Back
Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

Manas – a land of beauty as well as strife, as experienced first hand by Pallabi Chakraborty.

 

It was the morning of the 26th February, 2020 and I sat in Binita’s room (Binita Baruwati is my friend and ex-colleague who works as a wildlife conservationist), sipping coffee. As I was watching the rain I invariably started reminiscing some of my earliest memories of working in Manas National Park. I was in Manas as a part of a team from the UNESCO Category 2 Centre, Wildlife Institute of India1, conducting training for the teachers of the fringe village schools of the Park. After this program, I collected some initial ground data on the status of wildlife and its habitat in this World Heritage Site, where I plan to carry out more focused and long-term research. As I sat in the room and reminisced, Binita came in and we decided to go into the Park, now that the rain had stopped. As we entered the forest, more flashes of memory came back and I decided to finally pen down my experiences of this place.

My journey started in this part of the country about 10 years ago. “So let’s put you in Jimmy’s team. Can you join tomorrow?” asked the then senior coordinator of the Assam field office, Dr. Anupam Sarmah, during the interview of WWF-India back in the fall of 2010. “Yes!” I replied, excited at the idea of working in my dream destination, Manas Tiger Reserve. I would have to travel back home that afternoon from Guwahati to Shillong, buy some field clothes, pack and then travel to Tezpur the next day; such a short notice hardly mattered to me. I was already picturing myself inside the emerald forest of my dreams.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

The monsoon glamour of Manas

 

I fell in love with Manas as soon as I saw the photos clicked by my friends who had visited the national park back in college. So when I set my foot in the forest, on 18th December 2010, my reverie became a reality. The first day of work is still etched in my mind as if it were only yesterday. Divided into smaller groups, our team of eight volunteers (Binita Baruwati, Shravana Goswami, Tarali Goswami, David Smith, Gautam Sharma, Pranjal Saikia, Syed Naushad Zaman and me) started our survey, looking for signs of animal movement, keeping in mind the lessons given by Dr. Jimmy Borah on sign survey and habitat assessment for tigers Panthera tigris and other wildlife. A short distance later I saw a pugmark on the sand near the Beki River, and Tridip (our field supervisor) helped me identify it as that of a male tiger which was relatively fresh. For the first time, I imagined the tiger walking majestically down the riverbed, probably in search of its prey, minutes before our arrival!

Manas National Park is a protected area located in the western part of the state of Assam, north-eastern India. It forms the core of Manas Tiger Reserve (constituent Forest Divisions given in Table 1), Ripu-Chirang Elephant Reserve (ER), Manas Biosphere Reserve (national), Important Bird Area and a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. It also forms the core of the very important Trans-boundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA), along with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan. Manas was among the first areas to be declared a Game Reserve and then a Protected Area for its rich biodiversity. Its habitat comprises mostly of alluvial grasslands, and the remaining of semi-evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, and some canebrakes, which fall in the bhabar and terai regions of the Eastern Himalayan foothills; the Manas and Beki Rivers (both originating in Tibet as Nyamjangchu and flowing into the Drangmechu and Mangdechu in Bhutan) drain along its north-south extent. This contiguous landscape with the Bhutan hills offers a spectacle to the onlookers, apart from representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of natural habitats for in-situ conservation of 22 of India’s most threatened mammal species (tigers, elephants Elephas maximus, pygmy hog Porcula salvania etc.) along with many others, known only in very few places on earth.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

In search of the tigers of Manas through camera trapping

 

