Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary and Maibong Eco -Resort: A successful story of compassionate co-existence with Nature

Editor(EN), The Seed

Novanita Sharma

Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the Morigaon district of the southern bank of Brahmaputra covering an area of 38.85sqkm provides an ideal habitat constituting grassland and wetland for Indian Rhinoceros. This floodplain ecosystem was conferred the status of a wildlife sanctuary in 1987. Pobitara WLS has earned worldwide fame for being the natural habitat with highest population density of One Horned Rhinoceros in the planet. Other than Indian Rhinoceros, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar and other wildlife Pobitara WLS provides habitat to many bird species; it is an important wintering ground for avifauna which hosts more than 15,000 migratory birds every winter. It is a popular birding destination, especially known for waterfowl. Thus, Pobitara WLS is significant for long term conservation of Indian Rhinoceros and many species of avifauna. Effective conservation of Pobitara WLS is dependent on the preservation of the fragile floodplain ecosystem which comprises of numerous wetlands and grasslands which are interspersed with growth of woodland. This 38.85sqkm of floodplains wilderness is a delicate self -sufficient unit working with its own equilibrium which must be maintained to ensure its future survival. Pobitara WLS is a beautiful example of the resilient strength and capacity of Nature to sustain wildlife when left unhindered of human exploitation. This wilderness appears like an oasis for wildlife amidst the hustle bustle of human world. Pobitara WLS is an accessible getaway for nature lovers, for people from nearby urban areas like Guwahati this wilderness is an easy escape from the concrete world. Like many other wildlife sanctuaries in India, urbanization juxtaposes right next to Pobitara WLS. Nestled amongst villages and their croplands, the history of Pobitara WLS sets a unique example of community participation in the conservation of this wilderness. Notified a Reserve Forest in 1971, Pobitara became a wildlife sanctuary in 1987 with support and cooperation from the fringe communities who whole heartedly participated in the conservation process all through. Pobitara WLS is a matter of pride for these fringe communities, these villagers developed a relationship of respect and compassion for the One Horned Rhinoceros found in this area. This is evident in the absence of rhino poaching cases for the past ten years in Pobitara WLS. The highest population density of Indian Rhinoceros in Pobitara WLS is partly attributed to this compassionate co-existence of fringe communities with this prehistoric species for years now. This sets a precedent of peaceful co-existence of human beings with wildlife for rest of the country. The small geographic area of Pobitara WLS wouldn’t have supported such a large population of Rhinoceros without this community participation. At a time when the world is concerned with the growing man-wildlife conflict situations, Pobitara WLS provides a glimmer of hope of plausible man – wildlife coexistence. When compared with other conservation models marred with deep rooted conflicts and prejudices, Pobitara WLS is a welcome positive shift. Pobitara WLS gives hope to mankind and wildlife with its model of compassionate co-existence in action. There are problems which ails Pobitara WLS, which it shares with most of the other protected areas of India because of the persistent anthropogenic pressure on the forest resources. Despite these problems the positive approach of the people of Pobitara paves its way towards mutually agreeable solutions. The network of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in India constitutes the future ecological and economic security of the Nation. These protected areas are part of the solution and it is the only solution available in our hands. The conservation of our forests, rivers, mountains and wildlife constitutes future economic security of our people, progress isn’t possible without ecological stability. Hence, the forest fringe communities must understand these vital realities and must come forward in support of the conservation measures. The peaceful co-existence of wildlife and people around Pobitara WLS shows India a way to practice compassionate co-existence with Nature, the thriving wildlife of Pobitara WLS has proved the efficacy of this model for rest of the world.
