Born to be Wild!
A tete-a-tete with forester Abhijit Rabha
What is man if not an animal? The only factor which separates him from other animals is his use of emotions, his use of intuition and intelligence. The fact remains that we are animals, albeit intelligent ones. However, as much as we have evolved and adopted new forms of technology into our lives, we have deviated from our basic roots to a hitherto in-between region. When you do meet people who still believe in acting out their animal instincts and feel uncomfortable with hypocrisy, materialism and all the other boons (?) of modern day living, we lose no time in labelling him as an outcast.
Being a music lover, the number Born to be wild, by the American rock band, Steppenwolf, keeps reverberating in my mind whenever I meet Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Abhijit Rahba. His love for the wilderness, his being uncomfortable in the chaos of the city and towns, his becoming uncomfortable while coming face with hypocrisy and shallow words – all these helps nurture my idea that ultimately, the wilderness is the only abode for this energetic forester.
Apart from the top designations, Abhijit Rabha is better known as the forester who was instrumental in reviving Manas National Park which was on the brink of oblivion and which had been written off by environmentalists, as well as the people of Asom. His story is one of valour, courage and the fact that transition in our thought patterns is of utmost importance if we are to reach our final aim. I sat down with this energetic forester at his Rajgarh residence a few days back to talk about his tryst with wildlife and how Manas changed his perspective on life.
- Please tell us something about your childhood and your tryst with wildlife.
I was born in Dhubri though my childhood was spent travelling throughout the breadth of the State due to my father’s job postings as an administrative officer. I had a happy childhood under the supervision of my mother Deepali Rabha and younger siblings, sister Pallavi and brother Debojit. My initial memories revolve around a two-storeyed house in Nizarapar Chariali of Guwahati, though it was the wilderness that struck my fancy. My father’s frequent transfers to exotic and remote locales of the State helped instil a deep love for wildlife in my heart. My first brush with wildlife occurred when my father was posted in Mangaldoi and I made full use of the opportunity to roam around the area and play with the domesticated animals. In fact, it was in Mangoldoi that I rode an elephant for the first time. I got the opportunity because my sister refused to ride a black and dirty animal!
However, it was only in Batiya refugee camp of Goalpara district that I realised that the wilderness was my life’s calling. My father was posted as the in-charge of the refugee camp established to house the Hindu refugees from East Pakistan before the 1965 war. It would not be wrong to say that my foundation was laid in the refugee camp. My primary education was looked after a refugee teacher and my childhood friends were refugees. I had a great time roaming around the wilderness and my stay in the camp brought around the love for thrills in my life. Even after we left the refugee camp to Goalpara, my tryst with the wilderness continued. At that time, Goalpara was unpolluted. One could see dolphins swimming in the rivers and a variety of birds. It was a beautiful area and I fell in love with it. I used to roam around the jungles the whole day, much to the consternation of my friends and family members. I did my major schooling in Goalpara and finally passed out from Prithiram Government High School and M.P. school. We shifted to Guwahati in 1976 and graduated in Geology from Cotton College after dribbling for a short while in Petroleum Engineering at the Indian School of Mines, Dehradun.
- What was the journey to become a forest officer like and what kind of obstacles did you face initially?
Asom was going through a critical period while I was doing my graduations. Two factors were pre-dominant, one being the Asom Andolan and the second being the lack of openings in professional fields. Since I missed out on the medical and engineering professions, I had to concentrate on my security. I used to conduct quiz programmes and compeer western music shows to earn some extra pocket money. During this time, I also started producing audio-features on nature for All India Radio. At that time, I met Moshaddi Ikar Omar whom I regard as my Guru; there was nothing which he didn’t know about wildlife. He opened up the entire cultural and natural history of Asom in front of me and I took to bird-watching though I used to have a hard time procuring a pair of binoculars. Amidst all the chaos in Asom at that time, I got into the IFS in 1984. That year, I was the only candidate selected from Assam and I was fortunate to score the highest marks at the All India level. The two years in the Forestry school at Dehradun was tough. I still remember that the first class which I had to attend was Outdoor Botany, more commonly referred to as Botanisation. During those two years, we were thoroughly tested for our aptitude besides overall development of the personality. I spent three months in Mysore on probation as part of the foundation course after which I came back to join the Assam-Meghalaya cadre. My first positing as a forest officer was in the Nagaon Territorial Division. There are two wildlife habitats in Nagaon; one is Laokhowa Wildlife Sactuary while the other is Pobitora Reserve Forest. Though all the rhinos of Laokhowa WS had become extinct during the Asom Andolan, a few remained in Pabitora and the wild spark which had become dormant, got re-ignited during my posting in Pobitora. I had done a rhino census in Pobitora RF under Retd. Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Prabanda Lahon who used to encourage and guide us a lot. Then a political transfer to Aivalley division in Bongaigaon occurred after which the Government sent me to the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun for a nine-month post-graduate diploma course. There at the FRI institute, which was in the premises of the institute, I learnt the basics of wildlife protection and management. Those nine months were difficult but it opened up an entirely new world of concepts in front of me.
- How and when did Manas happen? What was the Manas stint like?
