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Friday, October 22, 2021

A college inside Upper Assam’s rainforests spawns several young environmentalists

India has quite a few biodiversity-rich educational campuses: from IISc, Bengaluru to IIT, Mumbai, home to a host of wildlife. Digboi College, however, is more than that.

Written by Nabarun Guha | Digboi |
Updated: September 19, 2021 1:31:09 pm
The entrance to the biodiverse Digboi college in Upper Assam's Digboi town. (Photo Credit: Nabarun Guha)

A deer frantically ran down a hilly slope, trying to outpace its unseen predator. The predator — a majestic Royal Bengal tiger — followed moments later, only to disappear in the same bushes in a flash.

This chase did not transpire in a thick, forested jungle — but in the campuses of a college in Upper Assam.

Welcome to Digboi College, situated in the eponymous oil town, which falls right in the biodiversity-rich Indo-Burma hotspot.

The incident happened 12 years ago, but Bhaben Das, a guard at the college, remembers it like it were yesterday.

“Till then, I was sitting outside. After seeing the tiger, I remember coming inside the house and locking the grill,” he recalled.

A long-tailed broadbill sighted on campus. (Photo Credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

India has quite a few biodiversity-rich educational campuses: from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru to Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, home to a host of wildlife.

Digboi College, however, is more than that. It shares its boundary with the Upper Dihing Elephant Reserve, and it is barely 22 km from the recently notified Dehing Patkai National Park. Another forest is even closer: the Soraipung range under Digboi Forest Division, one of the entry points to the national park, is barely 6 km from the college.

Rajib Rudra Tariang, who heads the zoology department at the college, spelled out the vastness of fauna spotted on campus over the years: “We have identified 19 species of mammals, 180 species of birds, 33 species of snakes, 12 species of lizards, 167 species of butterflies, seven species of frogs, more than 300 species of moths and several other species of insects and spiders,” he said.

Digboi College is home to more than 100 species of butterflies. Pictured is the ‘Paris Peacock’.(Photo Credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

A wild, wild campus

The wealth of diversity on the campus is not lost on the college’s students and teachers. The greenery of the campus has created a whole crop of environmentally-conscious young people.

Students of the college actively participated in the “I-am-Dihing-Patkai” virtual campaign in 2020, a wide-spread movement in the state to protest illegal coal mining in the Dihing Patkai reserve forest.

It is perhaps difficult not to care given how ecologically rich the college’s location is. As birder and cartoonist Deborshee Gogoi, who teaches marketing at the college’s department of commerce, said, “In 2012, an artificial fruit orchard was made just for the animals in the campus. Barking deers have given birth inside the campus. Herds of elephants visit the campus in the winter. Once, a deer head was dropped near the college cycle stand by a leopard.”

Library assistant Heramba Patgiri, who joined the college in 1984, and is at present the oldest staff member, recalled seeing packs of dhole (wild dogs) and wild boars inside the campus earlier.

A barking deer in the college’s fruit garden. (Photo Credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

The college is also a goldmine for birders. “Some extremely rare birds like Chestnut-backed laughing thrush and Rusty bellied short wing are found in our campus,” said Gogoi. It was also on the itinerary of the American birder Noah Stryker, who created a world record in 2015 by spotting 6,042 birds out of the world’s estimated 10,400 species, in a non-stop journey across seven continents.

Green warriors

Tariang, who has been teaching in Digboi college since 2008, is an expert snake-catcher. He ensures nobody in the area kills them. Whenever a snake is spotted he and his aides — students and teachers from the college whom Tariang has trained over the years — take care of it. “Every year, a few students from my department learn to catch snakes,” he said. As a result of his heart ailments, Tariang said he had started delegating most of the work to the younger generation. “Nowadays, I accept only 20 per cent of the calls I get. However, I have trained 10-12 youth who fill in for me.”

Digboi College’s unique location is a draw for many students. Niranjan Nayak, an outgoing student of the Zoology Department, said, “I have been interested in wildlife since childhood. I did my schooling in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Tinsukia, where my art teacher suggested that I try and get admission in this college. Now, I think this was the best decision of my life.”

Sumit Das, a final-year botany student from the college, echoed Nayak. “My attraction towards my subject botany grew in this college, as I got to observe so much amazing biodiversity firsthand.”

Students of the commerce department installing bird nests on trees on the occasion of World Sparrow Day. (Photo Credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

He added, “Here, we have got trees like Hollong, Kadam, Nahar, Indian Rain Tree, Ajar, Deodar, Arjuna,Tree Fern, Magnolia, species of bamboos, orchids, climbers, etc.”

The National Service Scheme (NSS) unit of the college has adopted the Soraipung forest village, home to 86 families. The villagers have been trained in solid waste management — converting solid waste into organic fertilisers. “We have also trained some local youth from the village to become bird guides,” said Tariang.

The Digboi College Environment Cell has also undertaken a project to identify the habitats of Assam’s state animal, White Winged Wood Duck in Digboi and its vicinity, a project where Gogoi is the principal investigator.

As Das, the botany student, said: “The greenery of Digboi College reaped the seed of environmental awareness in my mind.”

The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45.

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