Sl. No. Forest Division Forest Block Area (km2)
1 FDTP, Manas Manas National Park (core) 500
2 Dhansiri Division Barnadi WLS (core) 26.22
3 Chirang Division Manas RF (part – core) 350
4 Kachugaon Division Ripu RF 605.27
5 Kachugaon RF 214.45
6 Chirang RF 592.54
7 Haltugaon Division Bengtol RF 71.63
8 Chirang Division Manas RF 180.45
9 Kuklung RF 14.69
10 Baksa Division Daodhara RF 17.48
11 Batabari RF 21.63
12 Subankhata RF 23.37
13 Morapagladia RF 21.05
14 Darranga RF 23.58
15 Sukanjuli RF 13.15
16 Lebra PRF 3.65
17 Dihira PRF 6.16
18 Dhansiri Division Khalingduar RF 70.33
19 Kherkhari PRF 6
20 Kundar beel PRF 9.93
21 Bhairabkunda PRF 35.43
22 Bhairabkunda RF 24.41
23 Newlee PRF 5.68
  TOTAL AREA 2837.1

Table 1: Constituent Forest Divisions under Manas Tiger Reserve

The Manas Tiger Reserve (MTR) is spread over Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri districts of the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) of Assam. The dominant community living near the TR is the Bodo tribe, who practice Bathou religion. The Bodo people wanted a separate political representation in India’s electorate from as early as the 1920s. The All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), which was formed in 1966, initially put forth their demand for a separate union territory (1967), and then for a separate state (1986), in order for the central government of the country to recognize equality, economic and social justice, rights to land, language and culture, and political rights. The demand turned into a movement and then an agitation with more points added in the agenda in 1989. The steps taken by the then Chief Minister of Assam to curb the agitation resulted in violent reactions and a lot of Bodo and non-Bodo people were killed in clashes. A section of the agitators formed the Bodo Security Force (BSF) in 1986, which later reorganized itself as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in 1994; another section formed the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) in 1996 and these groups continued the agitation. For a decade and half (1989 – 2003), the ethnic clashes continued to ravage the life and property of people of the region, along with exertion of pressure on its natural resources to fuel the conflict. Manas suffered the brunt of the conflict: wildlife was hunted, trees were incessantly felled, forest camps were burnt down, and forest staffs were robbed of their weapons. In 2003, after the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), the agitation was controlled, and life started to get back to normal in the newly formed Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD). However, a faction of the NDFB, separated from its parent body due to differing ideologies, and continued to operate in the 2010s in some areas, including the TR. They carried on felling of trees, hunting wildlife and supporting encroachments in the buffer areas of the TR.

Once known for its variety and density of wildlife, Manas has experienced around two decades of armed political unrest, which took a toll on the animal species and people alike, with severe depletion in prey and predator populations, along with their habitat. Due to the deteriorating status of the World Heritage Site, Manas was enlisted on the World Heritage Site in Danger in 1992, only six years after its inscription. After about 15 years of struggle, consistent proactive protection measures by the district, state and central administration resulted in a gradual reduction of illegal logging and felling of trees and poaching, along with improvement in security conditions from 2006-07 onwards. Following this, a joint UNESCO/IUCN mission was sent to the Site in 2008 to evaluate the progress in achieving remedial measures and implementing the recommendations of UNESCO World Heritage Committee and to set a timeframe for their completion. As a part of the measures recommended by the mission, the Park staff and researchers from NGOs like WWF-India, Aaranyak and ATREE collaborated to conduct a comprehensive baseline survey of key wildlife species (tigers, co-predators and their prey) in 2009-10. I joined the WWF-India team during this survey, along with seven other interns and together we conducted tiger and elephant occupancy surveys in the core (Manas National Park) and buffer areas (Ripu – Chirang Elephant Reserve). The protection and management strategies, along with the resultant improvement in forest and wildlife recovery were acknowledged as a great revival story by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Thus Manas was withdrawn from the ‘Danger List’ in 2011.

