the landscape consists of primary and secondary forest growth, interspersed with degraded/regenerating bamboo forests. The terrain is hilly with deep gorges and limestone formations (Wanniang & Thiek 2007). Elevation ranges from 100 to 1500 m amsl with Nokrek Peak (1586m) being the highest and Chutmang Peak (1150m) within Balpakram National Park the second highest peak in the Garo Hills.
Prior to 1986, Balpakram National Park was a land owned by the local Garo community where they practiced Jhum i.e. slash and burn shifting agriculture and lived in small settlements. Keeping in mind the biodiversity richness and connectivity of the landscape, Government of India proposed to the communities that some area be set aside as Protected Area. After surveys and consultations, land owner communities were compensated by the government for their land and Balpakram became a National Park in 1986 under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. What is seen in Balpakram today is a mixed forest type with secondary regrowth of the jhum areas as well as primary stands.
Nokrek National Park (notified in 1986) is the core of Nokrek Biosphere Reserve (820 km2) declared by the Government of India in 1988 and recognized under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB) in 2009. The Nokrek National Citrus Gene Sanctuary demarcated for the in-situ conservation of Citrus indica is located in the buffer area of the MAB.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Criterion (v): The Garos are an indigenous tribe, majority of whom inhabit the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, while some live in parts of Assam and in a few pockets in Bangladesh adjoining Meghalaya. Their language is Tibeto-Burman in origin with several dialects, and was exclusively oral until set to Roman Script in the 1800s. They are also one of the few matrilineal societies. Their traditional method of agriculture is called jhum i.e. slash and burn shifting agriculture, best suited to the hilly terrain. In this system, the community clears a patch of forest for cultivation for a few years, then leaves it fallow for several subsequent years for natural regeneration to take place. This practice is followed under community rules and is one of the classical examples of traditional methods of sustainable land-use for cultivation in the landscape. The faith and practices of the Garo people are integrally linked with the land and nature around which they reside, demonstrating intimate linkages between the people and the environment.
Criterion (vi): The Garo traditional faith centers around land, nature, jhum cultivation and traditional healing, and is understood by the term Songsarek which encompasses principles, rituals, celebrations and deities. The practitioners are also called Songsareks. Conversion to Christianity since the late 1800s have resulted in majority of the Gatos in Meghalaya now identifying as Christian (95%), with the Songsareks being in a minority of 2% of Garos or about 17000 in absolute numbers. The decline has also been marked from 16% of Garos in 2001 to 2% remaining in 2011. There have been some attempts at reviving and safeguarding the Songsarek religion in view of its imminent extinction, and with it many associated cultural beliefs and practices of music, dance, taboos and ethno-medicine.
Despite the large-scale conversion to Christianity, many Gatos continue to hold traditional beliefs. Several of these are associated with actual locations, especially in and around Balpakram. Nearly 50 locations connected to specific myths have been documented. The entire Balpakram plateau and gorge are believed to be the resting place of spirits of the Garo dead, before their rebirth, and thus sacred to the tribe. Other sites include the Memang Anti Cha.Ram or the Market place of the Spirits; Goera Rong. Jaleng or The Rock Ledge of Goera, God of Thunder and Lightning; Mebit-Mebang or the Oracle Rock whose stone pebbles are 'read' to predict harvests; and the Dikkini Ring or Dikki's Canoe, a mound of earth that resembles an upturned canoe. On declaration of Meghalaya as a new State in 1972, its first Chief Minister Captain Williamson Sangma, who was a Garo, visited Ganchi Soram (a series of small hillocks on the Balpakram Plateau which was a cremation site) to give thanks and pay respects to ancestors.
Criterion (viii): Northeast India is significant in the study of the India-Asia continent collision, estimated to have happened 56 - 60 Million Years Ago (mya). This collision precipitated significant upheavals of geology, climatology, oceanography and paleobiology. Sediments are well developed in the eastern Tethyan realm in the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills and makes Meghalaya globally significant in the understanding of early foreland basin evolution.
Within this, the Garo Group (Simsang, Bagmara and Chengapara formations) is the youngest formations of Cretaceous-Tertiary sediments in Meghalaya. The Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary (KTB) is significant in earth's history because of the catastrophic mass vertebrate extinctions across the globe, most famously of the dinosaurs, about 65 Million Years Ago. In north-east India, the KTB event has been recorded from Meghalaya. Rare nanofossils have been recorded from the Siju and Rewak formations (Singh et al 2016). In the Mahadeo Formation dominated by sandstone, the Late Cretaceous fossil content includes foraminifera, plant remains, dinosaur bones and trace fossils. (Mishra and Sen 2001, Tiwari et al, 2010)5. Within Balpakram, the Mahadeo river rocks have been observed to bear ammonite and plant fossils. The Mahadeo gorge, in addition to being aesthetically grand, also has massive exposed cliff faces where the rock strata display earth's history in a stratigraphy cross-section.
The nominated property has limestones which are highly fossiliferous, containing bands of foraminifera, corals and bivalves (Singh et al 2016). The limestone also forms extensive cave systems. Caves are productive sites for the study of paleoclimate and speleobiological diversity. Paleoclimate records based on oxygen isotopes and microfacies of growth layers have been obtained from speleothems (cave deposits) from other sites in Meghalaya and those in the GHCA are as yet unexplored natural laboratories. The Siju Cave, which has received relatively more research attention, has the distinction of being the type locality for a Braconid wasp of new genus (and species) Neontsira typica (Wheeler 1924) and a new species of loach fish, the Siju Blind Cavefish Schistura sijuensis (Mervin 1987).