This positive approach of the fringe communities of Pobitara WLS towards its conservation is evidently felt amongst the people of Mayong. The Maibong Eco-resort situated at the main gate of Pobitara WLS has beautifully imbibed this essence of compassionate co-existence of wildlife and human beings in its ambience. The Maibong Eco- resort founded in 2012 came a long way from its humble beginning to become one of Assam’s most beloved retreats for wildlife lovers from different parts of India. Nripen Nath, the founder of Maibong Eco – resort is the undying force behind this beautiful wildlife-tourism model which gives the tourists a unique feel of the Pobitara WLS. Maibong Eco-resort has become an inseparable part of the Pobitara experience. The real beauty of Pobitara WLS remains aloof to the visitors until they come to feel the compassionate involvement of people like Nripen Nath in the conservation of Pobitara. Maibong eco-resort brings the tourists to a holistic wildlife experience; from the bird watching point throng with its regular visitors including a family of Oriental Pied Hornbill to the rare nocturnal rendezvous with Palm Civet, this unique eco-resort brings one home to the comfort and thrill of wildlife – tourism, its natural settings an integral part of this feeling. Here, one gets a chance to see bonding between human beings and wildlife built upon mutual trust which grew because of the compassion practiced by Nripen Nath and his team in Maibong Eco – resort. Pobitara WLS and Maibong Eco-resort brings this possibility of peaceful co-existence closer to the understanding of its visitors. Knowing and supporting people like Nripen Nath is of utmost importance for the future of wildlife conservation and wildlife-tourism. Maibong Eco-resort sets an excellent example of ideal wildlife-tourism model where the cause of nature conservation gets priority over material benefits. Eco-tourism in true sense is meant to benefit Nature first, and Maibong Eco-resort has proved to everyone that actions leading to preservation of Nature ultimately leads to progress and benefit for human beings too. Their model of compassionate co-existence is a very good example for anyone who is interested in eco-tourism/ wildlife tourism, especially for youth of Assam and Northeast India who must shoulder the responsibility of protecting the rich forests, mountains, rivers, valleys and other natural resources of the biodiversity rich Northeast India in future. This natural bounty is the richest resource for Northeast India, we must learn to grow through preservation and judicious utilization of these resources. Thus, effective eco-tourism/ wildlife tourism models like Maibong Eco-resort gives hope to everyone. Nripen Nath is a trailblazing youth who has proved that successful eco-tourism does not need big investment, it rather requires a big heart which can put Nature first. 
I had this opportunity to interview Nripen Nath in my recent visit to the Maibong Eco-Resort and Pobitara WLS. Here’s a chance to know more about him, about his journey with Maibong Eco-resort and about Pobitara WLS from his perspective. Knowing Nripen Nath is like meeting Pobitara WLS in a new dimension.
Q. We all know Maibong eco-resort as a place which is truly promoting eco -tourism. Tell us more about Maibong eco-resort, how you began this journey and share with us the inspiration behind the name of Maibong eco -resort?
A: I worked with Prasanti lodge for around 6 years. I liked working in the tourism industry. The end of their lease period forced me to quit my job there. I got involved in some other work, though monetarily rewarding this work didn’t give me the satisfaction which I found working with tourists. I wanted to start a tourism venture of my own, but all I had was Rs.25,000/-. It was impossible to imagine beginning a resort with such a meagre amount of money. Still, desire was very strong to begin an eco-tourism venture. So, finally with lot of courage and hope I and my brother launched Maibong eco-resort in 2012 -2013. We were dtermined to face whatever comes our way. We had a humble beginning; we began with three rooms. I have many well-wishers who helped me, many people supported me in this beginning, people contributed money for this venture. Thus, the journey began and it moved on. Later, we upgraded the resort with an investment from my Late father, he invested his retirement benefits in this resort. With this, we added three more cottages to the resort. As we grew, we were able to get some financial assistance from Banks and this is how Maibong Eco -resort stands in its present state. 
We are involved with wildlife-tourism. Eco- tourism is ideal model of tourism for places close to wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Other types of tourism in such places rather welcomes harm to the biodiversity of these ecologically rich places. In Maibong eco- resort our efforts have been to keep it eco-friendly to the extent possible. From the past two years we have stopped providing mineral water bottles in the resort. We are sincerely trying to reduce the one-time use plastic waste generation. Mineral water bottles provide a good margin of monetary benefit to the service provider, but it generates huge amount of plastic waste which a nuisance. We have opted to provide RO water to our guests instead of mineral water. We have a nature-souvenir shop attached with the resort where we don’t provide any plastic carry bags. We are using cloth/paper bags instead of plastic. I wanted the name of the resort to carry the essence of ‘maati’, I wanted the name to connect with the local culture of this place. This place is been inhabited by Karbi people from ages and this place is known for Bodo paddy cultivation. In Karbi language the word ‘Maibong’ means granary of rice. Many people also tend to say that the name ‘Mayong’ is derived from the word ‘Maibong’. So, keeping all these things in mind I name the resort as Maibong eco-resort.
