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Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2016-09-14

 

Heritage Hero’s epic journey through grassland of Manas National Park

 

Conservation is not a glamour world: Dr Bibhuti Lahkar

 

It was a wonderful piece of news that informed the global community on September 4 that Dr Bibhuti Lahkar, a noted wildlife biologist and a key member of the core team of Aaranyak, one of the most prominent wildlife conservation and research organizations in India based in Assam, won this year’s People’s Choice award for the IUCN Heritage Heroes for his outstanding contribution toward protection of wildlife and ecology of Manas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Assam. The award was announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, 2016, held at Hawaii.

Dr Lahkar has become not only the first Indian but also the first Asian to receive the coveted IUCN ‘Heritage Heroes Award’ that recognises outstanding efforts of conservationists around the world in making a difference in respect of conservation of World Heritage sites in challenging situations. The award is both a celebration of the places and people who inspire us and a wake-up call on the reality of threats on the ground.

Formed in 1948, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is the global authority on the conservation of natural heritage sites and provides measures to safeguard them.

Dr Lahkar has been working for the protection wildlife and habitat of Manas National Park in Assam close to two decades. He and Aaranyak, have also made significant contributions towards making the fringe area people partners in the efforts for conservation of bio-diversity in the picturesque Manas Park.  They have put up sustained efforts to provide alternative livelihood options to fringe people so as to reduce their dependence on forest resources.

The IUCN received over 30 nominations for the Heritage Heroes awards this year from across its World Heritage networks. The selection panel led by experts of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), shortlisted three nominations for the Heritage Heroes awards, which was launched at the IUCN World Conservation Congress-2016, Hawai Island. The three nominees who were shortlisted are Bantu Lukambo and Josué Kambasu Mukura, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo ( jointly nominated); Bibhuti Lahkar, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, India and Yulia Naberezhnaya and Andrey Rudomahka, Western Caucasus, Russian Federation (jointly nominated). Finally Dr Bibhuti Lahkar was selected for  the prestigious ‘Heritage Heroes’ award 2016, based on public voting all over the world

It is besides being an honour to Dr Lahkar, also a trophy to Manas World Heritage Site, its people, entire Manas landscape team of Aaranyak who have made an integrated effort for conservation of Manas wild and its resources under the leadership of Dr Bibhuti Lahkar as programme secretary of the organization.

Dr Lahkar first visited Manas way back in 1993 as a student and was bowled over by the serenity and grandeur of the landscape. He started his systematic endeavour in Manas as a researcher from 2000 on “ Ecology and management of grass land with special reference to grass and bird communities in Manas National Park”. As researcher he realised the importance of the grassland, preciousness of the trans-boundary landscape. He understood the importance of fringe communities in conservation  efforts. Therefore, around 2001-02, along with his research works, he started to motivate the local youth for conservation of Manas through bird watching (many of them are now expert birding guide, tourists guide and tourist support service provider).

Even after completion of his Ph.D. works, Dr Lahkar continued research studies in different dimensions  like population estimation of Asian Elephant  in Manas Park using dung count method ; Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) assessment ; trial and testing of mitigation measures ; community participation in HWC.  Popular concept earthen platform for monitoring, community patrolling, common system approach of crop management etc., were started in select fringe villages of Manas National Park under his stewardship.  Experimental action research on invasive species management that was spreading in the grasslands of Manas and  initiatives for alternative livelihood for fringe villagers  were undertaken.

It is noteworthy that Dr Lahkar spent his youthful days  in Manas  and never withdrew his efforts even when Manas was passing through a tumultuous phase during the militant movement . His initiatives were  instrumental behind  Manas regaining of world heritage site status. Manas was first declared as World Heritage Site (UNESCO) in 1985; but large scale degradation during the period of instability earned the Park `heritage site in danger’ tag in 1992. But constant efforts and community mobilization for conservation by Dr Lahkar and  his team in coordination with Assam Forest Department staff helped  restoring the glory and  World Heritage Site status for Manas Park in 2011.

Manas is the only Park in India with five different conservation statuses -- World heritage site, National Park, Tiger Reserve, Biosphere Reserve and Elephant Reserve. Recently, 350 sq.km area was added to the original 500 sq.km area of Manas Park.

The heritage hero status bestowed on our son of the soil,  Dr Bibhuti Lahkar,  is indeed an inspiration for those young Indians who aspire to be part of efforts for conservation of nature, wildlife, biodiversity and promotion of sustainable development.

