The Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) also known as the Imperial Heron is a magnificent bird that stands almost 1.3m tall. Its guardians are a team of six men and their names are Ananta Bagh, Maheswar Muchahary, Rajaram Brahma, Bimala Prasad Basumatary, Bijoy Choudhury and Rajual Islari. Together these grassroots conservationists protect the last remaining 250 mature individuals of the species by interacting with their local communities living around the remote border territory between Bhutan and Assam, India, home to the Manas Tiger Reserve.
The White-bellied heron is vulnerable to threats such as forest degradation and human disturbance. As a central part of its vision for protecting the species, SOS grantee, ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) had planned to recruit six talented individuals, one per identified habitat area it aimed to protect. In coordination with its partner, Nature’s Foster, ATREE then identified grassroots level organizations active in the field of conservation. From these came the Heron Guardians. Each species champion was tasked with the responsibility for interacting with the local community and sensitizing a wider array of stakeholders including forest authorities, schools, the private sector, regional media and the political class in their respective sites on the conservation needs of the species. They also participate in monitoring the species sites to assess the presence, absence, activity, habitat use and impact of threats. Ultimately, explains Sarala Khaling, project leader with ATREE, the primary role of the Heron Guardians is to represent the cause of the White-bellied heron from a threat mitigation perspective.
The men come from different ethnic backgrounds, but the challenge and the energy required to face it, are the same. These six Heron Guardians are passionate defenders of their homes and natural heritage. Whether it is the Nonai range, the Kuklung range, the Ultapani range, the Subankhata Forest Reserve or another, each part of the Manas Tiger Reserve is precious and beautiful beyond comparison. Each man became involved in protecting the environment in different ways. Some created community organizations, others were inspired by childhood events, one even rescued a White-bellied heron from a nearby village where it had been captured. Facing the challenges they see, some are enthusiastic, others more sanguine, but all appear ready for the task – a journey into the hearts and minds of their neighbours, their peers, friends and colleagues and the institutions that govern.
They agree that habitat restoration in their areas will be another key to conservation of the species. Bimala goes one further. According to him stone quarrying, logging, over grazing, non-timber forest produce collection and poaching are the major problems. Similarly, Rajual and Rajaram add encroachment and fishing to the list of key issues.
Indeed Manas Tiger Reserve is home to so much life. The Heron Guardians may champion one Critically Endangered, seldom seen species of bird, but hopefully their legacy will be deeper and broader than just one animal, albeit one so regal and at risk. Indeed practical wildlife conservation is an inherently complex set of inter-related issues, from species to ecosystem to social dimensions to name just a few considerations. And so perhaps this Imperial Guard is not so misleading a title after all, for by focusing on the White-bellied Heron, this project will in some way go to protecting the one true empire - nature this time in the form of the Manas Tiger Reserve.
SOS – Save Our Species is a joint initiative of IUCN, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank supported by the Fonds français pour l’environnement mondial (FFEM). Its objective is to ensure the long-term survival of threatened wildlife, their habitats and the people who depend on them.