Q. Who/what inspired you to embark in this eco-tourism venture? What motivated you to get immersed in wildlife tourism?
A: I grew up here, seeing Pobitara WLS right in front of my gate. Since my childhood, we see people visiting the wildlife sanctuary, people come in cars with long and fancy equipments which I discovered later as cameras. I was always very curious about these visitors, those days there were no tea shops or restaurants here for the visitors. I used to follow these visitors, I used to watch wildlife with them. Love and interest for wildlife thus grew in me since my childhood. Then, while I was in class 9, I came across a newspaper advertisement of Nature’s Beckon in 1985, announcing a nature camp in Nambor, Golaghat district. For the first time in life, I set out of home all alone to Golaghat to join this camp. I had the contact number of Golap Gogoi, a Nature’s Beckon member. I contacted him from Golaghat and he took me to his house. I was amazed with the course events, I felt as if being part of Nature’s Beckon is unique, I was picked up by Golap Gogoi and was at his place for the night as his guest. I had the opportunity to taste duck meat for the first time in my life, Golap Gogoi treated me with home cooked duck meat. I was touched with his hospitality. The next day I participated in the camp conducted in Nambor forest. This was my first opportunity to connect with nature and forest. I attended several camps of Nature’s Beckon. Soumyadeep Datta Sir gave me many opportunities to learn and grow. These involvement with Nature’s Beckon gave me the opportunity to learn and connect with Nature and since I live very close to wilderness, I got drawn towards the option of wildlife tourism as a source of livelihood. I realized that wildlife tourism will give me the opportunity to contribute towards wildlife conservation while I am earning my living. That’s why I am very content working in this field of wildlife tourism. The past two years has been rough for us because of the Covid-19 pandemic, still I am very happy working for wildlife tourism. I get to connect with people from different parts of the country, people from different walks of life, all of them are interested in wildlife and nature. This gives an opportunity of personal growth also; I am learning new things with everyone else. We are also able to connect young generation with the motivation of biodiversity conservation, I am very happy to be able to contribute to biodiversity conservation effectively through my work. 
Q. You pioneered in the field of eco-tourism in Assam and at the same time you are closely associated with organization like Nature’s Beckon. So how do you see yourself from the wildlife conservation perspective? What are your views regarding the role of a responsible eco-tourism model?
A: I always consider myself as a nature lover first, that’s my first introduction to the world. The rest follows. It is essential to be a nature lover in order to begin an eco-tourism venture. I believe that it will be impossible for anyone to work for eco-tourism if that person is not a nature lover. Another vital aspect of eco-tourism is that one must be ready to make sacrifices, a simple example is the mineral water bottle. I can make a huge profit by selling these bottles, but since I love nature and I believe in responsible eco-tourism I have abstained from selling them in our resort. 
Q. Maibong eco-resort has grown beautifully over the years to that of an ideal wildlife-tourism unit in Assam. Maibong eco-resort is bringing people close to wildlife in a very healthy way, it is not incorrect to say that wildlife has chosen Maibong eco-resort as a safe haven. What inspired you to create this ideal ambience in Maibong eco-resort for wildlife tourism?
A: Firstly, Nature’s Beckon and the people associated with Nature’s Beckon has always inspired me. I had the opportunity to meet a person called Mr. Pralay Lahiri. He visited us as a tourist, he was very resourceful person, a true nature lover who helped me learn many things about the possibility of effective co-existence with wildlife. I met him 2010, he was an avid traveller. When we show love and compassion to animals, they often reciprocate it, the same is seen in the case of wildlife and Maibong eco-resort sets an example of this relationship between us and wildlife. Pobitara witnessed the worst ever floods in the year 2019. During this time a full-grown Rhino found a safe haven in our backyard for more than 10 days. It didn’t cause any harm to us and we too didn’t interfere with it. A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbill started visiting Maibong eco-resort, over a period of time the whole family of this Hornbill pair have chosen this place as their roosting ground. Another regular visitor of Maibong eco-resort is Palm Civet Cat, a rare species of wildlife which is known to be shy. The wildlife-friendly environment of Maibong eco-resort brings this wildlife to its campus. This also gives a new orientation to many of our guests, they take this feeling back with them that loving nature and co-existing with nature is a possibility. They learn to love and respect wildlife. 