Criterion (x): The nominated property falls under Biogeographic Zone 8B i.e. North-eastern India, which is one of the biologically most diverse regions of India. The Garo Hills are also western-most part of the Jndo Malayan Biodiversity Hotspot and harbors a range of endangered species. The GHCA has 'tropical Moist Evergreen, Tropical Semi-evergreen and Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests. There are also three large grasslands (Balpakram, Agal Bisa and Pindengru), and riparian 'shola' forests on the plateau in Balpakram. The terrain is hilly with limestone formations, plateaus, cliffs and deep gorges.
Fifty-two species of mammals have been recorded here so far from Balpakram Landscape, of which twenty-one are carnivores. It holds one of the largest and most-threatened populations of Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus). Other large herbivores are the Gaur (Bos gaurus), Sambar (Rus unicolor) and Red Serow (Capricornis rubidus). The large carnivores here are the Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Leopard (Panthera pardus) and Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus arctos). Five species of civet occur here - Large Indian civet (Viverra zibetha), Small Indian civet (Viverricula indica), Masked Palm Civet (Paguma larvata), Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hemaphroditus) and Small Indian Civet (Viverricula indica). The first camera-trap record in India of the Small toothed palm civet (Arctogalidn trivirgata) was obtained here. Other elusive and lesser-known species found here are the Asiatic Golden cat (Catopuma temminckii), Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), hog badger (Arctonyx spp), Large-toothed ferret badger (Melogale moschata) and the endangered Asiatic Wild Dog (Cuon alpinus). Seven primate species also occur in the landscape - the endangered Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock), Capped langur (Trochypithecus pileatus) Stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides), Northern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca leonine), Assamese macaque (Macaca assarnensis), Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) and Bengal Slow Loris (Nycticebus bengalensis). A complete checklist of rodents and bat species remains to be done.
The different forest types, hill streams, rivers and caves within the property provide a diversity of habitat for an enormous diversity of species of invertebrates, 298 species of butterflies, 448 species of moths, 26 species of amphibian, 45 species of reptiles and 347 species of birds.
The State has 3331 plant species recorded of which 1319 Angiosperms (around 834 (25.04%) ethnomedicinal species are estimated to be used in healthcare sector). Among which 116 species were either under threatened or endemic. 17 species are endemic to Meghalaya, 113 Pteridophytes, 248 Bryophytes. A recent survey reveals a total of 436 Rare, Endangered and Threatened plant species have been recorded from Meghalaya representing 13.09% of the state's flora. Few of the Critically Endangered plant species of Meghalaya are Gastrochilus calceolaris, Gymnocladus assamicus, Illichium griffithii, Pterocybium tinctorium, Saurauia punduana, Taxus baccata and Vatica lanceafolia are The state has also recorded 352 species of orchids belonging to 98 genera representing 27.08% of the country's orchid flora. Few notable examples are Aerides multiflorum, Coelogyne corymbosa, Cymbidium elegans, Dendrobium devonianum, Dendrobium longicornu, Paphiopedilum insigne, Rhynchostylis retusa, Phaius tankervilliae, Thunia marshalliana and Vanda coerulea are few of the exotic orchids of Meghalaya.
The germplasm of Citrus indica is conserved in-situ at the National Citrus Gene Sanctuary in the Nokrek Biosphere Reserve the area is noted for other wild varieties of citrus fruits as well that provide a gene-pool for commercially produced citrus. The insectivorous plants include two species of Drosera (Sundew) and the endemic and endangered Nepenthes khasiana (Pitcher plant). The property is rich in endemic medicinal plant species, with 14 and 6 species recorded from Nokrek and Balpakram respectively. The cave systems in the property are crucibles of ongoing biological evolution, with species having been isolated for long periods. These have not even begun to be documented, but represent an outstanding opportunity to do so, as indicated by the new species recorded from Siju Cave.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
According to an oral tradition, the Garos first immigrated to Garo Hills from Tibet (referred to as Tibotgre) around 400 BC under the leadership of Jappa Jalimpa, crossing the Brahmaputra River and tentatively settling in the river valley. The Garos finally settled down in Garo Hills (East-West Garo Hills), finding both providence and security in this uncharted territory and claiming it their own. With time the community evolved and in this process of evolution through thousands of years, they interacted with the landscape so rigorously that natural landmarks, life forms and resources have become an integral part of the Garo culture and tradition. The Garos are now indigenous people in Meghalaya. Although the Garo beliefs are considered myths, these myths have allowed ample protection and conservation to the flora and fauna including the entire forest ecosystem. The nominated property is also protected under government designation as Protected Areas. This makes the property an ideal candidate for long term conservation and protection through the joint effort of the government authorities and the local community.
The core area of the proposed GHCA comprises of two National Parks and one Wildlife Sanctuary that are legally protected and managed as per the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by the Department of Environment and Forests, Government of Meghalaya. The boundaries are well demarcated. The buffer area comprises of areas under multiple governance systems under government authorities and the local and indigenous communities. The property also falls within the nationally designated Garo Hills Elephant Reserve (3500 km2). The network of Protected Areas and buffer areas along with their management regimes offer long term conservation to the proposed property in particular and the landscape in general.