Budheswar Bodo knows Assam's Manas National Park like the back of his hand. A "wildlife protector" for the past 15 years, the 45-year-old begins each day with an evening drill and briefing to fellow volunteers deep inside the woods. He knows that if it's not for those like him, the wildlife reserve will lose all its inhabitants to poachers who sneak in under the cover of the darkness.
But Budheswar Bodo wasn't always this concerned about wildlife. Decades ago, when he was a notorious poacher, he had lost an arm in an encounter with a wild boar.
Manas was home to 22 of India's most threatened species of mammals and 26 endangered birds before poachers killed almost all of its hundred-odd rhinos, most of its swamp deer and water buffaloes, and a large number of elephants and tigers in the 1980s. A lot of the forest's prime timber was also illegally cut down at a time when the region was a hotbed of insurgency.
"We used to hunt animals for money. We killed many deer, elephants and rhinos, among other animals. We plundered Manas," Budheswar Boro admitted to NDTV.
The Manas biosphere reserve, which houses the Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in northwest Assam, was declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985. However, the region was plunged into violence soon afterwards amid an armed struggle for a separate Bodoland state, and a substantial portion of its wildlife and pristine jungles was wiped out.
A revival initiative spanning 15 years has changed all that, with the region regaining the world heritage tag and the United Nations proposing to make Manas a hub for trans-boundary conservation efforts in the eastern Himalayas. And with the 2003 Bodoland accord in place, the same people who once poached and plundered the region are rebuilding what was once destroyed.
"After the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was formed in 2003, we encouraged local residents to participate in the conservation process. So they formed NGOs and became partners in the effort to conserve forests and protect animals," BTC Deputy Chief Khampa Borgoyary told NDTV.
Today, the park is manned by hundreds of volunteers who were poachers at one time. The rhino count has gone up to around 40, there are at least 30 tigers and the old elephant corridors are abuzz with activity again. "I'm still haunted by memories of how I killed animals in the past. This is the only way I can atone for it," said Joycharan Basumaty, another poacher-turned-volunteer.
One of the biggest challenges to the wildlife reserve comes from its shared border with the Royal Manas National Park in neighbouring Bhutan, claims Field Director Amal Chandra Sarmah. "There are poachers who enter our territory and kill animals before heading back. We caught two Bhutanese poachers recently, after which we intensified patrolling," he said.
However, the cross-border geography of Manas is also turning out to be a huge advantage, with the United Nations now proposing to include it in the trans-boundary conservation landscape. And the rising tourist footfalls only go to show that the national park has come back to life.