That was 10 years ago, and still today, I get excited to work in Manas. The sign surveys and vegetation sampling for which we walked around 10 – 20 kilometers each day, deployed and monitored camera traps, analyzed the data, were all exhausting work, yet rewarding. The sighting of different species of wildlife, like a troop of the endemic golden langur Trachypithecus geei inside the Ripu RF (buffer of Manas Tiger Reserve) was a treat. Golden langurs, first discovered in 1953, are found in disjunct populations only between the Sankosh and Manas Rivers in India, with another population found in Bhutan. The current population status in India is around 5600 individuals. They just sat high up on a fig tree (favoured food and shelter tree) and stared down at us, and I too stood there, elated and hoping that all the efforts continue to conserve this beautiful primate. Spotting species like the chital Axis axis and a good number of the great hornbill Buceros bicornis in the same forest was also very encouraging. Chital are very rare in these parts of the forests; prolonged years of hunting and habitat destruction have impacted large ungulates such as the chital and are thus difficult to spot.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

Inquisitive and wary of human presence, this young hog deer stag made my day

 

Once, during the survey for tiger prey, I stopped in my tracks on encountering a herd of gaur Bos gaurus just about 50 meters away! Each one of them was a mound of sheer muscle power, combined with big, curved and sharp horns. They were wary of our presence, and as they looked straight towards me I felt that the time froze. After what seemed to be an eternity, the gentle beasts walked away, leaving me drenched in perspiration with a rush of adrenaline. Thank God I was not alone; a much-experienced forest guard was just beside me and looked very composed, which gave me the confidence to stare back at the animals and observe their behaviour. Another day my team saw a lone wild elephant about 100 meters in front of us as we were returning to the camp after our survey. Seeing the animal, the forest guard accompanying us, cautioned Tridip to stop the gypsy as it was the alleged ‘rogue’ elephant, commonly encountered by forest staff on patrolling duty. Suddenly the elephant started walking briskly towards us; the next moment Tridip thumped on the vehicle’s door to scare the animal, and we followed suit. The tactic didn’t help and the forest guard was forced to blank-fire two rounds from his old but well-maintained .303 rifle as the elephant continued hurrying towards us. The gunshot and the alarmed trumpet of the big tusker pierced through the jungle, making our hearts skip a beat, causing temporary deafness, and chasing away a flock of birds and some squirrels, sitting peacefully on the trees. The elephant, too, finally turned and ran away in the opposite direction.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

With the fearless and compassionate forest guards of Manas

 

However, this is not a yet another starry-eyed wildlife enthusiast’s tale of witnessing the wonders of nature in a beautiful jungle. This is the story of my near-death experience and the lessons I learned about the nuances of wildlife conservation.

The rebel’s den

During our occupancy survey for tigers and elephants in January – February 2011, we were staying inside the staff quarters of the Ultapani Range Office of the Chirang Reserve Forest (RF), under Haltugaon Forest Division (buffer area of MTR). Chirang RF falls in the Ripu-Chirang ER and its forest comprises of Sal forest, evergreen, semi evergreen forests and deciduous forests, savannah/grassland and riverine forest. However, large scale habitat degradation, felling of trees, encroachment and poaching, during the ethnic conflict has ripped most of its original forest cover. During our stay we observed large tracts of forest cleared for mustard cultivation, kept inside a line of intact forest cover to avoid detection by authorities. Despite several attempts of dialogue, negotiations, police and army operations, the rebellion still continued sporadically, in varying intensities, preventing conservation and development work in the region. The forest staff in the area had been threatened and harmed by the rebel group frequently while on patrolling duty. Hence, no staff went on regular patrolling duties inside the forest, and we had to carry out the survey with the help of the members of a local NGO (Ultapani Biodiversity Conservation Society) who were involved in the protection of the forest during that time.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

The gentle beasts of Manas

 