Cyril Kormos, Vice Chair for World Heritage at IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas and Chair of the Heritage Heroes selection panel said :

“The Heritage Heroes people’s choice award recognizes Bibhuti Lahkar’s fantastic leadership. He is a role model for communities in Assam and conservationists everywhere. We all share a responsibility towards the protection of World Heritage sites – Bibhuti is a huge inspiration for renewing efforts to improve the conservation outlook of Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and World Heritage sites around the world.”

Following is the response of Dr Lahkar to queries sent to him through e-mail while he was attending the IUCN Congress in Hawaii :

 

How does it feel on being  honoured with  ‘Heritage Heroes Award’?

I am delighted and honoured to get this award. At same time, I am inspired to do more work for areas like Manas ;the awards had added to my responsibilities.

Why  is Manas Landscape important for you?

- Only park in India which has 5 conservation status.

- Only park in India which has 23 Schedule I wildlife species under   Wildlife Protection Act

- Only trans-boundary national park in Assam that  has a great diversity in landscape.

- Only home of pygmy hog, hispid hare, Bengal florican, swamp deer, rhino, Asiatic water buffalo, Manipur Bush Quil together and hence grassland is unique.

- Only place having viable population of pygmy hog in the world.

- Spectacular landscape and natural beauty.  

- The population of endemic golden langur inside India.

- It is an important bird area (IBA)

 

What are the motivating factors which inspire you to get constantly involved in conservation of Manas?

Since my undergraduate days, I have been travelling to different National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries to participate in tiger census, elephant census as a volunteer. I came to Manas in 1993 for first time and I was touched by its scenic beauty and fell in love with it at the first sight. I also felt and experienced that there were many people or conservationists working and contributing for others parks/PAs in Assam but there was hardly any individual who was constantly contributing or dedicatedly working to support conservation of Manas landscape as a whole. Further, looking at broken/damaged camps and bridges, I felt very sad and thought that wemustn’t allow the park to get damaged further. These factors combined to motivate me to work in Manas.

Today, I admit that Manas has given me everything -- my education (I completed my Ph.D., in Manas), my identity in the field of conservation and more important, my life partner, Namita without whose support I couldn’t have been what I am today in respect of conservation ofManas.

You had worked in troubled and  tumultuous  period of Manas, was there any hurdle and threat that you had to face? How did you handle such challenges?

I had felt anxious, apprehensive, after I received threats of extremist elements in my initial days in Manas. However I was not discouraged. I had taken suggestions from my mentors, district authorities and also started developing rapport with influential people in villages. I was suggested by everyone not to go away from the site.

During the most difficult period (following violent extremist activities), I was working on grassland ecology and management with special reference to pygmy hog, which is found onlyinManas Park in the world. So I had no other option but to put up a brave face and carry on with my work.

“Protection of Heritage site” – is it a moral obligation to you?

Yes, it is a moral obligation to protect a WHS. It is our duty to respect, cherish, promote and protect a WHS. It is a legacy that must be enjoyed by future generations of people.

 

What are contemporary challenges to Manas Landscape? How it can be addressed?

- Poaching and illegal felling of trees ( should be tackled by improving law enforcement in the park)

- Huge pressure on the natural resources from fringe villagers (sustainable alternative livelihood and conservation education are ways for addressing the issue).

- Invasive species ( solution lies in minimizing grazing pressing and restoring degraded grassland)

- Low morale of frontline staff ( need of the hour is to grant incentives and build capacity of staff ).

You have a long experience of community mobilization in conservation ; what are non-compromising principles one has to follow in such approaches?

 

- Self-motivation

- Dedication

- Determination

- Monitoring

- Constant follow up

What is your observation about prospects and potentials of Protected Area Management in Assam in specific and North East India in General?

The NE states are a part of two global biodiversity hotspots (Eastern Himalaya and Indo-Burma). There are seven World Heritage Sites in India and out of those  two are in Assam. We are very lucky to have rich biodiversity and it has great prospects for conservation. We should feel proud and save our protected areas not only for biodiversity conservation but also for climate change adaptation. 

What is your future plan with Manas Landscape?

- Bring Manas back to its original glory.

- Create love towards Manas

- Create avenues for unemployed in fringe area.

What you want to say to younger generation of the nation?

Field of Conservation is a passion and a path full of unseen real life challenges. It is not a glamour world.

 

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and  he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at jksbeltola@gmail.com )

 

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