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SOS Rhino : In the News : Manas poachers turn protectors - Bodos give up the gun to conserve and promote wildlife sanctuary

Manas poachers turn protectors - Bodos give up the gun to conserve and promote wildlife sanctuary

Thursday, March 10, 2005
The Telegraph, Calcutta, India

Siliguri, March 9: Until a year ago, they were a dreaded lot, killing elephants and felling trees indiscriminately. Today, they are not only devout conservationists, but also the most hospitable hosts, ready to welcome you with wngkham and oma alu (boiled rice with pork and potato curry).

The Bodos living on the eastern fringes of Assam's Manas Wildlife Sanctuary are ready to create history of sorts with the first community-based eco-tourism project in the Northeast.

The initiative is being co-ordinated by the Siliguri-based Help Tourism and Ashoka Holidays. "The Bodos decided to give up their violent ways after an agreement was signed on February 10, 2003, for the creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council," said Raj Basu, director of Help Tourism and vice-president of the Association for Conservation and Tourism (ACT).

He and Partha Das of Ashoka Holidays are two of the prime movers of the project, which is being backed by the Manas authorities, the Bodoland Territorial Council, the All Bodo Students' Union, the Chapaguri Koklabari Anchalik Committee and ACT.

"They (the Bodos) realised that they would have to conserve the forests and wildlife to survive. They chose tourism as an eco-friendly and sustainable way of livelihood and we are helping them market the project. Eco-tourism will help substitute a number of activities like firewood collection, cattle grazing in a protected area and illicit felling and poaching," Basu said.

The Bodos have formed an eco-tourism committee, Mao-zigendri Eastern Manas Eco-tourism Society. Reformed poacher Budheshwar Bora, who killed 80 tuskers, two tigers and countless deer during his days as a hunter, is one of the members of the committee. Nearly 150 poachers surrendered their gaziman (poaching guns) recently to take up forest conservation and tourism promotion.

"In the last fortnight alone, they rescued three pythons trapped by villagers. Had they not turned over a new leaf, they would have killed the snakes and sold the skins," Basu said.

"We are training them on handling tourists. Regular workshops on identifying birds and flora and fauna are being organised. Given their sense of discipline and dedication, they are working wonders," he added.

Das, who is the general manager of Ashoka Holidays, said the enthusiasm of the residents was overwhelming.

"Every night, they patrol the forests to ward off poachers. They have even constructed a 40-km road in the core area of the forest on their own, which was hitherto inaccessible. Pleased by their enthusiasm, the Wildlife Trust of India has offered to provide free petrol for two years of night patrolling," he said.

A special tour package, Manas-100, has been launched, too. It includes jeep safaris, exploration of forest trails, elephant rides, visits to Hornbill Point and a Bengal Florican survey.

The activities lined up in the nearby villages include treks, functions showcasing folk culture and an introduction to traditional weaving and methods of distilling country liquor.

A docu-film has been made and a London-based photographer has volunteered to do the promotion brochures. It will be the first time that tourists will be able to enter eastern Manas, over 435 km east of here.

Absu's office has been converted into a dormitory where tourists can stay.

"We hope to start home-stay concepts in at least 10 homes by October. Each house will require about Rs 20,000 for renovation. We are helping the residents with soft loans," Basu said.

The project will cover 57 villages in eastern Manas.

The forest is home to a variety of wildlife, including endangered species such as the tiger, pygmy hog and one-horned rhino. It was first declared a World Heritage Site in 1985.

In 1992, Unesco listed Manas as a "World Heritage Site in danger" because of intrusions by militants. The damage to the sanctuary in financial terms was estimated to be over $2 million. Apart from being a wildlife sanctuary, it is a biosphere reserve, a tiger reserve, a national park and a forest reserve.

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