Night falls early inside the jungle. There were no sounds to disturb the absolute stillness of the night. In the pitch dark ambience, three people were sitting behind bushes. They were wearing army tracksuits to camouflage with the jungle and were seeing through the darkness with their night goggles. Some movements from the opposite direction made them alert. The leader of the group stood up. Three gunmen were coming from the opposite direction. The leader saw the position of one of the approaching men with his goggles once and then removed it. He then picked up his AK-47 and shot the man.
This is not a scene out of an action thriller movie. This is how Deben Bora, OC of Jakhalabandha police station had neutralized a poacher this year in Deusor area of Burapahar range in Kaziranga National Park (KNP). Since 2016, Bora has been instrumental behind arresting around 400 poachers apart from killing three and busting multiple camps.
Poachers are suddenly on the backfoot in this all out war going on inside the dense forests of Kaziranga and Bora, along with his team in Jakhalabandha, can claim major credit for that.
54-year-old Bora, along with his team, is one of the main reasons that poaching has actually gone down in two of the most vulnerable ranges in the park – Bagori and Burapahar. “You can’t survive here without a very strong national sentiment,” he says sitting in his cabin in the Jakhalabandha police station. “I used to feel very strongly about the poaching menace. I had thought that if someday I get transferred to Bokakhat or Jakhalabandha police station, I will do my best to bust the poaching ring,” he added with steely determination.
Bora had that fire in him since the beginning. Hailing from Haojan village in Lakhimpur, he had actively participated in the Assam Andolan during the peak of the movement in the 80’s. “I was arrested and kept in Lakhimpur jail for 29 days. Like most people at that time, I was swayed by nationalistic fervour and joined the movement. I had no inclination of joining the police force at that time,” he laughed.
Bora was actively into sports once and won many laurels. His eyes shine when asked about his brief but eventful foray in sports. “I had been selected in the Assam volleyball team for the first time in 1978. I represented Assam 7 times in national level volleyball. I had also represented the state in athletics. I ran 100m in 11.27 sec in 1987 which was a record at that time. I was preparing myself for an active career in sports. But, I appeared for the recruitment exam in police forces in 1989 and cleared the exam. Soon, I found out that I had cleared the test and was selected,” he adds.
Bora’s maiden posting was in Golaghat as a sub-inspector. Those were the days when ULFA (I) terror was at its peak, especially in the Upper Assam districts. “I took a very strong stance against the ULFA (I) insurgents and encountered three of their cadres. However, they retaliated strongly by attacking my family in Lakhimpur. They killed my younger sister, uncle and cousin,” he said.
From 2006 to 2010, Bora served in police stations like Sootea and Biswanath Chariali. At that time, rhino poaching was going on unabated in Kaziranga. Bora decided that if he ever gets transferred to Bokakhat or Jakhalabandha PS, he will do his level best to stop poaching. As luck would have it, he was soon transferred to Jakhalabandha.
Bora’s initial months in Jakhalabandha were turbulent to say the least. Rhinos were being killed left, right and centre and despite his best attempts, the onslaught couldn’t be stopped. “At that time, 3-4 rhinos were being killed every month. We had appointed Village Defence Parties (VDP) but that didn’t help much. In the later part of 2014, we arrested a poacher from the Paite tribe of Manipur. Interrogating him, we came to know a lot about their modus operandi. Rhinos love to eat the soft grass which grows on Kukurkata Hills near the National Highway. Poachers took this chance to gun these animals down. They also used locals as field-man or spotters. Spotters inform the poachers when they see a rhino grazing at a particular spot,” said Bora.
Using the information they got from the arrested poachers, Bora and his team started strengthening their network. Their real turnaround came in 2016. Since 2016 to 2018, around 400 poachers have been arrested. As many as 22 3.3 rifles, five AK-47s, four grenades and more than thousand rounds of ammunition were recovered from the poachers.
Bora said the poachers were hit hard when police discovered and busted their permanent bunker. “They had set up a permanent bunker which can accommodate 10 people. After we busted their camp, they were hit very hard. Since then, they have stopped making permanent bunkers and use makeshift establishments,” he added.
Divulging some information about the poachers, Bora said, “The poachers belong mainly from the Paite tribe of Manipur. They come from Churachandpur district in Manipur. They have strong connection with Burmese dealers. They hand over their consignments to these dealers who transport it to the markets in Thailand, China and Vietnam. There are also 6-7 maaliks in Dimapur who arrange the whole thing. The poachers also take help from local people. We arrested the mainstays of the local groups and now they are under trial.”
Bora however rues the fact that it is very difficult to get conviction for the poachers. “It is very difficult to get conviction for rhino poachers because of lack of evidence. We have to depend on circumstantial evidence and call data records (CDR). Many poachers come out of jail and again go back to poaching,” he said.
As the poachers are constantly upgrading themselves with new techniques and weapons, Bora makes sure that his force doesn’t lag behind. “Not just offensive techniques, we have to take up defensive technique as well. For example, poachers from Manipur and Nagaland hail from hilly areas and they have fear of water. So once, we flooded the area where they were supposed to hide. So, they had to take another route where we were waiting for them,” he said.
Recently, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal felicitated Bora for his relentless pursuit against wildlife poaching in Kaziranga. Earlier, Aaranyak, one of the most reputed NGOs working for nature and environment in the region had felicitated Bora and his team last year.
Bibhab Talukdar, secretary-general of Aaranyak said, “It is really commendable that despite having to deal with other cases, Jakhalabandha police station gives so much importance to cases of wildlife crime. The western ranges of Kaziranga – Bagori and Burapahar – are the most vulnerable to poaching due to their proximity to the Karbi Hills. But because of the sheer commitment and resourcefulness shown by Jakhalabandha police led by Deben Bora, poaching has come down in this area.”
However, Bora knows very well that the battle he is fighting doesn’t allow him to be complacent. He says that even though poaching has come down, there is no dearth of attempts on the part of the poachers. “If they fail to kill a rhino for two-three months, they behave like mad. They become desperate,” he said.
Once a former principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) had told me – ‘there is a war going inside the dense grasslands in Kaziranga every night’. While people get to know about the one incident when a rhino gets killed, they don’t know about hundred other instances when the poaching attempt is thwarted by the forest officials and cops, sometimes in exchange of their own lives.
As evening falls, Bora gets up from his chair. He now has to get ready for another sojourn inside the jungle in the night. He has a bigger battle to fight whose outcome determines the fate of one of the most beautiful species in the coming years.