- Kaziranga’s veteran forest guard Dimbeshwar Das received the ‘Green Warrior’ award for his role in protecting the rhino haven, Kaziranga National Park, from poachers.
- Das has played an important role in successful anti-poaching operations in Kaziranga and is part of a dedicated team of forest guards taking on poachers in the dense grasslands of this 430 sq km national park.
- These actions put Das and forest guards like him, on the frontline of threat and intimidation from poachers. Das had to relocate his family for safety.
Like every year, nature lovers have started thronging Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam after the park opened for tourists around a month ago, in October 2019. However, underneath the glitz and glamour of the World Heritage Site, there lies another facet of Kaziranga. The dense grasslands of this 430 sq km national park are also a battleground where a dedicated team of forest guards takes on ruthless poachers.
KNP is the prime habitat of the Asian one-horned rhino, also the state animal of Assam. Its population is pegged at 2413, as per the 2018 census. The species which has been accorded vulnerable status in IUCN Red List is the key target of poachers at KNP.
Being a forest guard in KNP is hard work. One needs immense perseverance, patience, passion and courage to battle the rough terrain, wild animals and bands of poachers month after month.
Dimbeshwar Das, a forest guard exemplifying these qualities, was recently conferred the ‘Green Warrior award’, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Earth Heroes award in Delhi.
Das is a veteran who has been protecting the biodiversity of KNP for the last three decades. His unwavering dedication has earned him the sobriquet “The Wall.” Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), describes Das as someone “with a very strong heart who knows no fear.”
“When he is assigned a spot, be assured that poachers can’t penetrate that place,” Barman tells Mongabay-India.
Das’ name for the award was recommended by Rohini Ballav Saikia, former Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of KNP and P. Sivakumar, Director of KNP. “One day, I was called by the DFO and director. They asked me about my work in detail. I think they are happy with my work and so they recommended my name for the award,” he said.
According to Sivakumar, Das has played a stellar role in many successful anti-poaching operations in the Central Range (Kohora), where the veteran forest guard is currently posted.
There are two divisions in Kaziranga – Eastern Wildlife or Kaziranga Division and Western Wildlife or Biswanath Division, said forest officials. Kohora is one of five ranges under the Eastern Wildlife Division. Under Western Wildlife Division, there are four ranges. Under each range, there are 30-40 camps and each camp has around 3-5 guards or more if the camps are in areas threatened by poaching.
Das is known for his affable nature and loved and respected by his colleagues. He was accompanied by a fellow forest guard when he went to collect his award in Delhi. “I can’t speak Hindi. So I requested the DFO to send someone with me who can speak the language,” smiled Das, who has never stepped beyond Guwahati and Dibrugarh, in his life.
Journey through transition
Das joined Kaziranga in 1987. Two years on, he received a permanent position in the national park.
“I hail from Japoripathar village, which is located near Panbari Reserve Forest in Kaziranga. Growing up in the vicinity of jungle and wildlife, I always wanted to serve Kaziranga. Initially, I worked as a labourer in KNP for two years. The officers liked my work and in 1989, I got a job as a boatman,” he told Mongabay-India.
Das was promoted to a forest guard from boatman last year (in 2018).
Das recollects Kaziranga’s evolution through all these years. “Earlier, it used to take around two hours to reach one camp from the other. Now, it takes around thirty minutes. Road connectivity inside the park has improved a lot. Also, the advent of mobile phones has changed a lot of things. Communication between camps has become easier. In earlier times, we had one big wireless which used to cover four-five camps,” he elaborates. He remembers the great flood of 1988 which killed scores of wild animals. “I was yet to become permanent at that time. Animals like hog deer and wild boars took refuge on trees as there were no artificial highlands then,” he reminisces.
In the line of duty, often the greatest danger a forest guard faces is from the very animals they are duty-bound to protect. “There have been cases when a forest guard waiting in ambush for a poacher has been dragged away by a tiger,” he says.
Kaziranga has one of the highest densities of tigers and Das had some memorable face-offs with them. He remembers one particular incident vividly. “In 2004, I was part of a team that went to tranquilise a tigress in Tamuli Pathar village in Agratoli. I was sitting on one of the elephants. Suddenly, the tiger leaped from the grass and swiped at the mahout (elephant rider or trainer/keeper). I jumped down from the elephant and fired few blank rounds and the big cat retreated into the jungle.”
“Later, I tore my shirt and bandaged the wound of the injured man with the torn piece of cloth. His left hand was lacerated and blood was gushing out like a fountain. It was a very scary sight,” Das recalled. He informed that the mahout Satyaban Pegu gradually recovered from his injuries and is now permanently employed as a forest guard in Kaziranga.
The incident was filmed on camera by Ranjan Kumar Das, DFO of Kaziranga at that time who was sitting astride on another elephant. Over the years, the video has created its own fan base on Youtube by generating as many as 15 million views.
Taking the heat from poachers
However, according to Das, the biggest challenge a forest guard faces is not from the wild animals but the poachers. He says that in the operations he has been part of, around 50 poachers have been arrested over the years and ten have been eliminated.
But these actions put Das on the frontline of fire from the poachers. There was a time when he received regular threats from them. “They threatened to kidnap my son. It was a very difficult period. I had to leave my home with my family and live somewhere else,” he said. Threats forced him to take a transfer from Western Range (Agratoli), where he had served for the majority of his career, to Kohora.
Poachers often hold grudges against forest officials and cops who undertake operations against them. So, threats from them are not uncommon.
A police official, who led few successful anti-poaching operations, said, on condition of anonymity, “The poachers had planned to poison me at a roadside tea shop I used to frequent in those days. I came to know about it through my informers and became alert.”
“In Kaziranga, it is difficult to get a conviction for poachers. Most of the time, we have to file chargesheet based on circumstantial evidence which doesn’t hold ground in courts. Court asks for witnesses which are very difficult to get. The poachers are also habitual offenders. When they come out of jail after three or six months, they again go back to their old profession,” the official added.
But things have changed for the better in Kaziranga when it comes to poaching control. As per the records of Kaziranga authority, 26 rhinos have been killed in the park since 2016 and during the same period, 212 poachers have been arrested. Between 2009 and 2015, over 170 rhinos were killed.
Ramesh Chandra Gogoi, who has recently joined as the DFO of Kaziranga, however, said that there is no room for complacency. “As long as there is a demand in the market for rhino horns, poachers will be there. They are just eyeing an opportunity,” he said.
Gogoi attributes the reduction in poaching to factors like better coordination between police and forest department, strong intelligence network and community engagement.
Das, meanwhile, prepares to give his all to the park till he retires in 2026. “I couldn’t spend much time with my two daughters and son because I was always busy there. Even though it takes just ten minutes on my motorbike to reach home from the park, I seldom visited my house. But I don’t regret it. This park is my family,” he said with pride.
Banner image: Dimbeshwar Das has played an important role in successful anti-poaching operations in Kaziranga which has put him on the frontline of fear and intimidation tactics of poachers.