Once a hunter who became the hunted, Budheswor Boro is a much-tortured soul. Looking a lot older than his 40 summers, Boro has seen it all—guns, gore, despair, hope, and yes, perhaps, a little bit of smug satisfaction now.
After all, he has been in the business of blood since the age of 12, when he joined a gang of poachers who operated in Manas, a wide swath of semi-evergreen monsoon forests in the Bodoland territorial zone of western Assam.
It is rather strange the manner in which the vicissitudes of Boro’s life and the destiny of the about 1,000 sq km (half of which is the core area) Manas forests along the Bhutan foothills are intertwined. For one thing, both have been through a lot.
For Boro, picking an occupation wasn’t difficult. Hunting was a tradition not looked down upon. There were plenty of local experts to make guns or to stuff gunpowder into cartridges, and abundant thick forests all around. Manas has the rare distinction of bearing several identities—being recognised as a national park, a wildlife sanctuary, an elephant reserve, a Project Tiger site and a UNESCO-named Natural World Heritage area. Some of its unique animals are the golden langur, pygmy hog, slow loris and the hispid hare.
“I killed everything in sight—rhinos, elephants, tigers, animals and birds, both big and small. Misguided as I was, I now realise that it was a senseless thing to do. I don’t want to hunt any more. My mind has completely changed,” says Boro with a laboured shrug of his right shoulder, from where hangs his arm tapering off suddenly.
“It was in 2000. A huge wild boar gored me on my right hand. I had already shot at it twice, but it ran off. After following the trail of blood for a little distance, I came into a small clearing underneath a gooseberry tree. As I looked around, out of nowhere the wounded boar rushed at me, attacking my right arm. I only saw blood and the hand hang loose. I lost consciousness. My hand had to be amputated.”
“Later, others from my five-member gang found the wild boar dead a few kilometres away with the two bullets I had fired into it,” says Boro, who grew up real fast from a boy to a man. “We would kill the animals and sell them to a contact named Wangchu, who came down from Bhutan. All our kill would go to Bhutan and where it went from there we didn’t know.”
Boro was born in a Bodo tribal village near Manas at a time when the forest was teeming with all kinds of life forms. From birds to insects and beasts of the wild—he had seen first hand the entire jungle being almost cleared of its extensive wildlife because of rampant hunting by locals in the vicinity, by poaching prompted by pure human greed mainly through organised gangs with strong foreign links that operated with impunity, but more so by the activity of armed insurgent groups like the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) that wanted to carve out a separate autonomy of Bodoland in Assam.
“Now, far from killing animals, I stand here as their guardian and protector,” Boro says as his colleagues nod on. This small group—a motley mix of forest department guards, former poachers, erstwhile BLT guerrillas and members of the powerful All Bodo Students’ Union—together have set up a successful model of forest conservation and environment preservation that is worth emulating. For one thing, no one knows the forest, the terrain and the habits of the local wildlife like they do.
“We were more than a hundred. There were no jobs for us and we were always short of money,” Boro says. “From that generation, some have already passed away, some have died by the gun and many of us are alive as the last few standing. All of us surrendered to the authorities together but one thing is for sure—there are no new poachers now nor will there be any. We ensure that. After all we have been down that road.”
From the late 1990s till 2003, the BLT let loose a reign of terror that saw considerable bloodshed in west Assam. Comprising mainly youth from the surrounding villages and towns like Kokrajhar, the group had set up training camps in the Manas forests to teach its cadres how to handle deadly weapons and assemble sophisticated explosives.
“As we used to stay inside the thick jungle with stocked-up provisions and ration, we would often come across these guerrillas inside the forest,” says Boro.
And it was not long before the thick green had almost become a wide expanse of shrubs littered with chopped trees. The extensive deforestation, destruction and plunder of wildlife because of the rampant poaching and insurgency attracted international attention leading to the UNESCO in 1992 putting the area in its list of World Heritage in Danger.
In early 2003, the BLT inked an accord with the government paving the way for the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council. More than 2,500 BLT members surrendered.
Realising the urgency, the conservation effort focussed primarily on two fronts—confiscating the hunting guns and altering the attitudes of the local people. The seizing of the illegal guns—running into hundreds—paid off well.
The more difficult part was the mindset. “It was customary for entire villages and the community to indulge in a mass hunt during certain days of the year. It had traditional sanction. It was not easy to change that, but educating the locals and increasing their active involvement worked. Moreover, people saw a lot of promise in the advantages offered by a flourishing tourism industry,” says Boro.
“The attitudinal change has been so immense that whenever a deer, a tiger or a wild boar enters human habitation in the surrounding vicinity of Manas, they are shooed away, not hunted down like in the past. And if the animals do not go away, our teams are called in for help to make the animal go back into the forest.”
The core work of this group is to patrol and guard the forest zone from poachers and others of their ilk, educate locals and villagers, manage infrastructure and logistics inside the jungle. In return, there is the promise of a monthly salary, the assurance of no longer being hunted, but, more importantly, the lure of respectability.
Eight years ago, Manas again attracted global attention—this time, it was commended for its efforts in preservation. On June 21, 2011, Manas was taken off the list of threatened world heritage sites by a UNESCO meet in Paris.
The birds have come back, as also the rhino that grazes among the tall wild grass. Boro and his colleagues have also succeeded in their task of convincing their fellow Bodos on the need for conservation of nature and safeguarding what the forests offer.
“I only hope it stays this way,” says Boro, allowing himself the rare luxury of a faint grin of satisfaction, hiding the pain and agony of a tumultuous destiny that both he and the forest share.