Protectors of Nature

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Protectors of Nature

Sunday, 18 October 2020 | Shalini Saksena

Protectors of Nature

The birdman of Assam

Anwaruddin Choudhury

Lifetime Achievement Award Assam    

He is an ornithologist, mammalogist, an artist, avid photographer and an author. He is also the honorary Chief Executive of the Rhino Foundation for Nature in North-east India and was Deputy Commissioner of Baksa and Lakhimpur districts in Assam. He retired as Divisional Commissioner of Barak valley, Development Commissioner for Hill Areas and Commissioner and Secretary to the Government of Assam last year.

If this was not enough to add to his list of accomplishments, Choudhury is a member of as many as nine IUCN/SSC/BLI specialist groups. Due to his work, at least 12 wildlife sanctuaries and two elephant reserves have been established. He was also instrumental in upgrading Dibru-Saikhowa into a national park, inclusion of Laokhowa and Burhachapori Sanctuaries in Kaziranga Tiger Reserve.

Known as the Birdman of Assam, he was the first to produce books on the birds of different Northeastern State. His studies have contributed enormously to the conservation and awareness in the region.

“I was born and brought up in Nagaland. Back then it was a part of Assam. But later, I ended up finishing my schooling and college from Guwahati. I was always interested in Nature and the diverse wildlife this region has to offer. I used to draw birds from the region which later turned into a scientific study. But I also wanted to to be a Civil Servant and hence took the UPSC exam and got selected. As a Government official one can do so much good and that is what I did,” Choudhury says.

He tells you how as an officer in the region he was able to do so much for the conservation of wildlife and get the files moving at a fast pace. Though he agrees that it is not always easy to get things done but since he was an officer, doors that were difficult to open, were wide open for him.

“Of course, I could sanction my own recommendations. Once I was in the Forest Department, we didn’t have to coordinate with other departments but where required, it was easy if you take personal interest. Instead of sending the file, I would take it myself to my colleagues. Once I got talking about Nature, people got interested too. This made it possible for me to a lot when it came to conservation,” Choudhury says.

He tells you that even though it was easy to get paperwork done, it was tough to involve the local communities. But in districts where he had independent charge, he would organise awareness programmes particularly at the panchayat level. “I would tell them the importance of conservation,” Choudhury tells you.

Another challenge that the region faces is the loss of wildlife due to floods especially of the Kaziranga. But he explains why flooding in this area is extremely important for the eco-system.

“Without floods, the eco-system would collapse. Some seven-eight decades back, during floods the animals would move to higher ground — Karbi Anglong without any human interference. Slowly, people took over and highways were made and the region became busy restricting the movement of the wildlife. Unfortunately, there is no long-term solution though some higher grounds are being constructed where animals can rest during flooding,” Choudhury explains.

A major part of his work was declaring the white-winged wood duck as the State bird. This bird, one is told is endangered. This was part of Choudhury’s work with the birds in the North-east. In India, there are 1,300 species. Out of which around 1,000 are found in this region with Assam topping the charts with 850 species — the highest in any State in the country.

Now that he has retired, he tells you he has more time to write. But during the lockdown, field work was hampered. However, things are back to normal and Choudhury is back to traveling and working towards general conservation.

A specific project that he just finished working on is Amur Falcon, a migratory bird that moves from Assam to South Africa  with their breeding place in eastern Siberia. There are two roostig sites in Assam that we observe since lakhs of birds roost here. We had been working on this project for the last three years and last year saw the highest number — three lakh — with the world population standing at 10-12 lakh this was a great achievement,” Choudhury says.  

Eco-tourism key to conversation

Anshu Pragyan Das

Green Warrior AWARD Odisha

She is Deputy Conservator of Forest (Ecotourism), Forest & Environment Department, Odisha. She joined the service in 2007. She has extensively worked in Satkosia Tiger Reserve (STR), Mahanadi WildLife Division to reduce the depletion of the tiger habitat. She mobilised the local community to create Odisha’s first eco-village — Muduligadia inside STR. The ecotourism project — Satkosia Sands Resort and Nature Camp run by 34 community members has a capacity to accommodate 19 guests and has generated a revenue of Rs 3 crore in the last four years.

She tells you that eco-tourism and conservation of wildlife are two sides of the same coin. “One very important thread to wildlife and conservation is human-related pressures. Conservation can bring good results only if there is support from the locals. Eco-tourism is one such area that can help us strengthen economic development in remote areas. It can also bring social wellbeing,” Das explains.

She tells you that it was not easy to involve the locals with the conservation. There was a lot resentment from the locals. Das and her team started working in two areas — punishing the guilty for illegal activities and addressing the long-standing grievances like all-weather road, we provided them electricity and introduced different livelihood alternatives. Gradually, this reduced the reduced their dependency on the forest.

The success story of Satkosia Sands Resort and Nature Camp tells you that when one involves locals, the results can be amazing. So much so that seven-eight villages are no longer dependent on the forest. “Earlier, they were totally dependent on the forest for their firewood needs. We provided LPG. The income from the resort bettered their lives. It has also controlled migration. Locals helped the department set-up antipoaching camps. The protection at the tiger reserve got better. We enrolled women in protection activities. We managed to get good informer network. People have understood that if they work towards conservation their livelihood and lifestyle will improve,” Das says.

Due to the information provided, the department was able to nab an international smuggler of pangolin Shamsuddin Khan in 2018. This would not have been possible without local support.

