Words by Prabal Kr. Das
One of India’s most committed conservation workers is also one of the most low-profile. Working in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, below the radar of public exposure, he truly understands the landscape, the wildlife it sustains, the needs of local communities, and crucial issues which involve all three of them. Bibhuti Lahkar has worked tirelessly for close to 20 years to change the park’s fortune for the better; and the most tangible result to have emerged has been the removal of the site from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2011.
Manas Wildlife Sanctuary was inscribed as a natural World Heritage site in 1985 due to its exceptional biodiversity and ecosystems, which provide critical habitat to rare and endangered species, including the tiger, greater one-horned rhino, swamp deer, pygmy hog and Bengal florican. The site’s conservation outlook is assessed as of significant concern by the IUCN World Heritage Outlook.
Bibhuti started working in the site in 1999 as part of his PhD, focusing on the management of grasslands of Manas with particular reference to the Critically Endangered pygmy hog, which is found nowhere else in the world. This work meant he had to stay near the park and traverse a landscape that was greatly ravaged by activities of militant groups operating in the area.
The then young student had to build ties not just with forest personnel in Manas, but also with local residents who were wary of strangers. For years, he was the only link connecting Manas with environmental scholars. As there were no role models to look up to, Bibhuti drew his own roadmap to support local communities while bringing positive changes on the ground.
“I questioned myself as to whether my studies would be useful to people. I was able to translate science to the common people, for example how to monitor wildlife and vegetation; some of them are illiterate and that’s a reason why I was motivated to constantly engage with communities.”
In strategic places where wildlife was particularly vulnerable, Bibhuti held dozens of public meetings in which locals were made aware about the value of Manas as a natural World Heritage site and as an ecotourism destination. While Bibhuti sought help from local communities, he was also resolved to empower youths to gain opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. With no external aid available, he singlehandedly motivated about 100 youths to learn the basics of wildlife monitoring and act as tour guides. Today they are engaged in ecotourism ventures and support their families.
Bibhuti played a critical role in the rehabilitation of surrendered poachers, enabling them to lead a dignified and socially meaningful life. A fact not known to people away from Manas is that his team trained around 600 members of local grassroots NGOs, including ex-poachers who now act as protectors of Manas.
“Manas Wildlife Sanctuary was listed as in danger for 20 years as a result of human destruction and overexploitation. Now the same people come forward as volunteers to protect the park,” he says. “We need more conservationists so that our future generations can see tigers, rhinos, in real and not in picture.”
As a step toward empowering communities, he focused on women and offered them regular income opportunities. More than 100 ‘self-help groups’ were formed, encouraging women to engage in alternative livelihoods such as food processing, weaving and fishery. This came as a succor in an area where income avenues were scanty.
He oversaw the installation of a 14-km long electric fence to safeguard around 1,000 economically weak households from elephant depredation in a buffer area of the World Heritage site. No causality of humans or elephants was recorded since it was installed in 2013.
It is no surprise that Bibhuti is considered a key figure whose work ensured that Manas Wildlife Sanctuary regained an improved standard of conservation after being listed as in danger for some 20 years. Today, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary thrives as a model demonstrating best practice through strategic interventions and community participation. The work accomplished by him and his team, along with key forest department personnel, resulted in threats to diminish to such an extent that the site could be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
While addressing community participation and livelihood needs, Bibhuti has been instrumental in establishing science-based conservation in the park. His research findings and recommendations provided substantial information toward the Manas Tiger Conservation Plan. He played the leading role in connecting Manas Wildlife Sanctuary with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan. Now a system of transboundary wildlife monitoring supports management in the entire Manas natural area that spreads across India and Bhutan. He also conducted the first GIS surveys of the park, which became a critical component for drawing the management plan for the site.
Bibhuti Lakhar is a self-confessed conservationist dedicated to Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, describing himself as a guardian of this exceptional landscape. “I can strongly admit that Manas has given me everything, my education, my identity in the field of conservation and more importantly my life partner-Namita.”
Bibhuti was voted as the people's choice Heritage Hero! All candidates to the Heritage Heroes awards were celebrated during the IUCN World Conservation Congress on 3 September.