Ensuring sustainable ecotourism in Zeilat Lake

Kh Hitler Singh *

 Zeilad (Zeilat) lake - Tamenglong - The Natural Paradise
Zeilad (Zeilat) lake - Tamenglong - The Natural Paradise :: Pix - Gaikhamdim Marangmei

Wildlife Wing, Forest Department, Manipur had conducted a short tour program for the Forest Officials, Media Representatives, Wildlife Activists etc from Manipur to Sunderban National Park from 23rd January 2014 to 25th January 2014. The team consist the following members.

(1) Shri Th. Mohendra Pratap Singh. IFS Conservator of Forests(Wildlife)
(2) Shri L. Joykumar Singh. IFS DCF, Park & Sanctuary Division, Sanjenthong
(3) Mr. S. W. Suisa. RFO, Eastern Forest Division, Ukhrul
(4) Shri Phanjoubam Santosh. Photo Journalist, Press Trust of India
(5) Shri L. Shamungou Singh. Senior Reporter, Sangai Express
(6) Mr. Ramkung Panmei. Editor, The Cham, Tamenglong
(7) Shri Wahengbam Rajesh Singh. News Reader, All India Radio, Imphal
(8) Shri Premchand Thongam. Reporter, Poknapham
(9) Shri Salam Brajakumar Singh. General Secretary, Environmental Reformation and Sangai Protection Forum, Keibul and myself.

The objectives of conducting the Tour Program were to study Wildlife Management in the other Protected Areas and to inculcate love and compassion of Wildlife to the team members for positive reporting on the issue of Forest, Wildlife & Environment in the State of Manipur. The team had first-hand experience on ecotourism/wildlife-tourism in Sunderban National Park. We also had the information regarding the benefit sharing of the Revenues from Tourism activities between the Government and the local peoples.

Sunderban National Park is a Tiger Reserve, a World Natural Heritage Site, also a Biosphere Reserve. Sunderban is also a trans-boundary Protected Area located on the estuarine delta formed by Ganges & Brahmaputra River. Larger area of Sunderban is located in the Bangladesh side. It was reported that on an average 50,000 tourists visited Sunderban every year on Indian side (Sunderban National Park's Booklet). Revenue from tourism is shared in the ratio of 75:25 between the Government and local peoples.

Just after our return from Sunderban, with the initiative of Shri Th. Mohendra Pratap Singh, a tour program was planned to visit Zeilat Lake after a series of interaction with Mr. Ramkung Panmei and Mr. Huri Golmei DFO, Tamenglong Forest Division to study the feasibility of launching ecotourism in Zeilat Area. The idea was fully endorsed & encouraged by the then Chief Wildlife Warden, Shri R. K. Srivastava IFS and he instructed us to bring good photographs of the area. Thus 10th March was fixed for the journey to Zeilat Lake with the following members.
(1) Shri Th. Mohendra Pratap Singh. IFS Conservator of Forests(Wildlife)
(2) Shri L. Joykumar Singh. IFS DCF, Park & Sanctuary Division, Sanjenthong
(3) Mr. Huri Golmei MFS DFO, Tamenglong Forest Division
(4) Shri S. Bhumeshwor Singh RFO, Tamenglong Forest Division
(5) Shri S. Arunkumar Singh Dy.RO, Tamenglong Forest Division and myself

The team started at around 8 AM from Forest Head Office, Sanjenthong and took the Imphal Jiribam NH-53 in two Bolero Vehicles and one Gypsy. We first halted at Tupul Forest Beat Office and had our breakfast. Further we drove in NH-53 and reached Toubam (Irang) Beat Office at around 12.30 PM and had our lunch. We drove again and reached Khongsang, and from Khongsang we took Khongsang-Tamenglong Road. Before reaching Tamenglong HQ, we drove down in a katcha Road from Kahulong Village for about 13 km from Khongsang Tamenglong Road. The road is fair weather one and without any stone shingling. There are also temporary culverts made of bamboos & wooden poles. The road passes through Akhui and Ramlalong village.

At around 3 PM, we reached Bamgaijang village situated on the bank of the River Barak. We met the Village Chairman of Zeilatjang Mr. Neilalung Gonmei and few other village youths on the River bank. We left our vehicles under lock & key and crossed the River in local dugout boats. From the other side of the river we crossed Taijijang village situated on the bank of the River, further we walked up for about 2 km on footpath and reached the Zeilatjang Village. The local woman attired in traditional dress welcomed our team on the Gate of the village with garland followed by musical dance presentation. Mr. Ramkung Panmei had already arrived in the village. We were accompanied by the Chairman and other villagers to the simple Guest House of the village having three medium size rooms. We were offered tea and another session of song & dance; one each from the Zeilatjang village and Bamgaijang village. Our team also presented two traditional shawls (Leirum Phee), one each to the Village Chairman and to the eldest villager of Zeilatjang.

After a short rest and freshening up, we were offered early dinner and after the dinner an awareness program on "Importance of Forest & Wildlife" was conducted till 10 PM. The delivery of lectures and interaction were made in Manipuri and local Rongmei dialect. Mr. Huri Golmei and Mr. Ramkung Panmei delivered their speech in Rongmei.

The next day i.e. 11th March 2014 was hectic. We woke up early and had tea. First of all, the villagers showed us the lake which is just located near the village. The name of the Lake is "Napsemzei" in local dialect and its meaning is "Rice Lake" or "Rice Pond" (around 1 ha). The name of the second lake is "Nrouzei" in local dialect and its meaning is "Cursed Lake" or "Cursed Pond" (around 2 ha) which is also located near the village. The third lake is "Guiphuapzei", which means "Turtle Lake" or "Turtle Pond" (around 2.5 ha).