The good part about the revenue generated from the resort is that it goes back to the people who run it. About 80 per cent is distributed as salaries depending on the work they do and how to manage the resort and its upkeep. Part of the money — 10 per cent goes to their community development as eco-villages. There is no plastic, there is no litter outside and no open defecation. The houses are colourful and depict their traditions and cultures. So much so that people visit these villages just to see the houses. The rest 10 per cent goes the Government as revenue. There are 47 such eco-tourism that are under one portal. People can go the website and book wherever they want to stay,” Das says.

She tells you that the duty of a Government servant it is their duty to do their work diligently and honestly wherever they are posted. “Forest and Environment is one department where one gets to do varied work — there is general conservation work, there is eco-tourism and there is working towards saving species from extinction. One can even take up hobbies like photography and writing that I have been doing for the last seven-eight years,” Das says.

Her publications Avifauna of Satkosia, Satkosia Seen and Unseen and Birds of Satkosia Landscape have garnered a lot of attention. Another feather in Das’ cap is her work towards the gharial in STR.

“Back in 2015, there was only one left in the region. Illegal fishing in the area led to the extinction of this animal here. It lives in deep waters. Satkosia gorge is the only place in Odisha where we find gharial. Below Satkosia, there are no gharials. All the earlier release programmes didn’t help because the entire gorge was under the cover of illegal fishermen.

“We apprehended 38 of them and rehabilitated them. We gave some of them jobs in the department and others were given alternatives. Gharials are extremely sensitive to the fishing nets. After the arrests were made, we artificially released a gharial and the numbers went up to eight in 2019. Of course, the success of this rehabilitation is not just mine. I need to thank all my team members for their contribution in ensuring that the gharial thrives here once again,” Das says.

She opines that aim of conservation is to remove illegal activities. Hence, the area became safe for other wildlife as well. This increased tourism. Today, people are not just traveling to see the tiger or eat good food or go shopping. People today are looking for experiential travel. They want to explore new places. Photography is a passion for the young. Then there is biking, hiking and bird watching. One of our projects offer canopy walk. These activities go well with eco-tourism and hence we have seen such large number of travellers. Seeing wildlife is not the aim,” Das says.

‘Saving Great Indian Bustard is my calling now’

Malsingh Jamara

Save the species AWARD Rajasthan

He was 18 when he enlisted in the Army. At age 35 he retired after serving the country for 17 years as havaldar. When he came back to his hometown in Jaiselmer, Rajasthan he was at a loose end and didn't know what he should do next till he came to know that Great Indian Bustard (GIB) had practically disappeared from this region. That is when he knew what his calling would be henceforth.

“When I came back to Jaiselmer in 2010, I came to know how this large bird found in our State had almost disappeared thanks to extensive poaching. I was always interested in photography. My home is inside the park. Whenever I was home on a holiday, I would roam the area and take photos. But once I was back for good, I reported poaching from Sudhasar area to the Forest Department in 2012 because I released one thing — if we save GIB, we would save Nature. Since then I have made it my mission to save this species from extinction.

But the task was not an easy one. People living in the area depended on the money that came to them when people would come to hunt GIB and illegal farming and grazing. To change their thinking and get them to take an alternative method to eke out a living was not easy.

“It is very easy to say that people who depend on the forest need to look for an alternative way to earn a living. One has to understand that to change one’s dependency on Nature and to change one’s thinking is not easy. People have families to feed. You just can’t tell them to not enter a certain area because it is now under State protection. Also, a large portions of forest area in Rajasthan is not owned by the Forest Department. Then there is the desert. People have been living off it for generations. To ask them to stay off the land where the GIB lives was next to impossible. But I never gave up. I would go from village to village that surround the grassland enclosers where the GIB lives. I told them the importance of grasslands. The habitat of GIB is the tall grass found here. This grass is special. A bit of rain is enough for it to sprout,” Jamara says who is also the founder secretary of Godawan Conservation Society.

He has also served as the honorary Wildlife Warden, Jaisalmer and eco-development, Sudasari, Forest Department. Since he reported the first poaching, he has played a huge role in the renovation of old grassland enclosers and creating new ones with the cooperation from surrounding villagers. Jamara has also been instrumental in providing employment to local people though eco-development committee — guarding the area and labouring for renovation. In the last eight years, he has engaged in advocacy for the GIB and grassland conservation with State and Centre.

“Even though we gave them an alternative means to earn a living. To convince them to take them up was tough. People were used to illegal farming and grazing their cattle here endangering not just GIB but the entire habitat of the region. They didn’t see how what they were doing was wrong; they had been doing this for years. I told them if we increased the grasslands, it would good for them as well — they can take their cattle to graze there legally — leaving a large portion for GIB and other wildlife to thrive here. But to give alternative employment to so many people is difficult. But the villagers tell me that if they are given a job, they would stop traditional practices,” Jamara explains.

He started working on making the area a tourist attraction — Sam being a prime example. “With eco-tourism, it opened doors to alternate job opportunities. The grassland enclosers can be saved as well as GIB’s habitat. But more needs to be done. The money that is earned from eco-tourism should go to the local communities and ensure that the money is spent for their betterment,” Jamara tells you.

He tells you that back in the 80s, the number of this beautiful bird stood at 1,500, unfortunately, the number has dwindled to less than 100 according to 2011 census. However, Jamara’s work has paid off. The Wildlife of India picked up 10 GIB eggs to be artificially hatched in Desert National Park in Rajasthan. All the eggs were picked up from where Jamara has been working tirelessly.

“It is good to see my work been has paid off but there is much to do. I want to thank NatWest as well for the award,” Jamara says.

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