Bali Island (West Bengal): Poachers have turned conservationists in the Sunderbans, giving a ray of hope to conservationists for saving the world's largest mangrove forest which is facing threat from rising sea level and climate change and the wildlife there.
Anil Mistry, a 48-year-old resident of Bali island in the Sunderbans is one such poacher-turned-conservationist. He is now working hard along with his friends to stop illegal poaching and preserve bio-diversity conservation.
"My entire family, since the generation of my grandfather had been traditional hunters of the region. We used to earn our living by hunting wild animals and birds. But now for the last 15 years I am working for the cause of conservation of Sunderbans which is like my mother," Mistry told PTI.
Asked the reason behind his quitting, he said " In the late nineties one day when I had gone hunting I had killed a mother deer. Her fawns kept moving around her body and the sight changed my mind forever."
"After I left poaching I convinced several of my other friends to work for conservation. Now we have a team of 12 people spread across Sunderbans and we work with different NGOs to fight against poaching and sensitise people about climate change," Mistry, who now works with Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
State Sunderbans Affairs Minister Manturam Pakhira praised the efforts of Mistry and his team who have spread to various parts of Sundarbans in conserving the biodiversity of the UNESCO world heritage site.
"They are doing a tremendous good job. The Sunderbans Development Board works in close coordination with them," Pakhira said.
There is a lot of local appreciation too for the poachers-turned-conservationists. They are called 'Bono Bondhu' (Friends of the Jungle) as they work not only work for the protection of biodiversity but also for environment friendly capacity building of the people of the Sunderbans.
"Mistry and his friends have done wonders in our fight for protection of bio-diversity and curbing illegal poaching in the Sunderbans. His contacts in the area has helped a lot in controlling poaching," Honorary director of WPSI, S Banerjee said.
He elaborated on how coordination between Mistry and the forest officials have helped in saving several tigers and other wild animals who had strayed into human habitations.
"Earlier, whenever a tiger strayed into human habitat it would be killed by villagers. But after Mistry joined us, he has sensitised the people about the need for conservation of tigers. As a result no tiger which had strayed into a village has been killed since early 2002-03," he added.
WWF coordinator for Sunderbans landscape Ratul Saha said the team's familiarity with the Sunderbans landscape and their contacts made during their days as poachers have been an added advantage to the conservation efforts.
"Mistry and his friends have a good network of informants in the entire Sunderbans region which help them to get immediate information on straying of wild animals or poaching and they take immediate action," he said.
Banerjee cited an incident that took place a few months ago when a deer was poached and its meat was being sold in the market while its horns and skin were readied for smuggling.
"Mistry got the tip off from the village where the incident took place. He along with other members of WPSI rushed to the spot and caught the poacher along with deer meat," he said.
Mistry, who also works as a guide for various international organisations who come to make documentaries on Sunderbans, however, feels the political interference at the ground level sometimes hampers conservation work.
"There has been instances when we had nabbed poachers but all of a sudden local political leaders come and take them away. We were forced to just stand and watch helplessly," he said.
Until and unless there is an unanimous feeling among all sections of the people about the need to save the Sunderbans from climate change and other threats no amount of government or private funding can save the unique mangrove forests, he added.