The fourth lake is located on the other side of the village. It is the largest of all the four lakes and its name is "Zeilat" in Rongmei dialect and it means "Lake". The Geographical Co-ordinates and altitude of "Zeilat Lake" recorded in our visit were Latitude N-24?54.348?; Longitude E-093?22.698? and Elevation-192.3 m at the surface water level on the village side. The Lake is quite serene with very clean water. The surrounding catchment area is quite intake with thick Forest cover.

The place is associated with the legend of pythons out numbering the human heads of the village. The area of the Lake may be around 8 ha and depth is about 130 ft in the deepest part of the Lake as reported by the accompanying villagers. I had the opportunity to see the other side of the lake by local dugout boat. There is a story of a King of Assam visiting the area and his elephant had been drowning in the lake. The King tried with all his mans and army to drain out the water of the lake by making a channel on the other end of the lake but darkness soon came and on the next day there was a landslide blocking the channel. Thus the king could not save his elephant. The mark of making channel in the stony area is still found in the Lake.

The "Zeilat" is located in the Tropical Rain Forest of Tamenglong District. The Forest type is Cachar Tropical Semi evergreen Forests. The faunal diversity include Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Leopard cat (Felis bengalensis), small Indian civet (Viverridae spp), common langur (Presbytis entellus), Hoolock gibbon (Hylobates hoolock), Great Indian Hornbill (Buceros bicornis), barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak), flying squirrel, slow loris (Nycticebus coucang), Golden cat (Felis temmincki), yellow throated marten, large Indian Civet, hog badger (Arctonyx colaris), Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), Serow (Capricornis sumantraensis), Sambar (Cervus unicolor) etc The reptiles include Indian Python, Turtle, monitor lizard etc.

The main tree species are broad leaved trees such as Cham (Michelia chaplasha), Wang (Gmelina arborea), Jarol (Lagerstromia spp), Usoi (Schima Wallichii), Tairel (Toona ciliata), Tolhao (Termanalia myriocarpa), Manahi (Termanalia chebula) Uningthou (Pheobe hainesiana) Bombax ceiba, Mesua ferrea, Cinnamomum xeylanicum, Emblica officinalis, Duabanga sonertioides, Melia azedirach and bamboo brake of Moubi bamboo in the higher reaches. (Working plan of Western Forest Division, Tamenglong District by Sh. Shamu Singh) The serene and thick forest now available may soon become a history in the village if urgent conservation measures are not taken up. Already the team had witnessed some higher part of village under jhum cultivation. The serenity and scenic beauty of Zeilat area shall get lost if jhuming is continued unabated near the catchment area of the lake.

After Zeilat Lake, we returned to the village for lunch at around 11 AM. After having our lunch we hurried for Barrack water-fall as we were planning to return to Imphal on the same day. We could see the first water-fall of River Barak. Its geographical attributes are Elevation- 153.3 m; Latitude- N 24?53.160? & Longitude- E 93?23.571?. We could not visit the other two water-falls due to shortage of time.

We may examine the following two definitions of "Ecotourism" provided by the Eco-tourism Society and IUCN (The World Conservation Union). The Ecotourism Society's definition is "responsible travel to the natural areas, which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people" and IUCN's definition is "ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and features-both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor negative impact and provides beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local population" (Ecotourism, A Guide for planners and Managers-Vol 2 edited by Kreg Linberg, Megan Epler Wood, David Engeldrum).

In ecotourism; there shall be no consumptive use of natural resources or no exploitation or trade of natural products, eco-tourists shall just cherished the natural beauty, encounter the enchanting wildlife, feel and enjoy the pristine and unexploited forest, landscape, water-body etc of the visited site. Eco-tourists; by their visit shall enhance the conservation efforts and support the local people in improving their socio-economic condition. But there is very likely hood that tourists visiting this area shall not follow the utopian philosophy of ecotourism society or IUCN rather they shall exploit the local resources/local people, degrade the social values and morality.

Even if tourism is functional at this area only some big fishes like tour operators, hoteliers may harvest the entire profit of tourism. As such adequate precautions are to be undertaken so that many likely negative impacts of tourism are mitigated and the revenue of tourism is being channeled to the villagers and conservation efforts.

To have a sustainable eco-tourism at Zeilat Area; the pre-requisite are
(1) To keep the available natural resources under full preservation and protection.
(2) To prepare a Management Plan of the proposed Zeilat Wildlife Sanctuary where eco-tourism is planned in Low volume but of high value and marketing of eco-tourism by Government Department.
(3) To establish a Forest Office at Zeilat area to act as facilitator to the local people and earn revenue for the Government and local people.
(4) To empower the local stake holders in the field of Hospitality, Eco-lodge, Home-stay, Guide & Interpretation of nature by sending them to the other successful eco-tourism sites such as Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kanha National Park, Corbett National Park etc.
(5) To provide alternative livelihood to the local villagers.

Zeilad is proposed Wildlife Sanctuary Gazetted for an area of 21 sq km in 1997 by the Manipur Government vide order No. 60/2/95-For dated 24th April 1997. The final declaration of the Wildlife Sanctuary is yet to be completed due to non-settlement of rights and claims of local people under section 19 to 26 of Wildlife Protection Act 1972. An early final declaration of Zeilad Wildlife Sanctuary shall enable to conserve Forest & Wildlife of the area besides ensuring sustainable ecotourism at this area and improving the socio-economic condition of local people.

The article is written in good faith for creating general awareness about Zeilat Lake. I would like to thank Shri A.K. Rana PCCF, Shri R.K. Srivastava APCCF, Senior Officers for providing me the opportunities to visit Sunderban National Park and Zeilat Area.

* Kh Hitler Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on May 26, 2014.

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