(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2012. Authors: Deba Kumar Dutta, Senior Project Officer, WWF-India and Amit Sharma, Coordinator of the Rhino Conservation Programme, WWF-India)
Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV2020) has created a forum to involve the local community in conservation activities. Under the banner of IRV2020, WWF India, Manas National Park Authorities and other local organisations have collaborated to undertake many community initiatives, in conjunction with the release of rhino translocated to Manas from other parks in Assam.
Manas National Park is a World Heritage Site situated in Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), Assam, India. The pristine and fragile landscape of Manas is located on the northern belt of the river Brahmaputra. Local people fondly know Manas as Jwngni Manas Hagrama, Amar Manas, “our beloved Manas”, or Jwngni Game, “our game reserve”. Colloquially, Jwngni Game Manas has more affinity with the Bodo community, which dominates the villages around the border of the Park. The translocation of rhino has become a great way to facilitate to community involvement in conservation activities.
During the period Jan 2010 to Dec 2011, interactive programmes were arranged in 23 schools, reaching out to more than 4,200 children from 35 different villages, and in 48 villages, reaching out to more than 5,000 adults.
Manas Ever Welfare Society (MEWS), based at Bansbari Range, has set up tourist cottages that have been in operation for more than two years, with extensive technical support from WWF. To initiate community-based tourism, a local group of about 20 youths were encouraged to train in the local art form, Bihu, which is popular with tourists. These youths have been performing over the last two years and are able to earn a handsome livelihood.
A small dairy unit with two cows and two calves was set up in Madrijhar village. With support from the agriculture department and active engagement from members of MEWS, a pilot initiative of alternative cropping has been undertaken in the fringe areas of Manas under the Bansbari range. Through this initiative, 15 families from five villages were encouraged to cultivate ginger. They were provided with 50kg free seeds per family. The first harvest was made during the early part of 2011 and the average productivity has been 110kgs per family.
In 2011, over 50 families were provided with free seeds to compensate for crop damage by a rhino at Bhuyanpara Range. However, the 8km electric fence commissioned in 2009 does largely contain crop depredation, and the local community are happy and supportive. Community awareness has helped maintain the electric fence, with dozens of people volunteering their time to assist. Breakage inflicted by human actions has gone down by almost 50%, and theft of materials has been non-existent since community programmes began. There has been a visible decrease in the number of cattle entering the Park for grazing.
We have seen a huge change in the attitude of the villagers. Villagers and school authorities extend invitations to us, wanting to know more about rhinos and Manas, and share information they have about rhinos and other wildlife. Sometimes villagers even make a call at midnight with news of rhino that have strayed, and help us to bring the rhino back inside the Park boundary. Villagers frequently visit our field camp located at Bansbari, Gyati village to learn more, and provide us with information on rhinos and other wild animals. We hope that these positive trends will continue, and that Manas will flourish further.
We duly acknowledge the Assam Forest Department, WWF, IRF, USFWS and BTC for their initiative and continued support. We also offer our thanks to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, all the members of the Task Force for Translocation of Rhinos within Assam and its sub-groups. A special thanks to all the doctors from College of Veterinary Sciences, Khanapara, WTI, Aaranyak and Assam State Zoo. Thanks to the media, Police Department, Indian Army, SSB, District Administration, local NGOs and the community for their much-needed support.