In Arunachal, villagers and forest officials collaborate to breathe new life to India’s only orchid sanctuary

Notified in November 1989 under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary is a natural home to more than 236 species of orchids, as well as a wealthy diversity of mushrooms and other medicinal plants.

Every year, hordes of tourists make their way to the monastery town of Tawang, one of the most famous spots in Arunachal Pradesh. Often missed along the way, by the side of the road that connects Bhalukpong to Tawang, is the unassuming entrance of the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, the only one of its kind in the country, where these flowering plants grow wild.

But since last month, a new gate, with a boardwalk leading up to it, stands tall— a result of a collaborative effort between the villagers of Sessa and officers of the Khellong Forest Division, under which the sanctuary falls.“Before it could hardly be seen, concealed by the thick vegetation,” said Tsering Meiji, Gram Panchayat member, from Sessa village, “Now no one can miss it.”

According to Ankit Kumar, Assistant conservator of forest, Khellong Forest Division, the new interventions — which includes a 1km-long orchid trail for tourists inside— spells great ecotourism potential for the sanctuary and surrounding areas. “Despite being such a rare habitat, with no comparable counterpart in India, the sanctuary was completely missable,” he said, “The entrance was often filled with water, it was overgrown with vegetation, and hardly anyone visited — unless they were coming to study orchids.”

Last month the forest department held a meeting with the local villagers suggesting they do a makeover. “They were more than willing,” said Kumar, a trained botanist, who has been posted in Arunachal Pradesh for about four months now. “I was interested in plants anyway. And with the help of V K Jawal, the DFO of Khellong Forest Division, and the villagers we turned the place around in 21 days.”

Notified in November 1989 under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary is a natural home to more than 236 species of orchids, as well as a wealthy diversity of mushrooms and other medicinal plants.

Khyanjeet Gogoi, who has worked extensively on orchids in the Eastern Himalayas, said that Arunachal Pradesh is an orchid hotspot. Nearly half (612 out of 1256) of India’s orchid species can be found here. “And it’s possible that there are many more,” he said. In fact, Sessa itself has at least five endemic species of orchids — Biermannia jainiana, Gastordia arunchalansis, Epipogium sessanum, among others.

Last year, the government of Arunachal Pradesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) India to create a Red Listing of orchids at the state level, a global process to assess the risk faced by different species.

Gogoi said while orchids bloom abundantly in the Northeastern states, they are increasingly at the risk of disappearing too —deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, as well as a thriving illegal trade.

“Orchid growth depends on its own micro-climate. This basically means a specific kind of orchid grows in a climate unique to itself — a local set of conditions that differ from those in the surrounding areas,” he said,” “While many ornamental growers do that, you can’t simply pluck and orchid and make it grow elsewhere.”

This is why a place like Sessa — which enjoys protection and status of a wildlife sanctuary — is so crucial. Unlike other orchid parks which are home to hybrid lab produced orchids, the sanctuary is home to orchids which grow naturally. Almost 236 species of the 1200 + orchids found in the country are present here.

Kumar said that the entire sanctuary is not open to the visitors. “Only a certain section wiht the 1km trail,” he said, “All the orchid species are now properly identified so anyone can come and see.”

He added that it was managed in record time because of the local cooperation. “Everyone was hands-on, and actively participated in building the bridge,” he said, “Locals, who have strong knowledge about the area, now have the option of working as guides, photographers.”

Tsering added that he, too helped, make the bridge. “Now whenever anyone comes, I will personally try to show them around,” he said, “This will prove to be a boost for the livelihood of sanctuary dwellers.”

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