IN THE NEWS
The fifth Sanctuary-ABN-AMRO Wildlife Awards continue to show how ordinary people can make a difference to the environment. MEENA MENON on this year's winners.
Winners all the way.
"I HAVE never seen the sea, which I always wanted to," says Manglu Baiga, whose life has been spent in the deep forests of the Kanha Tiger Reserve. A man who spends at least 20 hours a day walking the forests and listening keenly to the sounds of tigers, sambhars and bison, Manglu got his wish in Mumbai. He had come to collect the Sanctuary-ABN-AMRO award for Wildlife Service.
For 30 years, he has been a tracker in Kanha. "It's so good here, I wish I had brought my wife, " says the man who helps patrol the forests and catch poachers. "I have caught so many poachers; some are in jail," he says, proudly. Paradoxically, this expert tracker, who was never attacked during his many forays into the forest, was almost killed by a man-eating leopard in a Chattarpur guesthouse. "I caught him by his head and threw him against the wall. I was in hospital for a week," recalls Manglu.
As a young man, Manglu accompanied H.S. Panwar the first field director of Kanha Tiger Reserve in his initial explorations in 1973. He combines traditional Baiga wisdom and knowledge and even performs autopsies on animals, without any formal training.
The other winner of the Wildlife Service Award, Ratan Singh, started work at 18 as a cattle guard in Bharatpur and also worked as a rickshaw puller. Clad in a green field jacket with a pair of binoculars around his neck, Singh said he spotted his 608th bird in Mumbai, the purple-rumped sunbird, which he had never seen before. He is thrilled that Mumbai attracts so many migratory birds. "I saw 15,000 flamingos and so many waders near Sewri," he says.
He also worked as a boatman and remembers the time Dr. Salim Ali visited the Keoladeo Ghana Park. "I enjoyed watching birds. Then I could name a few like purple heron, stork. I was paid Rs. 10 or Rs. 20, more than what the forest department paid me. I met Bikram Grewal (the ornithologist) who put my name in his book. Since then I was keen on learning more about birds and Grewal took me around to many protected areas," says Singh.
Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary magazine, says the awards are recognition of what ordinary people can do. "These people are heroes because they do things you and I don't do," echoes Ramesh Sobti, executive vice president and country representative of ABN-AMRO Bank. This is the fifth year of the awards. Apart from five Wildlife Service Awards also given to Niren Jain from Wildlife Conservation Society, and wildlife researchers, Charudutt Mishra and Aparajita Datta the Green Teacher award went to Sonam Wangchuk, Ladakh. The first Sanctuary-ABN-AMRO "Young Naturalist of the Year" was given to Maan Baruah from Kaziranga, Assam and the three "Young Naturalist" award winners are Rahul Alvares from Goa, Indrapratap Thakare from Maharashtra and Aaron Lobo from Goa.
K.M. Chinappa, who won the Lifetime Service Award worth Rs. 1,00,000, has worked for 26 years in the Nagarhole National Park, often putting his life on the line to protect the forest. "When I joined the forest service, Nagarhole was like a football ground. Forests were being clear felled and about 60-100 truckloads of timber left the forest daily," he recalls. "I only protected the forest, the animals did the rest, especially the elephants. They are the ones who kept away the poachers," he says. Forest fires were also brought under control and he urged the department to stop planting monocultures like teak. As a result, there has been a huge difference and the forests have regenerated, "I can't believe the kind of regeneration that has taken place," he smiles.
Chinappa's fight against timber smugglers and poachers has not been without dangers. His house was burnt, and there were attempts to attack him. Now a retired range forest officer, he lives near the park. As president of Wildlife First, a conservation organisation, he has been campaigning against mining in the Kudremukh valley and has 12 cases registered against him and many others, including another award winner Niren Jain, for their "unlawful activities".
Age is no bar -- the young naturalists.
"I was only doing my job," says Pankaj Sharma, range forest officer and a Wildlife Service award winner. He worked in Kaziranga National Park from 1993-1997, when poaching was at its peak.
In 1992, 49 rhinos were killed; 25 in the Baguri range under Sharma's jurisdiction. "We had to change our patrolling style and strategies. The advantage in Assam was that there is a great sentiment regarding the rhino," says Sharma, who has had several armed encounters with poachers.
Now Sharma has been transferred to the Dibhru Saikhowa sanctuary and the award comes to him in recognition of his courageous work for over 20 years in the forest department. He has written books and articles on the bird life of Assam and, along with Maan Baruah, compiled a list of 478 birds in Kaziranga. Poaching in Kaziranga has declined (only three rhinos were killed last year) and Sharma played a significant role in this decline.
The most promising feature of the awards is the selection of young naturalists. Aaron Lobo, for instance, is studying sea snakes in the Gulf of Mannar. Lobo has always been a reptile enthusiast and accompanies fishing trawlers to study sea snakes, so that he knows their location, diversity, distribution and depths at which they are found.
Maan Baruah (22), a zoology student from Kaziranga, has already compiled a list of 478 birds and has gathered information on six species endemic to the grasslands. He spent hours in 15-feet tall grass, recording birdcalls, and making the first ever recordings of a couple of birds found there. He is also working on a book on common birds of Assam.
Young Rahul Alvares, a snake lover, has written two books, and Indra Pratap Thakare has already made a name for himself as a naturalist.
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