Bibhuti Lahkar, an Assam-based conservationist, was chosen Heritage Hero 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Hawaii on Saturday.
Lahkar, the first Asian to get the award, was among 30 nominees. The list was narrowed to three sets of conservationists ranked according to votes garnered on IUCN’s site.
The other two were joint nominees – Bantu Lukambo and Josué Kambasu Mukura of Congo, and Yulia Naberezhnaya and Andrey Rudomahka of Russia.
“This award goes to Manas National Park,” Lahkar said while receiving the award.
Manas was declared a natural World Heritage Site in 1985 due to its biodiversity and ecosystems, which provide critical habitat to rare and endangered species, including the tiger, greater one-horned rhino, swamp deer, pygmy hog and Bengal florican.
But it bore the brunt of tribal militancy forcing Unesco to downgrade it to a World Heritage Site in Danger. Lahkar’s tireless work for almost 20 years to change the park’s fortune saw the ‘danger’ tag being removed from Manas in 2011.
Lahkar, 43, started working at the site in 1999 as part of his PhD, focusing on the management of grasslands of Manas with particular reference to the critically endangered pygmy hog, found nowhere else in the world.
His work made him traverse a landscape that was greatly ravaged by activities of militant groups operating in the area. He built ties with forest personnel of Manas as well as villagers on the fringes, who were suspicious of strangers.
Lahkar drew his own roadmap to support local communities while bringing positive changes on the ground.
“I questioned myself as to whether my studies would be useful to people. I was able to translate science to the common people, for example how to monitor wildlife and vegetation; some of them are illiterate and that’s a reason why I was motivated to constantly engage with communities,” he told IUCN.
In strategic places where wildlife was particularly vulnerable, Lahkar held public meetings during which locals were made aware about the value of Manas as an ecological site and as an ecotourism destination.
With no external aid available, he single-handedly motivated about 100 youths to learn the basics of wildlife monitoring and act as tour guides. Today they are engaged in ecotourism ventures and support their families.
Lahkar also played a critical role in the rehabilitation of surrendered poachers, enabling them to lead a dignified and socially meaningful life. His team trained about 600 members of local grassroots NGOs, including ex-poachers who now act as protectors of Manas.
“Manas was listed as in danger for 20 years as a result of human destruction and overexploitation. Now the same people come forward as volunteers to protect the park. We need more conservationists so that our future generations can see tigers, rhinos, in real and not in picture,” Lahkar said.
As a step toward empowering communities, he focused on women and offered them regular income opportunities. More than 100 self-help groups were formed, encouraging women to engage in alternative livelihoods such as food processing, weaving and fishery. This came as a succor in an area where income avenues were scanty.
Lahkar oversaw the installation of a 14-km long electric fence to safeguard around 1,000 economically weak households from elephant depredation in a buffer area of the World Heritage site. No causality of humans or elephants was recorded since it was installed in 2013.