Day one: We were nearing the end of the survey work in the first week of February, and had recorded the presence of leopard, jackal, few prey species, golden langur and elephant, but no tigers. It was the 6th February, 2011, when we were about to leave the camp, the only two forest staff who lived in the range headquarters at Ultapani, and had agreed to accompany us into the forest, backed down. We found the gesture of the two staff quite odd, but decided not to persuade them and started off without them. On reaching the edge of the forest we split ourselves into smaller teams, comprising of 2 people each, constituting one WWF volunteer and one local NGO guide, and entered the forest. It was an uneventful walk inside the forest and I did not encounter any animal signs that day. However, I felt an eerie silence in the jungle, broken only by a ‘thud’ of what seemed to be some big animal jumping down on the ground from a height. “Is it a leopard?” I asked my guide. He ignored my question and the thick vegetation of sal (Shorea robusta), kanchan (Bauhinia purpurea), outenga (Dillenia indica), Cledodendron spp., etc. also did not help me with a response, forcing me to continue on the trail till we reached the small rivulet where we ended our walk and rested near our parked hired vehicle. Soon Gautam, Tarali and Shravana returned from their part of the survey and we all sat down by the river, waiting for Pranjal and Naushad to return.

At around 3 p.m., suddenly a group of armed men in camouflage clothing came running and shouting, pointing their guns at us (these were the NDFB insurgents, I later learnt)! We were confused and frightened, and as they came nearer, I went numb. The men asked us to stand still with raised arms when Tarali and Gautam started explaining who we were. Most of the back and forth conversation that went on is only a haze in my memory. I do remember being threatened to sit still, while the leader of the group (identified as G. Bidai; we later learnt that he was one of the most powerful leaders of the insurgent group) took aside the local NGO men (our guides), along with our driver, and spoke to them. Two of the group members started identifying some of us by name, and we wondered how they had this information about us. Soon the NGO men and our driver returned with gloomy faces and quietly bid us goodbye. We stared at them, with a premonition and the next thing I realized is that we were being walked away by these men towards some destination; on the way, we met Pranjal and Naushad, each with armed men, and silently acknowledging each other, we continued to be led away. We were afraid to protest or question their intent, and kept walking till we came out of the jungle into an agricultural field. Some more armed men joined in, and we noticed that they carried their bedding and clothes with them. We stopped on the way and were offered water and some biscuits; we asked them why we were being taken, but they avoided our queries. Crossing few more agricultural fields and wading through 2 – 3 knee-deep streams, we reached a village in the night, where we were asked to rest and eat; here we stayed for the night.

Our guides and the driver could do little; they were left behind so that they could pass on the news of our abduction to the authorities. As we later came to know, two of our team members, Binita and David had taken a different route and had walked back to the range headquarters, without waiting for us, and hence were not caught. When they heard about us from our guides and driver they panicked and quickly informed Jimmy Borah and Anupam Sarmah. The news alerted the forest department, the police and even the army who had a camp in Ultapani. Thus began the process of safely retrieving us from the militants’ make-shift lair, along with discussions with the authorities. Meanwhile, David and Binita were asked to leave for their homes immediately.

Day two: We were held captive by a group of armed men in a forest-cleared village somewhere near the Bhutan border. The group comprised of around 20 – 25 men, without any women. They were all healthy and strong young men, between 20 – 40 years in age, wore camouflage clothes and each of them were equipped with at least one SLR gun and a pistol, while some had more along with walkie-talkies. Bidai’s subordinates spoke very little to us, mostly repeating his commands in cold and sharp tone, in heavily Bodo accented the Assamese language. Bidai was especially commanding and very tactfully responded to our questions. He told us that they were a group, named ‘Aronai’ (literally means a Bodo traditional piece of cloth) and that we would be able to go back home as soon as their demands were fulfilled (they never elaborated on their “demands”).

