The rhino man

The rhino man

Babul Chandra Deka,game-watcher at Pitbora sanctuary,is on a mission to rescue a marooned rhino on a Brahmaputra island

A day in the life of Babul Chandra Deka,55

Game-watcher at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary,Assam

Routine: He keeps watch over a rhino marooned on a Brahmaputra island

For Babul Chandra Deka,a game-watcher at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary,the past three weeks have been tough. The flood in the Brahmaputra submerged almost the whole of the 38.8-sq-km sanctuary,forcing its 93 rhinos out on roads and highlands. Situated by the Brahmaputra,30 km east of Guwahati,Pobitora has the highest density of rhinos in the world.

For a week now,Deka has been staying on Rani Chapori,a temporary sand-bar island in the middle of the Brahmaputra,about 25 km west of Guwahati,where a rhino,washed away by the flood,is marooned. With Pobitora being the nearest wildlife sanctuary to Rani Chapori,the state forest authorities have shifted half-a-dozen game-watchers and other frontline protection personnel from there to keep a watch over the rhino till it is airlifted back to its original habitat.


“It is a difficult situation. The vets have said they cannot afford to tranquilise the animal because that will cause it to run around in shock for 10 to 12 minutes. Since Rani Chapori is a small island,the rhino might fall into the Brahmaputra and drown,” says Deka. He knows how a rhino behaves in a particular situation because he has grown up among them—his village adjoins Pobitora.

“We have seen these animals since our childhood. Many times a rhino from Pobitora would stray into our homestead. People in our villages know them well enough not to land up in a direct confrontation,” says Deka,who has never been to school.

Deka came to Rani Chapori,a 20-minute boat ride on the Brahmaputra from the famous silk village of Sualkuchi,a week ago and has been camping ever since. A boatman had spotted the rhino and alerted the river police. “I stayed for a night,went back and then returned on Tuesday. Since then,I have been here with over a dozen of my colleagues,” he says. The forest department has deployed frontline wildlife personnel from Pobitora and the Karmrup range,who have put up under a temporary tarpaulin shelter to protect the displaced rhino. A section of river police personnel patrols the area in engine-fitted boats to help the forest staff in case of an emergency.

“I have grown up amid rhinos and have also served for 26 years at Pobitora. I know them inside out. I know their various moods and can tell by just seeing them whether they are happy or angry. Rhinos are very cool and quiet beings. Being herbivores,they are like any other vegetarian animal—peace-loving and least bothered about others till they keep getting a good supply of grass. But when angry,a rhino can tear a mountain apart with its sharp and strong horn,” says Deka.

At Rani Chapori,it is too muddy for the rhino to move around. Also,there is little grass because the Brahmaputra had submerged the island two weeks ago. Mud covered most of the grass patches when the water receded. “Our department has been bringing fresh grass by the boat for him,while the vets have put vitamins and other medicines inside bunches of bhim-kol (a local type of banana) so that the animal keeps strong,” says the experienced game-watcher.

Deka and his colleagues have brought their own utensils to cook food. “At night we make roti and sabzi. If we eat rice at night,we will feel sleepy. Rice is for the daytime,once in the morning and then in the afternoon,” he says. Firewood is not a problem as the floods have parked a few uprooted trees here.

Back home,at his village Raja-Mayong—a part of Mayong,the village famous for black magic and sorcery—Deka has one son and three daughters. “I am grateful to the rhinos. It is because of the rhinos that I got a job and have been able to feed my family,” he says,folding his hands in the direction of a bush behind which the rhino is hiding. But he is worried his only son has yet to find a job even though he is a graduate. “There are jobs for illiterate people like me. But finding a job for an ordinary graduate is very difficult these days,” he says before returning to the subject of rhinos.

Deka thinks the rhinos can recognise him and his colleagues in their khaki uniforms. “When we approach them,they do not feel scared. But when a person in normal clothes comes closer,they either move away or show their displeasure.” Even then he and his colleagues carry guns,a .22 rifle and an air gun with 50 rounds. “You never know. The presence of so many people here can easily provoke the rhino,” he says.

What do they do the whole day on the island? “We watch the movement of the rhino as it plods through the muddy soil. We watch the mighty river and sometimes sing a Bhupen Hazarika song that asks the Brahmaputra why it is so angry,” says Deka. He can play the penpa and dhol and sing Bihu songs.

“Sometimes I wonder what the rhino must be thinking. I wonder whether he is aware that the government is arranging a helicopter to lift him from here and take him home. I wonder whether he knows that he will be the first rhino to fly on a helicopter. I wish they also take me along when they airlift the rhino,” he says.