Anil Mistry, the mangrove ecosystem conservationist, had started on the path followed by his ancestors and peers. The path of chopping off the forest and hunting the wildlife for livelihood and the yearly floods in the Sundarbans only made them ruthless and unforgiving to both the forest as well as the animals.
But one incident changed his heart and the person who would kill the animals and destroy their habitat by siphoning off the jungle ended up being their protector.
“Since my childhood, I was aware that this area was associated with poaching and illegal cutting of trees. There was no progress [development] in the village. Floods ravaged our village. Automatically we took to poaching. Usually, we went for the deer and if we spotted a tiger then we got it too,” Mistry told Mongabay-India. Mongabay India has done the story.
Killing and the change of heart
Roughly twenty years back, Anil was on his routine hunt with his friend. They encountered a doe and Anil’s friend shot at a doe and moments later, the animal was down on ground soaked in blood and pain.
“Once on a hunt, my friend killed a doe and her fawn was around her. The doe was wounded and was crying (in pain). It died. This encounter left me distraught with grief,” the 52-year-old Mistry recalled the incident from two decades ago.
The repentance was beyond measure and the sight of her fawn encircling her mother shook Anil and his friend to the core and it kept haunting them even after they left the place.
Straight went to the authorities and confessed to his crime
Anil was shaken to the core and he straight away went to the field director of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and confessed to his actions. His confession also included the disruption of the forest he and others had been causing which eventually affected the ecosystem of the forest.
When poacher became a conservationist
Left jolted by the incident, Anil formed the Bali Nature and Wildlife Conservation Society, an NGO that works to protect the mangrove ecosystem and his work has now been recognised due to his association the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) as Anil works as their principal field officer in the Sundarbans and he’s working with WPSI founder Belinda Wright to protect forest from human intervention.
“Through the provision of alternative livelihoods, we ensure that we use only the resources that we have and not depend on the forest. I can safely say that our village that was once a hub of poaching, and in the last 15 to 20 years not recorded any incidence of poaching. It is the most financially stable village,” Mistry asserted.
Promoted the optional livelihoods means
Having no development in the area led to Anil and others like him adopting their ancestor’s occupation of hunting and therefore he knew the real cause behind the problem, therefore he works in order to provide the people with alternative means of livelihood.
“It was mainly a change in mindset that was needed. But gradually people started understanding why we should not exploit our natural resources in excess and the forest department played an important role in the enforcement of laws. They took action then and there,” Mistry said.
Saved and released 70 tigers in all these years
Over the years, Anil has worked in containing the conflict between humans and the tigers as the big cat would sneak in the local habitation of the people and would either get killed and kill people. Mistry over the years has played his part in capture and release of 70 tigers and one such outing led to the killing of the tiger in order to save Mistry as he had fallen and broken his leg.
Poaching has stopped and fencing around the island has also kept tigers away from the human settlements, but Mistry has been quite active in telling people that more than the tiger, it’s the human fault because it’s us who have encroached upon their homes.
“A lot of people are attacked by tigers in the forests but tigers don’t enter villages and kill humans. We have occupied their space. My forefathers came here, cut jungles and killed animals to establish settlements. We have encroached and now they swim in search of food from island to island. This is not their fault; it is ours,” Mistry remarked.
Mistry defends the tigers. “If someone goes from the village to the jungle this can’t be called a conflict, this is suicide. This is not conflict. Conflict is when a tiger strays into a village and people gather in huge numbers to catch a glimpse and the tiger starts running here and there in a panic… this can be called a conflict,” he said.
Many people have lost their lives in the human-tiger conflict.
Working for alternative livelihood
Mistry added that steps initiated by institutions like Indian Council For Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve along with NGOs such as WPSI have sound solutions to the problem of people’s livelihood which lead to human intervention in the jungle. But even now there are challenges to deal with.
“Some people do not understand (why we must reduce dependency on forests) and there are some who do understand and obtain help from these organisations yet they still enter the forbidden forest areas,” the conservationist said.
Number of Bengal tigers is mushrooming
The Sundarban Tiger Reserve has many tigers and around 86 of them have been photographed, according to Mistry who believes that the number would as prey base is also strong and these tigers are special because they swim.
“Each one is a Royal Bengal tiger. They are slim and agile because they need to hunt for prey in an island landscape. They have a distinctive color. They are not friendly, you can’t pet them from a car. These big cats have a gorgeousness about them that you can’t miss. They are very clean because they spend a lot of time swimming,” Mistry added.