It was a small village, with mustard cultivation in most of its agricultural fields. The villagers were of the Bodo community, who looked poor in economic status and submissive towards the armed men. Two village women gave us, girls (Tarali, Shravana and me), clean Dokhonas (traditional dress of Bodo women) to wear, and kept vigil over. The boys, (Gautam, Pranjal and Naushad) were also given clean clothes. In the nights girls were asked to sleep in one of the huts with the women of a family, while the boys had to sleep with the armed men inside the jungle at the village periphery. All the girls were wide awake most of the night as we heard the voices of the armed men having some chats; we also heard Bidai speaking on his walkie-talkie to a “Madam” (probably his senior comrade) in Bodo, and then to someone (probably someone in the defense force or the like) in Assamese, asking him not to send his men for patrolling or any other ‘operation’, lest they wanted any unwanted results. “Did it mean that the police/army knew about us and where we were located? Who are these people; are they a gang of robbers? What do they want from us?” we thought. “Shravana, once we get out of this place, let’s not tell our parents anything about this incident”, I said, fearing that they will disallow us to continue working in the forest after this incident. Shravana did not react, and after sometime we finally fell asleep, too tired to think or talk anymore.

Although we were neither chained nor gagged, some of the villagers were always watching over us, along with the armed men. Food was prepared for the entire group and we had to sit and eat with them. There were no toilets, so we had to relieve ourselves and bathe in the open. They provided us with toiletries and some village women washed our clothes. None of us were harmed in any way or disrespected; however, we felt anxious and restless all the time. During the day, six of us sat together and discussed our uneasiness and fears. “Are we going to be held captive forever; did our senior colleagues and family know about us; will we be able to work in the forest ever again?” were some of the questions that kept bothering us. We had our GPS sets inside our bags which we carried for field work, and Gautam had secretly noted down our geographical location and had also calculated a rough distance from our location to the Ultapani Range Office, which was only 6 km away! This meant that all the distance (it had felt like 15 – 16 km at least) we walked, from the rivulet where we were waiting, to reach this village, might have been elongated in order to prevent us from retracing the path in the future. Gautam and Pranjal even started planning an escape; Tarali and I stopped them and warned them of any untoward consequences that might result from a failed escape plan.

Day three: Waiting to be free again, to see our parents and loved ones again, seemed like an eternity. We were served tea twice a day, and had meals two meals a day. I joked that they were too stingy to provide milk tea to us, although non-vegetarian food was cooked every time; my friends silently laughed at this comment and this lightened our tense mood. We missed our moments of light-hearted conversations, our field work, our friendly guides, and our freedom. I couldn’t help but wonder if the armed men missed someone too, or liked remaining in hiding. We had milk tea that day, and it was as if they had heard our complaints; they also got some apples for us. After this surprise treat, Bidai gathered us together and dialed Anupam Sharma’s phone number (apparently he was acquainted with Sharma) and asked Gautam to speak to him. We heard our senior reassure us of the ongoing process of our safe return to our home, in a nervous and shaky voice. This contact with someone familiar brought back our frustration and fear. In the afternoon Bidai sat us down together again, and said, “You girls will have to go from here”. We did not understand and protested; he repeated his statement again, this time a little sternly and said that we were a liability to the group. We were not willing to leave our friends, the boys, with them. We later came to know that the army and the BTAD administration had pressurized Bidai to release the girls, besides there was widespread condemnation that girls were abducted; it was a sign of grave disrespect towards women in the Bodo community. Hence, despite our plea to either release us all together, or retain us all together in captivity, they arranged for our quick release; Bidai even forcefully handed us some money for our travel. With a tearful goodbye and a prayer for our friends’ safety, we were dropped off outside the village in bicycles.