My first encounter with Manas was as a student during an excursion. My second encounter was as the Deputy Field Director of the Park. When I went as a student, Praban Lahon was the DFO and during the second time, he was my boss. The third time around, I went there as the Field Director. Manas had been a learning experience in the truest sense of the term. The six years long sting in Manas taught me two very important things: firstly, it is difficult to take the right decision at the crux of the moment but the right decision has to be taken at that very instant. The second lesson that I learnt was that one has to be courageous, while in Manas, if he wanted to survive.
Manas was a place of action as something always used to be going on. I learnt a lot of things the hard way bit I have to credit to Lahon for being a thorough administrator, who understood the value of delegating responsibilities. In the beginning, I did all sorts of jobs like elephant management, wireless management, etc. Over there, wireless sets could not be replaced and we had to repair them ourselves! Manas had been a hard test. The situation was volatile when I went there. I saw game-watchers and guards being killed by extremists and wrong-doers; mahouts being injured and then recovered after ages. I encountered death at very close quarters and I can say that I saw death itself. During that period, I realised that we can easily lose our lives for the cause of wildlife and how dauntless the front liners of the forest department indeed are. Apart from anything else, they needed just a lot of support and leadership. My first sting in Manas ended as I fell down from an elephant and got injured. I was transferred to Karimganj and promoted to become the youngest ever Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests at the age of 35. I got married to Bonita Chuchiyang in Karimganj who has borne me two lovely daughters, Priyadarshini and Indrani.
- What was your second stint in Manas like?
There were lot of things that needed to be done in Manas. Manas was almost given up as dead; not only by the people but also by some of the famous environmentalists. Manas was surrounded by troubles from all sides but when I went, I found out that the situation was not that bad. Being young, the first reaction was retribution and we took to arms. I wrote to my friend Vivek Menon of the Wildlife Trust of India who sent me around 200 Foresters kits. Poaching and insurgency were going on in full swing in Manas at that time. Though we never came face-to-face with militants, we used to engage in arm-to-arm combats with poachers on a regular basis. In two years, we gunned down around twelve timber fellers, which was a record of sorts taking into account the negligible funds allocated to the National park. During that time, the Director of Project Tiger Dr. Rajesh Gopal had come to our park for an inspection and to his amazement, he found a large prey base of tigers and some of the Schedule 1 species. They even found a pygmy hog which had long been feared to be extinct. Project tiger had a different notion of Manas after that. The State Forest Minister also visited the park and slowly Manas got some attention during 2001-02. Since there was no scientific management plan in Manas, I was sent to Australia for training in World Heritage site reporting. I filed the report for Manas after coming back, which was accepted by UNESCO. By 2003, Manas had become part of the Ripu-Chirang Elephant Reserve and the Monitoring of Illegally Killed Elephants (MIKE) was also implemented. GPS system was put into daily use in the Park.
It was during this time that I started doing some serious introspection. We all knew that the World Heritage Site was in danger since we did not receive any sort of patronage from any quarters. The Project Tiger director pitched in with some funds and we began to work in an earnest manner. However, deep down in my heart, I felt that nothing could be achieved without public support. A huge gap existed between the locales and the foresters. There were probably more country-made rifles outside the park than elephants inside the sanctuary. It was a no-win situation and the risks had also increased considerably as two staff members became victims of Human Rights allegations while trying to defend the park and wildlife. Things were getting difficult and I started sending message to the ABSU boys for the Eastern sector of the park had to be guarded if we were to survive. And on one fine day, I met the ABSU boys and a few ex-BLT cadres at Kokilabari on a river-bed to discuss about the future of Manas. On that day, all of us reached an understanding on the security, safety and future of Manas. Thus, Manas Moazigendri Eco-tourism Society was born, which had three wings- one for protection, one for eco-tourism and another for extension of conservation projects.
That was the beginning for with the support of ABSU and the BLT, ex-poachers came and surrendered their arms to this combined platform. Seeing great potential in the poachers, we turned them into forest gaurds! Manas started turning around slowly. With the change in political scenarion with the formation of the BTAD, the Manas Moazigendri became popular and was adopted everywhere.
The situation In Bodoland changed drastically with the coming of peace and we used it to our full advantage. I could impress on both the locals and the BTAD that Manas was their brand product and a source of pride for Bodos. As a result, we enjoyed unimaginable political support.
By that time, I saw a rhino in the park and the inter-state rhino translocation also got off and with the successful translocation of rhinos, Manas started enjoying a lot of attention.
5. After all that you did in Manas, how would you look at the days you spent in the National Park?
I spent six years in Manas and looking back, I feel like laughing and crying at the same time. If I was to do an analysis of what I have achieved, I can say that there had been a drastic change in my outlook since I went there. I went there banking on the support of guns but the situation taught me otherwise. My outlook underwent a thorough change and it was only with the employment of love, compassion that we could revive Manas once again. Then I also realised that we need to be innovative while carrying out our daily affairs and that we have to be site-specific if we are to achieve any tangible results. We developed our own form of elephant estimation work, which was relative to the needs of Manas and linked all radios in the park to evolve the ‘Radio-Linked Parallel Search Total Count Method’. We managed to bring the geographical map to the computer screen which helped us tremendously in our fight against poachers and wrong-doers.