Q. What according to you is the role and significance of wildlife tourism in wildlife conservation?
A: In the present context, I feel that the concerned government authorities must have stringent implementations of rules and regulations to give eco-tourism a chance. I’d talk specifically about Pobitara. There should be strict implementation of all guidelines of eco-sensitive zone around all protected areas. Construction of bigger concrete structures should be strictly prohibited in the eco-sensitive zones around the PAs. Such structures obstruct the route of wild birds and blocks the corridors of wildlife like Rhino; eventually this will lead to heightened man-animal conflicts and will be detrimental for eco-tourism. I believe the government agencies must come up strongly to intervene these issues. Government should immediately declare eco-sensitive zones around all PAs to ensure the sanctity of these wild spaces in Assam.
Q. Pobitara WLS has a unique history, people living around Pobitara has a big role in the conservation process of this forest. Most of us are aware of the various issues, like pressure of domestic livestock on the forest, but what we don’t get to hear are the positive stories. Let us know about the positive side of community involvement in the conservation of Pobitara WLS over these years?
A: Pobitara WLS sets an example for the entire world, this wildlife sanctuary was constituted with land contribution from the fringe communities. Even now, there is an emotional bonding between the people of Pobitara with the One Horned Rhinoceros found in the sanctuary. Villagers still come out in groups whenever they get the news about death of Rhino here, they assert to know the reason behind the death. Rhinos often causes depredation of crops; villagers still practice the custom of lighting an earthen lamp offering prayers to the Rhino to spare the crop with firm belief that Rhinos do honour their prayers. Here, people are so emotionally attached with the Rhinos that the loss incurred by such crop depredation has never caused led to any animosity in their minds towards the Rhinos. People do have reservations for the Wild Buffalos, it is believed that the crop once been eaten by Rhinos actually give a good harvest but the opposite happens with crop eaten by Wild Buffalos. The scientific reason is unknown to me, but this is a true fact. There have been no cases of Rhino poaching in Pobitara in the past 10 years, this reflects the positive approach of the local communities towards Rhinos of Pobitara WLS. Miscreants from outside cannot take shelter in these villages. Even if someone tries to do so, the villagers alert the forest department or the police forces about it. People are very positive for Rhino conservation.
Q. What are your views regarding the future conservation of Pobitara WLS?
A: Pobitara WLS is a very a small area. Although it comprises of 38.8 sqkm, the actual Rhino bearing area is 16 sqkm. This 16sqkm is facing land encroachments, this should be addressed by the Forest department on an urgent note. Whatever have been lost is gone, now we should properly demarcate whatever forest area is there in our hands. Till date the demarcations of the wildlife sanctuary are not clearly marked. Serious thought should be given to immediate expansion of the area of Pobitara WLS, revenue lands should be included in the wildlife sanctuary to expand its area. Solar fencings should be erected around the wildlife sanctuary to prevent the domestic livestock of the fringe villages to enter the wildlife sanctuary in order to stop them from causing over grazing inside the sanctuary. Apart from all these, one of the most pressing needs for future conservation of Pobitara WLS is the declaration of the eco-sensitive zone around the wildlife sanctuary. 
Q. How do you see the eco-tourism scene in Assam in the next 10 years. What are your concerns, what are your views?
A: Government must lay down strict rules for tourism, in and around the protected areas which are the most important areas for eco-tourism. Certain practices like use of proper lighting in these places and some activities like use of loud music, littering of the area must be strictly prohibited. A very good example is the vanishing of fireflies from our villages, we don’t get to see fireflies these days which is attributed to use of high voltage lights by human beings. Judicious use of these resources thus can benefit the environment. 
Q. What is your message to the youngsters, the new generation who are keen to take up eco -tourism as their career?
A: I appeal to the youngsters that they should support the existing eco-tourism ventures. They should support the people who are already engaged in eco-tourism so that they can grow and meaningfully contribute in promotion of true eco-tourism. The new generation should opt for eco-tourism to experience it, this in turn gives them the rare chance to connect with Nature and wildlife. I believe eco-tourism is a way to come closer to Nature; tourists mostly come from the urban areas viz: towns, cities, metros who are mostly disconnected with Nature. Hence, if they chose eco-tourism over other entertainments, it gives them a chance to find peace with Nature. For instance, one of the best ways to connect with forests and nature is bird-watching. If someone falls in love with birds then it is for sure that person will love forests and nature too. So, eco-tourism is hope for the young generations.