Royal Manas National Park Archives - Rhino Review

Wildlife recall: Manas National Park’s experiment with former poachers (State of Assam, India)

By Antipoaching, Translocation No Comments
Ishan Kukreti, Down to Earth Magazine | February 14, 2020

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Forty-six-year-old Buddeswar Bodo is a resident of Baska district, Assam. He has seen conflict in his area during the Bodoland insurgency in the 1980s, which ended after the signing of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) Accord in February 2003. He survived this period with one arm, after he was attacked by a wild boar while hunting. He claims to have hunted down 16 elephants, six tigers, five rhinos and multiple bears, boars and ungulates with his homemade muzzle loader rifle.

“The easiest to kill were the rhinos and the most difficult ones were the bear and the wild boar,” he says. Buddeswar was a poacher active in the jungles of the Manas National Park (MNP), which falls under the Manas Tiger Reserve (MTR). But today, he is one among many poachers who have renounced hunting to protect wildlife. He works as a forest guard at MNP.

Buddeswar is also a member of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES), a community conservation organisation active in the eastern side of MNP. MMES has 50 field staff, most of them former poachers. MMES was formed in December 2003 by local youth with an aim to conserve biodiversity through community participation in ecotourism. The society runs ecotourism camps and recently started a weaving centre. The revenue goes back to the community through development projects.

In 2004, MMES started employing poachers as volunteers with the BTC forest department to use their knowhow about the area and animals for conservation. “They helped forest officials with anti-poaching activities, undertaking patrolling of the area. This not only increased the surveillance, but also provided additional personnel to protect the area,” says Partho Pratim Das, tourism advisor to BTC.

“Volunteers were given a monthly stipend. Initially it was Rs 3,000, but now has been increased to Rs 6,000. At present, there are around 400 volunteers protecting the MNP.”

MMES has also generated alternate livelihood options for those villages that did not volunteer. For instance, they provided training to villagers to make bamboo sticks used to produce incense. “We also helped create market linkages,” says Kalicharan Basumatary, president of MMES.

Efforts by community conservation organisations like MMES, and more recently 17 other such organisations under the banner of United Front for Conservation of Nature, are bringing about a refreshing change in wildlife management.

MNP falls within the territorial domain of BTC. It is part of the larger MTR which covers an area of 2,837 sq km. The park in India shares its international border with Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park. Together these two Protected Areas form the Manas landscape. With the inception of the armed Bodoland movement for autonomy, the people as well as the biodiversity of the area suffered immensely.

When the BTC Accord was finally signed, nothing much remained of the park or its wild inhabitants. Timber was illegally logged and wildlife was indiscriminately poached in the absence of any administrative control over the area.

“I remember in the conflict years, no staff would venture into the forest. We would sit in the range office and even that was in danger,” says Babul Bhrama, who is the range officer of Bansbadi in the eastern part of MNP. Insurgency had an impact on the biodiversity in multiple ways. One was the breakdown of administration, the other was that the insurgents saw the park and the wildlife there as their property.

“The general attitude then was that anything that was government had to be destroyed. The wildlife and the forest sadly fell in the same category,” says Pratim Das. He also says insurgents were used for poaching activities.

In MNP, despite the complete collapse of governance during the conflict years, wildlife has today made a stunning comeback. Community initiatives have transformed the environment.

Today, the park has around 45 rhinos, after a process of translocation from Kaziranga National Park in 2006, and with help from the Wildlife Trust of India; there are nine tigers. Transforming from an area where even officials were scared to go, the park now generates revenue of about Rs 100 crore each year from tourism.

During the armed insurgency period, the number of wildlife dwindled rapidly. From 85-100 in 1990, the forest department says that not a single rhino was traced in the next survey in 2001. “Rhino numbers during that time went down to such an extent we could not even find one,” says Amol Sarma, director, MTR.

The crisis was such that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared MNP as a World Heritage Site in 1986, and then put the park on its list of World Heritage in Danger in 2003. The Wildlife Protection Society of India says the worst period for poaching was between 1988 and 1997.

