Dr Bibhuti Lahkar is a man engaged for wildlife and people. He understands that conserving threatened flora and fauna can only be achieved in the long-term if the local population is supportive and receives some benefit from the protection. Part of his work is now funded through IUCN Tiger Programme.
As an ecologist Dr Bibhuti Lahkar has intensively studied the grasslands of the Manas National Park, a World Heritage site in Bodoland Territorial Council of Assam, North-east India. He became a sought-after expert for the threatened flora and fauna of the Terai region, at the southern foothills of the Himalayas. Counting rare and secret birds or identifying grass species however isn’t what Bibhuti spends his time on today. During his time of research the scientist of the Assamese research and conservation NGO “Aaranyak” found himself in the middle of the Bodo agitation, followed by the armed struggle by Bodo insurgents. People took advantage of this instable situation, occupied land within the National Park or went for timber collection and poaching within the Protected Area. As a consequence Manas was listed as a World Heritage Site “in Danger” (1992-2011).
During that time Bibhuti understood that conserving threatened flora and fauna can only be achieved in long-term, when the local population is supportive and receives some benefit from the protection. “This is why I decided to work with these people, not against them”, Bibhuti explains. First, he started training young people with tourist guide skills and in wildlife monitoring. Then he constantly moved around the communities, holding meetings and workshops and discussing with various stakeholders on how solutions can be found for both, threatened wildlife and the people of Manas. He never got tired of explaining about the treasures of Manas and talked to everyone from farmer to officials. “Manas is the life line of Bodoland and research alone cannot ensure long-term conservation” Bibhuti states, “to conserve this rich natural heritage community engagement and participation is a must”.
By the end of the Bodo agitation Bibhuti took a leading role in training surrendered poachers and hunters on biodiversity, protection and monitoring of wildlife. These poachers turned conservationists are now helping the Forest Department in patrolling and protection of Manas. It is these glimmers of hope that motivate Bibhuti to carry on, “Manas even after such turmoil has not lost its past glory and so I am as always, still impressed by the beauty and the richness of the landscape”.
Developing sustainable income generating activities for those people, who are still highly dependent on the natural resources of Manas National Park, is Bibhuti’s scope of work as Aaranyak’s Manas Landscape Administrator and as Asian coordinator for the French NGO Awely, today. As long as people living directly at the National Park boundary have no other options than cooking on firewood from the Park or sending their cattle to graze inside the grasslands of the park, conservation will be a constant fight against people. Only if their needs and dependency on natural resources of Manas are reduced they will be able to support conservation. With IUCN’s Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme in Manas Bibhuti and his team can now extend their activities to the neediest and most dependant neighbours of Manas and strive with them for a liveable future for both, wildlife and people. For his great commitment for Manas, Bibhuti has been nominated for Heritage Heroes award in 2016.
Written by Eva Gross, Programme Director, Awely, 3, Place de la République, 45000 Orléans, France