Risking lives for the love of wild

Wildlifers are unsung heroes who dedicate their lives to serving our wild animals. It’s pure passion that drives them to rescue, rehabilitate and conduct research on wildlife. They who flirt with danger so much have little or no social security. The Thumb Print delves into the hazards of their profession.

Wildlife vet Prasanta Boro still cannot hold little things like a piece of paper or a spoon with his right hand.4

In March 2009, he suffered bullet injuries on his right upper arm and chest. An accidental gun shot, while he was on his way to rescue a tiger that had strayed into human habitat near Kaziranga National Park in Assam, permanently damaged his nerves.

Boro had to go through an emergency vascular surgery and several months of treatment. Boro blames the incident on lack of awareness and preparedness.

“The crowd was agitated as they could not recover the body of a dead villager the tiger had killed. We had no higher officials with us. It was utter chaos with lack of co-ordination between the administration and the authorities. We do not even have enough number of tranquilising guns,” says Boro. Such missions need sufficient number people with expertise and build machans on tree-tops so they can see the movement of the tigers, he rues.

“Even forest guards should be trained to deal with such emergencies.”

Boro was the centre manager, at the WTI-IFAW run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) when this happened.

“My organization bore all my medical costs. I am grateful. My appointment letter had a clause to address accident insurance cover,” he adds.

He is however, no longer with WTI and works with the state government. “I am no longer fit to continue with the same job and have to do field work,” says Boro. He misses his previous assignment. Now, he does not really deal with wild animals but conducts post-mortem on dead wild animals.

For most wildlife workers in India’s Northeast, thrilling moments full of close encounters with wild animals and narrow escapes are plenty. Few have even succumbed to injury or infections acquired while in service to the wildlife. Still, they work with no social security and limited insurance cover in a few organizations. And do not press for benefits.

Besides, amateur wildlife activists too go out there into the wild and risk lives, for the love of the wild. Wildlife activist Mithun Chakravarty from Margherita in upper Assam was known to rescue snakes which stray into human habitats and then leave them in the jungles. Once he went to catch a monocled Cobra and suddenly the lights went off. He used his mobile phone to light up the area and catch the snake. But this cost him dearly and he was bitten by the snake. His treatment too got delayed by more than 4 hours. After struggling for few hours, he passed away.

Often, snake bite victims reach the hospital at the last moment. Victims cannot identify the snake and therefore the doctors cannot administer the appropriate anti-venom.

Doctors were relieved when herpetologist Abhijit Das was admitted in Gauhati Medical College Hospital after he was bitten by a green Pit Viper. November 2007. It was the first case in the hospital when a victim of snake bite could actually identify the snake that bit him.

“I told the doctors that I needed pigment of my blood as the venom was hemotoxic. I was lucky I could talk to the doctors all the time and tell them which anti-venom to administer,” says Das.

Here is how he got bit. When a snake was brought to the Herpetological Research Laboratory in Guwahati’s Arya Vidyapith College. The snake was rescued from the outskirts of Guwahati and sent to the lab for identification. Dr Saibal Sengupta, Head of the Zoology department felt that it could be the pit viper and called herpetologist Abhijit Das to identify it.

“In northeast India, there are 7-8 species of green pit viper that look alike but are different species. The snake was in a container. I wanted to study, identify and leave it in the jungles,” says Das. He was observing the snake and knew that the Pit Viper is not a fast-moving or aggressive snake. He needed his diary and pen to write. So he kept the snake on the table to get his diary and pen. Suddenly the snake started jumping and moving around. He got alarmed as it was a college and there were students around.

“It started going towards a hole. In the melee that followed, I tried to dislodge the snake. It bit me on the left hand index finger,” says Das.

He managed to catch the snake and put it back in the bag. Earlier too, Das was exposed to the pit viper bite but he had recovered after slight swelling and pain in the area. “It all depends on the mood of the snake and the amount of venom inserted into the victim. If it’s under a lot of tension then maximum venom can be released. This time, the venom quantity was very high and could have been lethal,” he says. He was in the ICU for six days. He needed external blood supply.

These dedicated wildlife workers did not bother to ask for any social security measure for their welfare. Das said, “Our office has devised some kind of insurance for us. We usually work on projects where we have temporary insurance. Wildlife emergencies happen when we do something silly. However, a lot needs to be done to safeguard and secure the wildlife activists and researchers in case of emergency.”

He adds, “There are now more threats living in the city than the forest. Fear of snakes is due to ignorance. 90 percent of the snakes are non-venomous. It’s a kind of occupational hazard for us.”

Aside the risks from wildlife, there is also the difficult geographical terrain with back-breaking journey while on assignments which the wildlife workers must encounter.

Arindom Pachoni, a wildlife vet who worked on the Asiatic Black Bear at the Centre for Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation at Sijusa at the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh talks of the difficult terrain they have to traverse while on duty. “Sometimes, we walk a distance of almost 16 km at a stretch and cross several rivers almost 11 times. Often the rafting boats are damaged.”