A hired car was waiting near the next big village, named Shantipur, which was directed to drop us off in a town called Bongaigaon. After travelling some distance, we found out that the driver of the vehicle was ignorant about the identity of the men who hired him to drop off three girls to the nearest town. So without divulging the details of our ‘travel plan’, we quietly took out our cell phones and switched them on. Surprisingly, before I dialed the first number, I got a call from P.K. Dutta, Superintendent of Police (SP) of Kokrajhar district. Confirming whether three of us were safe, he directed us to get down at the nearest police outpost (Bengtol P.O.), from where we would be escorted to safety. When we reached the P.O., we stopped the car and after sometime were escorted by the army, while the driver was allowed to leave after some interrogation. We were then taken to the SP’s residence, where we met Anupam Sharma along with Shravana’s father and Tarali’s brother. Here we gave our statement in front of the police, army and district administration heads. We also identified Bidai and two other members from his group from the photos of the most wanted extremists of the region; we also learned that they had abducted us with a demand for ransom.  We prayed to the authorities to ensure the boys’ safe return, before being escorted to a hotel in Kokrajhar town. In the hotel, we met Jimmy Borah and a few other seniors from the organization who heaved a sigh of relief upon seeing us. Talking to my parents and family members never felt as good as it did that night. I could feel the emotions they felt on hearing my voice; it was like they had got their daughter back from the dead.

Day four – day fourteen: The next day we had to respond to the media; we repeatedly described our experience and sent an indirect message of gratitude to the abductors for not harming us, and appealing to them to safely release the boys without delay. After that three of us were escorted to our respective homes. After an excruciatingly long wait, full of anxious thoughts and silent prayers, the boys were released on 18th February 2011, in a similar way as us: they were dropped off near a village (named Balajan) in a hired vehicle and were then escorted by the army to safety. We learned that they were unharmed, but the abductors had shifted their location every day, in order to avoid being apprehended. The media was filled with news of public processions and high-level meetings for all our safe release, while we were crowded by journalists for interviews and opinions. In all this, I waited for things to be normal when I could go back to working inside the forest.

The ‘after-life’

Deeply shaken from the harrowing ordeal, we recuperated in the safety and comfort of our homes. All six of us were happy to be back from the fearful experience, but now we had to take some important decisions. Most of us were enthusiastic to join back on duty with WWF-India and continue our work. Thus, Binita, Tarali, Shravana, David, Pranjal, Gautama and I resumed our duties after a month in new areas with our supportive seniors of the organization. However, Naushad did not join back with us, understandably, because of his personal views and apprehensions. This encounter left an unforgettable, yet important learning experience for us. Proper knowledge and keen observation of the ground situation before undertaking any fieldwork in sensitive areas, building strong and strategic ties with the authorities and with major stakeholders are vital for effective conservation goals.

The experience, however daunting, was in many ways a life lesson that taught me to be better prepared and cautious while working in areas of armed conflict, at the same time it further strengthened my resolve to work in such areas. Maybe blame it on my genes’ ‘never say die spirit’, maybe the thrill and adventure that it can add to an otherwise mundane existence, but I think ultimately in the end it’s my love for Manas that draws me back to that magical place again and again. I re-joined WWF-India and went to Manas again, this time a little wary, but more determined. However, after the incident, the insurgents’ group unleashed continuous terror spells around the fringe villages, nearby towns and army cantonments; they carried out extortions, massacres, poaching of wildlife and timber felling, and instigated continued encroachments in and around the TR. Hence, I could work only in the National Park, unable to extend our tiger monitoring work in the buffer areas due to the tense situation. I was thankful to the heavens for another chance to live and to return to the place I wanted to work in, yet felt a certain sense of helplessness. I soaked in the beauty of the incredibly beautiful forest and learned valuable lessons about its reviving wildlife, got involved in trans-boundary collaboration for conservation of the Manas landscape with Bhutan, and underwent trainings to hone my skills to do research and conservation.

Massive army operations in 2015 – 18 reduced the outfit to a feeble few, I could not help thinking about these men, constantly in battle with the administration, constantly running away for their lives; why did they take up arms and why didn’t they care about the natural resources of their region? Why didn’t they take up jobs like everyone else? Once fighting for independent identity and against oppression, the NDFB is caught in a causeless rebellion in the present times. Livelihood security, respectable opportunities to return to the mainstream, along with strong support for dealing with negative and anti-national feelings need to be provided to the youth in order to reduce insurgency in the region, and finally end it. Finally, in January, 2020, more than 1600 men surrendered their arms in front of the Chief Minister of Assam.

