Some days back, Arend de Haas, the Programme Director of The Netherland-based Rewilding Academy came to meet me after the United Nations had honoured me for my conservation efforts. It was an unplanned visit. I did not get the chance to take him to Kaziranga or Manas wildlife sanctuaries. I did take him to Deepor Beel, the banks of the Brahmaputra in Amingaon, Dadara, Pasaria, Singimari, Agyathuri, Palashbari, and even places in Morigaon districts. At the end of it all he remarked, “You are right Purnima, I am in a Biodiversity Hotspot.”
I feel you can internalise our nature, culture, food habits and our diversity in any place in Assam. The world is acknowledging us for our natural environment and wildlife. This is a matter of pride for us. The credit goes to the people of Assam for the rewilding and restoration efforts taking place in the State.
For the last two decades, I have been associated with the preservation of the hargilla (greater adjutant stork). Because of my activities at the grassroots, I have concluded that slowly but surely a renaissance of sorts is happening among the people vis-à-vis the wildlife.
Just a few days ago, someone called Diganta Das called me at 5 am from Jalukbari. He informed that he has seen two young birds akin to hargillas, lying on the road with injuries. It was a unique experience for him to see hargillas in the busy area of Jalukbari on the outskirts of the Guwahati metro. I could sense from his description that they were hargillas and it was their first ever flight. Whereas I reached out to forest officials, Diganta got in touch with the police. Thankfully, because of this joint effort involving the public, an activist, the government departments, the hargillas were rescued.
I am regularly contacted by many like Digantas from all over the State, especially from those areas where wildlife settlement is plentiful. I know that there is a greater degree of awareness. But of late, what has surprised me is that people call me up from places where they may not have ever seen a hargillas ever. I do not expect everyone in Assam to spot the difference between a hargilla and a lesser adjutant; they may not distinguish between an adult hargilla or a young one but what is important is whether he has the sensitivity and awareness towards wildlife. For example, once you spot an injured wildlife, it is important not to pour water over it or to surround it. It is here that I am noticing awareness building up in society.
In Assam, wherever such incidence occurs, the people reach out to police first. I feel that because this habit will be there for a long time, the police may be sensitised of the dos and don’ts while handling such calls. The police top brass needs to take this into consideration while planning the training programme of recruits and serving policemen.
The next step could be to activate the helpline of the Forest Department. Government websites and social media handles must do more to create awareness on how to rescue wildlife. The Government can go a step forward and think of establishing wildlife rescue centres. However, I must admit that because of the efforts of the Forest Department and the State Zoo, we have been able to rescue and rehabilitate more than 550 hargillas and birds. My experience with the administration in this is also very positive. In one instance, a Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup once offered me his personal vehicle to help us rescue a hargilla. We have received support from the police as well on many occasions. I am also noticing that forest officials down to the lowest rung are very active and incidences of inter-departmental cooperation have gone up many notches.
An incident that is imprinted on my mind is the day Namita Das of Dadara came to meet me demanding compensation for 10 ducks which she said hargillas have eaten. She came to know that I was working for the preservation of the hargillas. This was some 14-years earlier. When she heard me at a meeting in Sankardev Sishu Niketan. After she heard my speech, her mind changed. Today, she is one of the most active members of our ‘Hargilla Army’. Change of heart is most important for the preservation of the environment.
In the course of my work, I have realised that nature and wildlife have bestowed us an atmosphere of sustainability. Our art and culture, our food and lifestyle, and handicraft are all part of that sustainability. It allows us to plant the seed of a sustainable economy. An example being sustainable eco-tourism. This is also one of our activities at the grassroots through our Hargila Army.
The pro-active approach of the Government towards wildlife is now known to us. In 2021, I had spoken about this during the course of my TedX speech . We all know about the importance of rhino preservation and the efforts that have gone into it. In a similar vein, what is required are efforts to preserve hargilla, river dolphin, swamp deer and other wildlife. We need to create a campaign around them.
What I am proud of is “Yes, we are in a biodiversity hotspot.”
(Purnima Barman is a wildlife activist who champions the cause of hargillas. She was awarded the highest UN environment award called Champion of the Earth for the year 2022.)