Once he remembers how he escaped severe injury while he was doing the health check-up of a bear from Tripura. He had tranquilised the bear, sedated him and blindfolded his eyes. The bear was sleeping in a lateral position. “I was checking him for any external parasitic infestation. Even when drowsy, he suddenly lifted his front paw and threw his heavy hands on the ground. Bear paws are very heavy and sharp. Instantly I removed my hand. That was a narrow escape,” he says.

Twenty five-year-old University student Mrigakhi Borah is researching the “Feeding behaviour of Hoolock Gibbon” and conducts her field work in the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Mariani in Assam’s Jorhat district. She often encounters leeches and ticks. She has tick bites all over her body – with itching and black marks. The ticks bite everywhere from the neck to the feet, wherever they can penetrate.

She recalls her initial days, when she was attacked by leeches and her legs are full of scars. “The leeches even get into my hair. Once, I could feel something cold and slippery on my neck. I discovered it was a leech,” she shudders with horror. She usually wears a cargo, full sleeve t-shirt, leech guard (stitched from a coarse material) like the one forest guards wear. “One cannot enter the forests without a leech guard,” she says.

Borah often encounters snakes and follows elephant pug marks. A forest guard accompanies her with a machete in hand. She says, “I enjoy working in the wild though there is a lot of red-tape. You have to take permissions which take 7-8 months to come.” She echoes the need for social security and that universities should have provisions for students working on wildlife.

Dedicated wildlife workers are a boon for the villagers living near forests. Lakhiram Das, a 32-year-old keeper of the Centre for Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation (CWRC) near Kaziranga National Park recalls an incident of 2010 when a snake was seen inside a house in Panbari village in Assam’s Golaghat district. It was 9 pm and he went to catch it alone as he was on duty on night shift. He thought it was a Rat Snake. While doing it, the snake bit him in the index finger of his left hand. He went back to the office and his finger starting swelling.

The office contacted a herpetologist who said that it can’t be the Rat Snake as it does not venture out in the night. It was actually a Black Krait and its venom attacks the respiratory tract. He was taken to the hospital but became unconscious. He regained consciousness after 3-4 days. “I could not open my eyes. I stayed for seven days in the hospital and it was paining. For more than a month and half, I could not speak properly. My voice was not clear,” he says.

The list of thrilling adventures that wildlife workers encounter, are endless. Dilip Chetry, 46, working on primates in Northeast India recalls an incident in 1999 when he was studying the Socio-ecology of the Stump-tailed Macaque. His field assistant had gone to the field to locate a group of these primates. Darkness was setting in and a heavy storm was raging outside. When he did not turn up till 8 pm, Chetry decided to go out in search of his associate. He took his rain coat and charge-light and ventured out to the forest. There were no mobile phones then.

It was raining heavily and he managed to reach the core area. Around 10 pm he was deep inside the forest and his charge light went off. Some how he managed to reach the main tract at around 12 am. Suddenly, his head hit something hard which felt like a wall. Then he realized it was a wild elephant he hit his head against. He realized he was in the midst of a herd of wild elephants in the midst of a jungle at midnight. He was unfazed and used his long years of experience to return to the camp at around 1 am. “The person I went looking for, got on a beat officer’s car and went home straight without informing us. I reached the camp just as a search party was about to start looking for me,” he says.

Chetry has a hard life but loves it. Recently he was in Mouling National Park in Arunachal Pradesh on the Indo-China border at a stretch for 55 days without telephone, electricity and totally out of touch with family. “I never feel insecure inside a jungle. We are not bound by anything or anyone. We love our work in the forest. We have never thought about social security. We do have an emergency fund,” he adds.

Another wildlife enthusiast Rajib Rudra Tariang, who teaches in Digboi College in Upper Assam is passionate about wildlife and his area of interest lies in butterflies and snakes. People call him to inform if they see a snake in a human habitat. He has taken a vow to generate awareness about snakes and dispel many myths among the common people. He has even created a pictorial poster to inform the local people. He has rescued owls, slow loris and the civet cat. He agrees that they risk their lives out of passion but have never thought of any insurance cover.

Precaution, therefore seems to be the best medicine in a jungle. Small errors can lead to wildlife emergencies in a jungle. Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist who works on amphibians, mostly snakes and frogs, feels that it is a dangerous business working in the jungles. “I am extra careful while dealing with snakes. Once you take anti-venom, it might not work a second time. Anti-venom is not for multiple uses, has to be given within few hours and must be administered under medical supervision.”

Now he and his team is working on Population Ecology of Tigers. They work in Kaziranga National Park and an encounter with a rhino is more dangerous when it’s a mother and cub pair. “We try to avoid encounters and maintain a distance. We have had many close encounters with herds of elephants as well,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed adds, “We have no social security. We mostly work on international grants. Those who work in this sector work on very low salary. We work out of passion in spite of funds crunch. Our organization had done an accident policy with a nominal amount. No government has ever thought about us.”

Wildlife workers, whether they research or spread awareness or protect the jungles, are a rare breed. “We are a small fraternity. We also face extremist threats. We may be kidnapped. But will not be able to pay ransom. We may be killed in wildlife emergencies too. Only passion drives us,” says Ahmed.

Even if they do not press for social security, it is high time government, and we the society took notice of the contribution they make risking their lives.