Less than 20 years ago, Manas National Park was a virtual death trap for thousands of unsuspecting animals including the vulnerable Indian rhino. Poaching was rife and killing of animals was rampant. And that was because Manas was located right at the heart of Bodoland, a culturally-diverse and politically-volatile autonomous region in India. When the Bodoland Nationalist Movement started in 1986, the whole of north western Assam was plunged into a state of lawlessness. Forests were left open and unguarded. Rhinos were poached and sold across the border in Bhutan. Elephants and tigers were ruthlessly slaughtered. Smaller animals were killed for meat. Trees were felled and timber was siphoned off. Manas was badly caught in the quagmire.
There had been as many as 100 rhinos in Manas at the beginning of 1980s. During the insurgency that lasted between 1986 and 2003, all of them were wiped out. These years also saw the killing of six forest staff and several domesticated elephants and the reckless destruction of camps and range offices. The wildlife sanctuary, which had been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, stood at the brink of imminent disaster.
Ethnic tensions eased as Bodo autonomy was recognized in 2003. BTC members started taking an active role in conservation. They educated poachers on how poaching was affecting their own ecosystem. Most importantly, they encouraged locals to participate in the process and instilled in them a sense of pride and belonging for their motherland. Budheswar Bodo, an ex-poacher from the 1980s who lost an arm in a nasty wildlife encounter, recounts, “BTC members made me realise that the protection of my motherland rested on my shoulders. For the first time in many years, I felt that Manas truly belonged to me and my fellowmen.
A prolonged discussion with Budheswar and two other ex-poachers made it evident that these people had given up poaching not necessarily for an assured income or a respectable lifestyle (though they were important factors) but for their own sense of belongingness. Over the second half of 2003, a 3-tier structure was put in place to restore Manas to its former glory. It included members of the BTC, ex-poachers, and local youth organizations that played a vital connect between the government and the erstwhile rustlers.
With the launch of Indian Rhino Vision 2020 in 2005, rhinos began to be reintroduced into Manas. Ex-poachers were made an integral part of the entire effort. They knew the forests of Manas like the back of their hands. They knew all about animal habitats, feeding times, cries, and calls. They could track and bring back animals if they went astray. Needless to say, they made the best protectors. Slowly but surely, the rhino number at Manas increased. It is now back at 40.