Meet Bishan Singh Bonal
Head, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)
Photo Courtesy: Bishan Singh Bonal.
A man of the mountains, he was born in Corbett country in a remote village called Bon, located near Uttarakhand’s Askot Wildlife Sanctuary, on the border between India and China. That’s how he got his surname. After schooling in Dharchula, the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar, he completed his post-graduation from Kumaon University, Nainital and joined the Indian Forest Service in 1980. Except for a period when he was placed in charge of the Delhi Zoological Park and the Central Zoo Authority of India, his life has revolved around the protection of rhinos, elephants and tigers in some of the most troubled geographies of India including Kaziranga and Manas. He met with Bittu Sahgal to share his vision and determination to protect wild India.
Are you looking forward to your stint as the head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)?
Yes, I am. It’s an honour. The tiger lives in the heart of the world and I have grown up with the sure knowledge that my life is going to be devoted to saving this incredible animal.
But people say “Bonal is a zoo man”… they worry about your commitment to wild tigers.
Not all Bittu, if I worried about what people say, then I would have to sit in a small hut in Assam and not do anything but eat fish caught from the Brahmaputra with rice. I have worked in Manas National Park and Kaziranga National Park, both ‘World Heritage Sites‘, with the great added responsibility as the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Assam. I have a total of 27 years experience in wildlife management, with seven years devoted to forestry and 11 months spent in the National Defence College for national security training. Yes, I was in charge of the Delhi Zoo and Assam State Zoo, but remember, so was Kailash Sankhala, the very first Director of Project Tiger. We as forest officers are responsible for managing the country’s forests and wildlife, be it in-situ or ex-situ, and our commitment to both is parallel. In fact, there is a great benefit of having worked in both ex-situ and in-situ aspects of wildlife management.
People have probably not heard of your Kaziranga days.
It does not matter what they know or do not know. The important thing is I know and those who are concerned know. My life-commitment is to the wildlife of India whether in the wild or in an enclosure, the latter contributing to conservation methodologies that supplement those in the wild.
I would never step into Kaziranga after hours because your staff cannot tell between a rhino poacher and the editor of a wildlife magazine in the dark.
(Laughing) Yes, it’s true. Kaziranga’s field staff are under immense pressure from their day-to-day duties but will continue to excel provided they are led as well and supported as much by their political system. It is one of the states that offers immunity from prosecution when firearms are used by the Forest Department.
It’s a tough job...
Tough? Bittu when I read what some people write in the papers and, nowadays, on Facebook, I wonder if they have even spent one night in a forest with the fear that a poacher’s bullet may hit them, or even that they may be charged by a rhino or an elephant.
This your field staff must probably confront everyday.
Yes they do. I remember one day when the danger forcefully made me understand how unpredictable life is. It was already getting dark at 5 p.m. on December 22, 1993, when we reached the Rangamati Beat from Kaziranga’s Agoratoli Range. We had been forced to use a longer route from Pohumari since the bridge had been dismantled for repair. Suddenly a guard ran towards us saying “Eta gol”. I thought a poacher had killed a rhino, but it turned out that a tiger had attacked one of our guards, Nasiruddin Ahmed, the last member of the patrol which was walking single file. He was bleeding profusely. I contacted D. D. Boro, Range Officer, on the wireless and he rushed Nasiruddin to the Bokaghat hospital where somehow his life was saved. It seems the tiger targeted him specifically, ignoring the others. Later, when I went to drop the remaining staff to the camp, the same tiger ambushed and charged the vehicle. In the process, I could have been attacked but the driver braked at the correct moment and it moved away. It really is of little consequence whether critics understand such field realities, so long as we can give our staff the support they need.
Photo Courtesy: Bishan Singh Bonal.
What is it about Kaziranga that has somehow won the respect of the world?
Our determination and almost religious belief that protecting the rhino is the only reason to live. It’s open war when poachers enter Kaziranga. If they see our guards, they fire to kill, so we have no option but to retaliate. As many as 66 poachers lost their lives over a 15-year period and more than 500 were arrested for poaching. We recovered more than 70 rhino horns. You can well imagine how much stress all this involves.
Now it’s common knowledge that insurrectionists and terrorists are financing the illegal wildlife trade.
Yes, that is what is said, though it is difficult to establish anything beyond doubt because no such confessions have been obtained so far. But we cannot rule this out. I have personally witnessed AK series of assault rifles being used, as well as silencers on guns. This certainly points to very well-organised, well-funded and determined groups in search of wildlife contraband, which is all mixed up with narcotics and the arms trade itself.
