Spotlight India: 27 years in service of animals, Manas forest guard Lankheshwar Lahkar
For someone who has spent half his life away from family and isolated from civilisation, 57-year-old Lankheshwar Lahkar sure is a jovial man.
Lahkar is a forest guard, currently posted at the Rhino Camp in Bansbari Range of Manas National Park -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- in Bodoland Territorial Council autonomous district in the northeast Indian state of Assam.
He stays here with four other people; another forest guard, two home guards (police staff deputed in forest camps) and an IFAW-WTI animal keeper who is hand-rearing a recently-orphaned rhino calf, in a boma just adjacent to the camp.
Lankheshwar has been here for 13 years and has seen the worst in Manas, and its gradual revival towards its former glory. Prior to that, for 14 years, he was in Karbi Anglong, another autonomous district in Assam.
“I became a permanent staff with the Assam Forest Department in April 1986,” he recalls. “Before that I was a casual labourer with the Department, earning Rs 360 per month (Rs 12 per day).”
I met Lankheshwar for a few hours on the evening of Friday, May 17, 2013, at his forest camp in Bansbari Range of Manas. I mention the date, as it was not the best of days for him.
He had just received news that one of his sons had failed the board exams. He has three daughters and two sons, and ten other relatives dependent on him – a total of 18 in his family.
“I am unable to look after my family as I am always in the forest. I had left this responsibility to my wife, and I feel very disappointed today,” he said.
My colleague Anjan Sangma and I try to pacify him, saying it was not his or his wife’s fault. And that this was not the end of the world. “I spent thousands for his tuition,” he argues, leaving us a bit red-faced. It was obviously not as easy for him to accept this.
As we let him pour out his frustration, with our occasional meek attempts at consolation, we see a rhino approaching the camp.
Suddenly, things change, as does Lankheshwar’s focus. As we get set with our cameras, we see that the rhino is accompanied by a calf. It was Ganga and her new-born calf Dharati.
Lankheshwar’s mood lifts up. “This is the first time she (Ganga) has visited the camp with her calf!”
“Maybe she has come to greet me,” I quip, half-jokingly, excited at my good-fortune.
“That calls for a party. On you!”, Lankheshwar comes back. I was caught, but am only too happy to comply as I get to spend some more time with the team that has made this opportunity possible for me.
Party here means meat with their food – rice with potatoes and, occasional vegetable. While party preparations are on, I speak to Lankheshwar some more -- with Anjan as our translator, -- as he speaks nothing else, and my Assamese is as good as my cooking, which…is quite bad.
“When I was first transferred to Manas, I did not enjoy the work much,” he goes on. “It was very risky. The situation was not good then.”
He tells us the story of one of his colleagues who had dared to stop some people from poaching in Manas...
“Things seemed fine for a while. But one day, he was on his way home for a vacation, along with his salary for several months, he was brutally attacked, and his entire earnings snatched. He was so terrified for his life that he requested a transfer from Manas, which he was granted. He left even without his belongings.”
He recalls another incident in the early 2000s.
“There were four of us at our camp. As we kept guard, we heard and then saw a group of poachers crossing very close to our park. As we prepared our plan of action, we noticed that they were armed with automatic AK-47 rifles.
We just had our .315s which hadn’t been used much. We had no faith in the weapons we had – these neither have range nor power to match up to those of the poachers. We just had to let them go,” he rues.
Asked if there were any incidents of poaching reported around that time, he says not.
“Perhaps they were just crossing by. Perhaps they were not poachers but armed rebel group members. Those were difficult days, but things are different now.”
I ask him if he enjoys his work. He says that early on in his career, it was just a job giving him a relatively good salary. “Mainao changed me… my perspective on life and my work. I began appreciating our work here,” he claims.
Mainao was the first rhino to have set foot in Manas after the entire population was wiped out by 2000, during the civil conflict. She was brought here in 2006, kick-starting the reintroduction programme in Manas.
Rescued as a few-weeks-old calf from Baghori Range of Kaziranga National Park during the floods in 2002 by the Forest Department staff, Mainao was admitted to the IFAW-WTI run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) for treatment and care.
