The Poacher Who Cared

Joynal Abedin was a hunter and poacher. But two accidents changed his life: an unborn buffalo calf’s untimely death and a forest officer’s squashing by a rogue elephant. He has now dedicated his life to wildlife conservation in Assam’s Dibru Saikhowa forest
True Life
Joynal Abedin, 46, aka Benu Da, runs an eco-tourism lodge, Banashree, on the banks of the Dibru river, in Assam and works to preserve and  conserve the local wildlife heritage (Photo: KEVIN PEREIRA)

The gun has hypnotic powers. I realised this very early in life. I would often eye my father’s gun when he would prepare to set off on a hunt. It was fascinating to watch him plan his sojourns within Assam’s Dibru Saikhowa forest area. It hadn’t been declared a biosphere reserve at that time. So I decided to follow in his footsteps and take up hunting. There is something so virile about the sport. The smell of danger and excitement make for a heady cocktail. It started with brief forays into the forest to kill a duck or chicken. I told myself this would be just a hobby and nothing more. But then the abundant wildlife within the forest began to attract bureaucrats and officers, and I found myself accompanying them to areas as far as the oil town of Digboi to find game. That’s when, without even realising it, I became a professional hunter and poacher.

Now that I look back at my hunting days, I often wonder, was that really me? Those days of reckless—almost foolish—daredevilry seem part of another life. I remember this one time when I went hunting in the Jeypore rainforest. It was late in the evening and the forest was alive with sights and sounds. My friend, Ram Balak, and I had just killed a pigeon, when a strange smell assailed our senses. We traced the smell to a tree where a leopard had left the half-eaten carcass of a young boy. In a sudden burst of anger, the two of us decided to teach the leopard a lesson. After hours and hours of waiting on top of a tree, we finally saw the errant carnivore arrive on the scene. It gambolled around the tree for a while and then began toying with the carcass. That enraged Ram Balak even more, and he urged me to shoot the leopard dead. Unfortunately, in those days, cartridges were hard to find, and I had only one shot. But it missed its head and hit its backbone. How could we let the leopard go so easily? So we got off the tree and started beating it with sticks. I don’t know what the beast was made of, but it simply refused to die. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the leopard succumbed to its injuries. But did that make our revenge complete? No, we had other plans for the carnivore. We cooked it and ate it!

I still remember that evening. It was on 12 February 1988. But something even more interesting took place after this incident. We began to notice that dogs and cows wouldn’t come near us. They simply ran helter skelter when we were in the vicinity. That’s when it dawned on us that they could smell the carnivore’s fat on us and were scared.

In those days, I would eat whatever animal I could find. But once Dibru Saikhowa was declared a protected area, I decided to keep off hunting. That was also the time when the Army began to make its presence felt in Assam. Military offensives against the Ulfa had begun with Operation Bajrang in 1990, followed by Operation Rhino in 1991. That’s when I met a senior Indian Army officer—a colonel—whose name I don’t want to mention. He told me that he wanted a buffalo horn. I told him that a lot of buffalo skulls could be found lying in the forest. He could pick any of those. But he insisted that he wanted me to shoot a wild buffalo and procure its horn. “Hum itne aadmi ko maarte hain, tum ek buffalo ko nahin maar sakte (we kill so many people, why can’t you kill a buffalo)?” he asked.

That’s when I made the biggest mistake of my life—something that I live to regret. But you must understand what the situation was like at that time. Everyone was scared of the Army. Woh jo kehte thhe karna padta thha (We had to do whatever they said). We didn’t really have a choice. So I ended up going into the forest in search of a wild buffalo. But little did I know that the innocent animal that I would shoot was pregnant at the time. I can’t even begin to explain the remorse I felt. That’s when I decided to stay away from guns for the rest of my life.

It was also around that time that I met a man who would change the course of my life. In 1992, Narayan C Sarma came to Dibru Saikhowa as a forest range officer. He was completely fearless and dedicated to the cause of wildlife protection. There are countless lives across Assam that he touched and changed for the better. Mine was one of them. When he first arrived, he called all the locals and told us about the perils of hunting. He would spend hours showing me slides on various animals in the forest and their importance within the ecosystem.

Slowly, I began to develop a keen interest in conservation. My knowledge of the forest was finally being put to good use. I started going into villages to tranquillise rogue elephants. However, one fatal evening in 1998, Narayan Sarma told me to stay back at the forest camp to attend to some tourists, while he took my place to tranquillise the elephant. That was the last I ever saw of him. I was told that he was crushed under the feet of a rogue elephant while trying to calm it down. Those were extremely dark days for me. But instead of wallowing in self pity, I redoubled the conservation efforts in the area.

Today, those efforts are bearing fruit. The deputy commissioner of Dibrugarh district, Dr KK Dwivedi, and I have founded the Dibru Saikhowa Conservation Society, as part of which we conduct awareness camps and treks in neighbouring villages.

Unfortunately, hunting still takes place in the area; in fact, last year, it took place on a large scale. Each year, Assam witnesses huge floods during which time a lot of security lapses occur within the forests. That’s when poachers and hunters sneak in. I always tell officers of the forest department to focus on the education of locals. If they have the means of earning a decent livelihood, they will never resort to hunting.

I have employed 40 to 50 locals to work in my eco-tourism lodge. During the tourist season, they earn Rs 300 for each boating trip. Say, if one person makes four such trips a day, then he earns a minimum of Rs 1,200. Why would he then put his life in danger and go hunting in the forest?

But the impetus has to come from within the forest department as well. Often, forest rangers and officers themselves want a taste of the rare meat. When I was a hunter, I was never once caught by forest guards. And therein lies the tragedy of wildlife conservation. But I derive hope from the fact that there have been officers like Narayan Sarma. I truly believe that change will come, and I will do whatever it takes to see that it happens.