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Monday, March 30, 2020

The fearless ranger who lived and died for the forest

As Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park completes twenty years, a look at the life of Narayan Sarmah: the man who made it what it is

Written by Nabarun Guha | Guwahati | Updated: July 8, 2019 12:23:36 pm
Dibru Saikhowa National Park Narayan Sarmah, killed in 1997 by a rogue elephant, devoted his life to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

Twenty-one years have passed since Narayan Sarmah was crushed to death under the feet of Gobind Singh, the rogue elephant who went on a rampage killing 29 people in an Upper Assam forest in 1998.

Just a year after he died, in 1999, the Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, where Sarmah was the forest ranger, was accorded the status of a National Park — the fourth in Assam to be so.

Sarmah, who dedicated his life to Dibru-Saikhowa, didn’t witness this momentous incident in its history. On the Park’s twentieth anniversary, it is difficult to find on record the contributions he made to it. But Sarmah’s life and death lives on in the memories of those who knew him.

“That man changed my outlook towards wildlife completely,” says Joynal Abedin, a hunter-turned-conservationist based in Tinsukia.

“He is an institution,” says veterinarian Dr Kushal K Sarma.

In the tragic 1998 incident, Dr Kushal, famously known as the ‘elephant-doctor’ of Assam, was leading the squad that tried to tranquillise Gobind Singh. The 55-year-old, who has tranquilised 139 rogue tuskers to date, says the episode was one of his rare failures.

In his book, Baliya Hatik’u Bolabo Paru Moi (‘I Can Tame a Rogue Elephant’), he writes: “When the elephant started chasing us, nobody fired. I later asked a forest guard, ‘Why didn’t you shoot?’ He told me that Narayan Sarmah had asked them not to. Not only had Sarmah dedicated his life to conservation of wildlife, but also made the ultimate sacrifice for it.”

Buffalo Horns

Dibru-Saikhowa earned the status of a protected forest much later than other major forests of Assam like Kaziranga, Manas and Orang. It was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 1986. It got upgraded to a biosphere reserve in 1997 before eventually being labelled a National Park in 1999.

Though he didn’t get to see it, the journey there was catalysed by Sarmah — whom Abedin remembers as the man who brought a change in him as well as the Park.

In 1992, Sarmah had just joined Dibru-Saikhowa as a range officer at a time when the Indian Army was in the midst of a counter-insurgency operation against the ULFA in the area. At a colonel’s request for a pair of buffalo horns, Abedin, who was known to be a skilled shooter, was hunting for buffaloes at Dibru-Saikhowa.

That morning, however, the hunter missed his target. But the sound of his gun alerted Sarmah. 

Abedin was caught, but instead of being punished, Sarmah thrust his binoculars in hands and said, “Look, just look through these and see the beauty of the birds.”

Something touched Abedin. “After that conversation, I decided to mend my earlier ways and started to rescue animals and release them in the wild,” he says.

55-year-old Abedin is a conservationist today, a known name not only in Dibru-Saikhowa but Assam too. In 1996, he started the Dibru-Saikhowa Conservation Society to raise environmental awareness among local villagers, many of whom were hunters earlier.

Dibru Saikhowa National Park Black breasted parrotbill in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Photo Courtesy: Imon Abedin

The Twentieth Anniversary

Despite being spread over 765 sq km, boasting a rich biodiversity (the park is identified as an ‘important bird area’ and is the only forest in Assam where feral horses roam), many feel that it often fails to get the attention that some of the more celebrated forests of Assam do.

An environmentalist, on condition of anonymity, said, “ One reason is that Assam’s conservation model is completely rhino-centric. So, forests which have rhinos get maximum attention and funds.”

Even twenty years later, the park is grappling with its own set of issues. Mridul Kanti Dhar, Divisional Forest Officer, Dibru-Saikhowa says that there’s a severe staff crunch. “We have just 49 frontline staff in the park which is inadequate to monitor such a huge area. There are 13 camps in the park, some of them in remote areas. We need at least 8-10 people in every camp for effective patrolling.”

“Being a floodplain, the park needs highlands where wild animals can take shelter during flood, which is a regular occurrence here,” adds Dhar.

For the occasion of the twentieth anniversary, Dhar has already sent a proposal for a bird festival in November, in the hope for some publicity. He says, “If the proposal is accepted by the government, we will organize this in a big way. Dibru-Saikhowa is a well-known destination for birders with more than 500 species of birds including migratory birds.”

Naturalist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury says that over the years there has been large scale habitat destruction inside Dibru-Saikhowa. “Illegal logging carried out by timber mafia has been detrimental for the park. In 1994, I had counted 66 families of hoolock gibbon here. Now, there will be hardly 3-4 families. Also, nowadays, tiger presence is almost nil in the park. But according to a 1991-92, 27 tigers were found,” he says.

Many feel that one reason the park has suffered is because it has not been able to get another officer like Narayan Sarmah.

Kaustav Sarmah, who was just five years old when his father died, remembers him as someone who loved nature immensely. “I would not see him on most days. He would go bird-watching before I went to school, and by the time he returned, I would be asleep,” he says.

But in the five years he got to spend with his father, Kaustav remembers how just a few months before his death, he was invited to China to speak on wildlife. “After his demise, we struggled a lot,” says Kaustav.
In 2001, Sarmah was posthumously awarded the Van Rakshak Award which his wife, Purabi Devi Sarmah, went to Delhi to receive on his behalf.

No one like Sarmah

“Sarmah was very committed towards the protection of wildlife. There was a staff crunch in his time too but his presence made a lot of difference,” says Choudhury.

 Dibru Saikhowa National Park The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is spread of 765 sq km and boasts of a rich biodiversity, including feral horses . Photo Courtesy: Imon Abedin

There was a time when hunting was rampant inside the forest. Abedin recalls, “In fact, government used to give special permits for hunting. In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, had come on a hunting trip here. He killed a buffalo and a wok was brought to boil the buffalo’s horns. That wok can be seen even today at the Tinsukia Range Office. All these things stopped after Sarmah’s arrival.”

Hailing from nearby Dhola, Sarmah knew these forests better than anyone else. At a height of six feet, his presence was towering — in more ways than one.

Using his knowledge of the terrain and inputs from locals, he brought order to the place, inspiring villagers to protect wildlife by engaging them in conservation. “Many of them were earlier involved in hunting, illegal fishing and timber logging. He would organise camps regularly to communicate with the locals,” says Dibrugarh-based environmentalist Soumyadeep Dutta.

In 1996, Sarmah made a checklist of birds and mammals found in Dibru-Saikhowa. To pay tribute to the legendary forest official, a small biodiversity museum run by Abedin’s Dibru-Saikhowa Conservation Society, was named after him.

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

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