Overcoming Struggle

“The efforts to conserve wildlife came from the community, and women took the lead. Women decided that they would no longer cook bush meat,” says Basumatary. “The people now realise that this is their forest and they have the responsibility of preserving it,” Kampa Borgoyari, deputy chief executive of BTC told Down To Earth.

The reasons, however, for Buddeswar to quit poaching were socio-political. “There was no work during insurgency. The police would pick up any young man in the area on the pretext of being an insurgent. I fled to Bhutan and worked in an orange orchard,” he says. Here too, his poaching skills helped him. “The Bhutanese don’t kill animals, so they asked me to kill the elephants, promising around R1,200 per kg of ivory,” he says.

The coming of the area under BTC helped change the power equation. It was no longer the state vs the people. The people had their own government in the form of BTC. The conservation success of MNP has had a cascading effect — the park has been incorporated in the first transboundary conservation area in Asia named the Peace Park. The park combines wildlife areas of Nepal, Bhutan and India, and provides wildlife a sanctuary, without constraints of political borders.

“Manas is exemplifying the importance of involving the local people in conservation efforts,” says the Status of Tigers, co-predators and prey in India of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which was published in 2008.

How poachers turned wildlife protectors in Assam’s Manas National Park (India)

By Antipoaching, Conservation, News, Volunteering No Comments
Ratnadip Choudhury, NDTV | December 7, 2019

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GUWAHATI:  Budheswar Bodo knows Assam’s Manas National Park like the back of his hand. A “wildlife protector” for the past 15 years, the 45-year-old begins each day with an evening drill and briefing to fellow volunteers deep inside the woods. He knows that if it’s not for those like him, the wildlife reserve will lose all its inhabitants to poachers who sneak in under the cover of the darkness.

But Budheswar Bodo wasn’t always this concerned about wildlife. Decades ago, when he was a notorious poacher, he had lost an arm in an encounter with a wild boar.

Manas was home to 22 of India’s most threatened species of mammals and 26 endangered birds before poachers killed almost all of its hundred-odd rhinos, most of its swamp deer and water buffaloes, and a large number of elephants and tigers in the 1980s. A lot of the forest’s prime timber was also illegally cut down at a time when the region was a hotbed of insurgency.

“We used to hunt animals for money. We killed many deer, elephants and rhinos, among other animals. We plundered Manas,” Budheswar Boro admitted to NDTV.

The Manas biosphere reserve, which houses the Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in northwest Assam, was declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. However, the region was plunged into violence soon afterwards amid an armed struggle for a separate Bodoland state, and a substantial portion of its wildlife and pristine jungles was wiped out.

A revival initiative spanning 15 years has changed all that, with the region regaining the world heritage tag and the United Nations proposing to make Manas a hub for trans-boundary conservation efforts in the eastern Himalayas. And with the 2003 Bodoland accord in place, the same people who once poached and plundered the region are rebuilding what was once destroyed.

“After the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed in 2003, we encouraged local residents to participate in the conservation process. So they formed NGOs and became partners in the effort to conserve forests and protect animals,” BTC Deputy Chief Khampa Borgoyary told NDTV.

Today, the park is manned by hundreds of volunteers who were poachers at one time. The rhino count has gone up to around 40, there are at least 30 tigers and the old elephant corridors are abuzz with activity again. “I’m still haunted by memories of how I killed animals in the past. This is the only way I can atone for it,” said Joycharan Basumaty, another poacher-turned-volunteer.

One of the biggest challenges to the wildlife reserve comes from its shared border with the Royal Manas National Park in neighbouring Bhutan, claims Field Director Amal Chandra Sarmah. “There are poachers who enter our territory and kill animals before heading back. We caught two Bhutanese poachers recently, after which we intensified patrolling,” he said.

However, the cross-border geography of Manas is also turning out to be a huge advantage, with the United Nations now proposing to include it in the trans-boundary conservation landscape. And the rising tourist footfalls only go to show that the national park has come back to life.

Original photo by David Lloyd