Where did you get your inspiration? Whose life guided yours?
S. Deb Roy and Lat Parma Lahon were two among many wildlife stalwarts who influenced me more than anyone else. Deb Roy sir personally chose me for the Manas Tiger Reserve and Lahon saheb saw to it that I was placed in charge of Kaziranga National Park. Such field postings are lifetime opportunities to undertake the work you love and protect wildlife from poachers, but the family pays a big price for this. I spent more than 11 years policing our wildlife reserves, where encounters with poachers were commonplace and we had to somehow fight them using old equipment against their AK 47 rifles. All of us knew our lives were at risk, but it is difficult to explain what courage our motivated forest rangers and forest guards have. Literally every day some exchange of fire would take place. In my nine plus years alone, as many as 62 poachers were killed.
And this is just one of so many problems.
Yes. What about floods? Though floods are vital to the health of Kaziranga, in recent years upstream deforestation coupled with development projects and encroachments has lead to flooding becoming a real threat to the very existence of Kaziranga. Animals get run over. Some are poached because they are forced to escape the water by standing defenceless on National Highway 37, with their access to the highlands of Karbi Anglong blocked in many places. Yet, somehow, our field staff cope. We even got an award in 1998 for ‘The Best Teamwork During Exigencies’ and a year later in 1999, Kaziranga received the ‘Millenium Award for the Best Managed Park’. But wildlife deserves larger budgets and greater support. It should not be seen as a ‘by the way’ priority. We are losing our most precious natural wealth before our very eyes.
That is exactly true. Just look at Manas where all the rhinos were killed. Can we realistically bring them back over the long run?
Manas was a tragedy. The civil unrest between 1989 and 2003 took a severe toll and even though huge efforts have been made since, a full recovery is still to be made. I think it’s time that as a nation we began to think collectively. State Forest Departments alone cannot protect our priceless natural heritage. Without support from ground up and from top down, we will continue to lose our wildlife, our rivers, our forests and our very heart and soul. I feel that Manas can and will return to its former glory. Rhino Vision 2020 is an action plan that is working towards this dream, which in my capacity as the Member Secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) I intend to support.
Photo: Neelutpaul Barua/Entry – Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014.
What are your immediate plans for Project Tiger and the NTCA?
Well the first thing is to analyse the voluminous data that has come in as a result of the recent tiger enumeration exercise. We also intend to ensure continuity of policies and projects that have yielded positive results. One such is the voluntary relocation of villages from core-critical wildlife areas. We will also support and work with state governments that seek to improve the buffers and corridors around and between tiger reserves. If the benefits of biodiversity regeneration directly feed into the economy of local communities, we can expect to see reduced human-animal conflicts and a more secure environment for tigers in the form of expansion of buffer areas, corridors, and larger landscape bases with a unified management controlled system. Without a doubt we also intend to initiate and extend the use of modern technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles, E-surveillance, M-STRIPES and other ideas with a proven track record in the field. We also intend to work closely with research institutes, civil society, and Non-governmental Organisations of proven capability.
The Rajasthan and Maharashtra Governments recently approved schemes, Van Dhan and Van Jan, to deliver social upliftment based on biodiversity restoration. Can we expect to see closer centre-state unity on the policy front?
Why not? The NTCA’s buffer area development and human-animal conflict mitigation objectives are aligned with the concept of making communities living next to our tiger reserves the primary beneficiaries of conservation. We particularly look forward to communities becoming partners in sustainable wildlife tourism initiatives that physically enhance the quality of forest buffers.
Any message for Sanctuary’s one-million-strong Kids for Tigers movement?
Yes. Just keep doing what you are doing. Keep reminding adults of the promises they make to save the tiger and its jungle home, which actually belongs to them. Please also get involved even more deeply by understanding not only how tigers can be saved, but why we need to save tigers. Countries including India have made promises at major international meetings to effectively conserve 33 per cent of our geographical area so that such wildernesses can deliver the ecological services on which the future of humanity depends. I hope Kids for Tigers and Sanctuary will continue to support and encourage our field staff as you have always done.
That we promise to do. Last question. Are you truly hopeful for the future of the tiger in India?
Yes, I am. Not only because of the recent enumeration exercise that showed a rising numbers trend, but because slowly, the connection between saving natural ecosystems and fighting climate change is being recognised. The financial security of India, is directly linked to climate moderation and other ecosystem services that tiger, elephant, Great Indian Bustard and snow leopard habitats offer. Remember, the tiger really wants very little from us. We will win public and political support for our mission by making every Indian proud of Project Tiger.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015.