The silver lining in the clouds

Manas is on the path of recovery in the aftermath of long and devastating ethnic clashes of the Bodo groups. The civil unrest of the late 1980s and early 2000s resulted in loss of human and animal life alike, and the tremors are slowly fading only now. For 19 long years Manas was on the Danger List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of factors such as civil unrest, illegal activities, land conversion and destruction of Park infrastructures. Because of the continuous committed efforts of the forest department, NGO partners, state and local administration, local communities and all other stakeholders, there is hope for sustained peace and development of the region. With a new population of rhinos, augmentation of the swamp deer population, increase in tiger, leopard and their prey populations, the Park is reviving. Research and conservation activities are expanding in the trans-boundary Manas landscape, in the newly added Manas Reserve Forest in the core of the TR and in the buffer areas of Ripu-Chirang as well.

 

Rendezvous with Rebels and Guardians

The monsoon glamour of Manas

 

In the aftermath of the turmoil, the people who returned to the burnt down and devastated forest camps of Manas were the courageous and passionate forest staff. Day in and day out they pick up their guns, sometimes only a ‘khukri’ (big Nepalese knife used as a weapon) or a ‘lathi’ (walking stick), and venture out into the deep woods to watch the jungle and the animals they so love and had promised to protect. Very often forest guards have lost their lives during patrols due to chance encounters with rhinos, buffalo, or the bullets of poachers and militants. They have also faced the wrath of angry villagers at times for not allowing them inside the forest boundary or when wild animals destroy their crops or houses. Nevertheless, these unsung heroes continue doing their duty at meagre salaries and difficult living conditions inside the forest.

A source of positive change for Manas has been the metamorphosis of hard-core poachers into forest protectors with the support of the government. The local communities which have always depended on the forest for their sustenance and cultural identity find it difficult to cope with the rules that prevent them from entering the forest. Furthermore, negative encounters with wild animals which ‘stray’ into the villages add to their woes. Welfare schemes introduced by the government instill hope for the people, but these schemes need sincere implementation in the identified hotspots. The role of the conservationists is extremely crucial in facilitating effective and long-term people participation in local governance and conservation. Regular capacity-building activities must be organized for the forest department with regards to protection strategies, building relationships with communities, forest management and personal development. Along with this, upgraded infrastructure, higher remuneration regularizing contractual frontline staff with effective welfare schemes must be considered before long.

I am really privileged to have worked with such noble and fearless souls, to have listened to their tales of adventure, tragedy and optimism. The problems of conservation are many; often with threats to health and life. The different nuances of the situation in Assam are challenging and give a good opportunity to learn and understand as well. In George Schaller’s words, “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories, that one must retain connections and remain involved with animals and places that have captured the heart, to prevent their destruction. I sometimes asked why, given a world that is more wounded and scarred, I do not simply give up, burdened by pessimism. But conservation is my life, I must retain hope”. Yes, I too must retain hope and continue to do my bit for Manas, despite the challenges and failures.

About the Author /

With a special interest in community – based nature conservation and human-wildlife interactions, Pallabi is on a quest to learn and contribute. She has around 9 years of working on natural heritage conservation in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttarakhand. Born and brought up in a picturesque city of Shillong (capital of Meghalaya, India), Pallabi has always been an animal lover and finds solace on long treks to places amid nature. She had her first experience in learning animal behaviour at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC - under Wildlife Trust of India, WTI). She then worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India) for about 7 years. Afterwards she worked with Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), and with Azim Premji University. At present, she works at the Wildlife Institute of India – Category 2 Centre, Dehradun. This article is a journey through her memoirs and learning during her work in Manas Tiger Reserve in western Assam from while with WWF-India. Through this narration of despair and hope Pallabi intends to ignite the ‘young’ minds towards long-term involvement in nature conservation.

Post a Comment