For three years, she was hand-reared by IFAW-WTI veterinarians and animal keepers; she was relocated to Manas in February 2006.
He shows me the record files that he has kept on the rhinos since then.
The individuals sighted, location, time, date, activities, and many other details on Mainao and other hand-reared calves relocated to Manas by the Forest Department and IFAW-WTI, as well as other wild rhinos released in Manas.
When he sees that I am impressed, he says that the bundle (that he showed me) is not the half of it.
I ask him to tell me more about his work, what is his day like.
“Right now my prime responsibility is the rhinos. I visit the boma (where two hand-reared rhinos moved from CWRC in 2011 are currently being kept for in situ acclimatisation) thrice daily. I observe the rhinos and record their activities for about two hours each visit.”
And as we talk more about Manas and his experiences, rhinos turn into elephants.
“They (elephants) are the most intelligent of animals,” he begins. “I find them amazing…sometimes even more than people.”
Why? I ask him.
He recounts an incident from years ago.
“I was at the Lotajhar camp then. Me and three of my colleagues from the camp were visiting Bansbari to collect our ration. En route, there was a huge herd of elephants blocking our road. We had no option but to wait for them to move. So we did.
Several minutes went by, the herd noticed us but just remained there. An hour, and then two hours, and they were still there. We were a bit worried as we had to return to the camp, and it was already late afternoon. I don’t remember who started it, but we started speaking to the elephants, requesting them to let us pass. And five minutes later, they moved! It was like they could understand us!”
I see the excitement in his face and decide not to tell him that I thought it could also just be a coincidence.
“The herd had just stepped aside from the road and were still around as we crossed. Once we reached a little ahead, we turned to find that the herd had once again occupied the road,” he said.
He went on to add that those days, it wasn’t difficult to sight herds with more than 100 elephants often. However, now that he was at the Rhino Camp, elephant sightings were rare, and if any; only individuals and not herds.
Curious to know more of what he thought of these animals that he admired so much, I ask of the threats faced by elephants in Manas. He says that one of the more pertinent threats were ‘loss of grassland and decrease in food availability’.
“Elephants need a lot of food. And in Manas what we see now is that their grasslands are being gradually lost. Bombax ceiba (silk cotton) is one of the reasons. In villages, we harvest the seed for cotton, but in the National Park, it is not harvested. The seeds disperse and these trees are gradually occupying entire grasslands,” he adds.
This makes me think, as he had unassumingly told me something that I had never heard before – grasslands turning into forests as a threat to elephants. As I make a mental note to discuss this with my bosses, he says in passing, “I hate sitting idle.”
I enquire about the wildlife crime prevention training organised by IFAW-WTI in 2011 to help them better save the elephants and other wildlife of Manas.
“It was quite good, and we got to learn many new things. However, such trainings must be conducted more often, at least once a year, if not twice, or even once a quarter.”
The equipment provided (as part of the training) he says was durable, but the rain poncho was not really rain-proof.
A few moments of quiet and Anjan steps in to continue the conversation. He tells me that Lankheshwar is among the most pro-active forest guards he knows.
He recalls an incident in 2008:
“We were doing a survey on slow lorises. One night our vehicle broke down and we were stranded near Lotajhar camp. There was no space for additional people at the camp and at 2:30 am, we began our trek to Mathanguri to camp and call for help.
We needed someone experienced to come along with us, and we did not have to ask him twice. He just packed up and accompanied us on this two hour walk in deep forest.”
Although Lankheshwar is still enthusiastic about forests, the need to be with his family seems to be catching up with him.
“I want to be close to my family now. My eldest daughter is getting married in June. I retire in a few years. Once I am relieved from here, perhaps I will open a small store.”
As we end our discussion, I ask him about his up-bringing. His childhood was completely different, he says. He had seven siblings. They did not play or study; they helped their father in the fields.
Is he happy how his life has turned out to be?
“Sure,” he says. “During my childhood, we used to have one meal of rice. Today, all members of my family have three meals...all with rice.”