Kaziranga: On a rainy evening in August last year, while walking home from office, Sapna Chetia noticed a crow chick lying near Bharalu. While initially she brought the injured chick home and nursed it, she eventually didn’t know what to do with it. She contacted a few environmental NGOs in Guwahati but didn’t get any positive response. Finally, she came to know about animal rescuer Manoj Gogoi from Kaziranga and contacted him on Facebook messenger. What she didn’t expect was Gogoi landing at her doorstep three days later.
“When I reached Guwahati and contacted my friends there, they asked what I will rescue. When I told them that I am here to rescue a crow, they laughed. But for me, every animal is equal,” says Gogoi, who has rescued more than 4,500 animals since 2007.
‘Kaku’, the crow he rescued from Guwahati, is now happily living in his rescue centre in Kaziranga for the past seven months along with other birds and snakes he has rescued.
Rescuer by chance
Hailing from Bochagaon village in Kaziranga, Gogoi has lived in close proximity to wild animals all his life. But, it was a chance incident which triggered his passion of rescuing wild animals stranded in human localities.
“It was in October, 2007. In the morning I was just loitering around with my toothbrush when I suddenly saw a mob of people trying to lynch a python. They were angry on the python for eating a cock weighing 2 kg. I tried to reason with them that killing the snake won’t bring back the chicken,” he says.
The reasoning worked with the villagers. Gogoi then grabbed the neck of the snake softly and put it in a sack. Later, he released it in the nearby jungles. This was the first time he had rescued an animal.
After working as a tourist cab driver and then as a tourist guide for Iora Resort till 2013, Gogoi decided to become a full-fledged environmentalist after a chance meeting with Kedar Gore, director, Corbett Foundation.
“Since 2007, I was rescuing animals. So, people started knowing my name. There were some videos of mine catching snakes released on YouTube as well. So, when Kedar Gore visited Kaziranga once, he wished to meet me. I went and told him about my work for almost two and half hours. Impressed, he asked me to join Corbett Foundation. He said that they will start their own office in Kaziranga,” recalls Gogoi.
As Gogoi had already set up an NGO called ‘Naturalist for Rehabilitation of Snakes and Birds (NRSB)‘ with local youths, he had to convince them and his employers at Iora Resort about joining Corbett Foundation. “Initially, they were reluctant to let me go. But then they relented,” he says.
Earlier, as he didn’t have a proper rescue centre or other resources, he generally had to put money from his own pocket while going for rescue ops. “My salary in Iora was just Rs 1,500 but I would earn handsomely from tips during the tourist season in Kaziranga. Foreign tourists tip you very well. During peak season, my income would exceed Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000 in most months. I used to spend the lion’s share of that money in rescuing animals,” he says.
Now, since he got associated with Corbett Foundation, the cost for rescuing animals is being borne by the foundation. In 2014, the Corbett Foundation awarded him with the title – ‘Wildlife Warrior.’
The snake charmer
Gogoi has particular affinity towards rescuing snakes. It is mainly due to his efforts that people have stopped killing snakes and instead call him. Dulumoni Goswami, who works with Gogoi, says, “ Manoj Da is available anytime. If you call him at 1 am, he will go. Many times, he will get a call while he is having his dinner and he leaves immediately leaving his food halfway.”
Gogoi says that there are only six to seven species of snakes found in this region which are highly venomous and kill people. “There are snakes like King Cobra, Monocled Cobra, Banded Krait, Black Krait, Red neck KeelBack, Vipers which are highly venomous. Apart from them, people are more or less safe from other snakes,” he says.
In one segment of the popular Netflix show, 72 Dangerous Animals of Asia, it says that ‘every encounter with a King Cobra is like a game of Russian Roulette’. Gogoi knows this better than anybody else and so he ensures adequate protection for himself and his team before embarking on a snake-catching adventure.
“When we reach the spot, we take note of everything — the size of the room, entries and exit. Many times, a crowd will assemble and dispersing them is a real task. They would surround the snake from all sides and in those scenarios, there is a high possibility that the frightened snake might attack. There have been cases when I have abandoned the rescue because the crowd didn’t disperse even after telling them repeatedly,” he says.
Gogoi’s family members were initially very skeptical about his passion but has gradually accepted it. “My father who worked in state electricity board would get very tense for me as someone told him that catching wild animals like this is illegal and I can be jailed,” he laughs. He now lives with his parents, wife and two daughters.
Apart from rescuing animals, Gogoi also spreads awareness about the importance of conservation in nearby villages. “I tell them that snakes are useful for them because they eat rats that destroy their crops. It is very important to understand that every creature is important. If one goes missing from the food chain, it will create great ecological imbalance,” he says.
Active during flood
During the annual flood in Kaziranga, when animals migrate from the sanctuary in search of highlands in Karbi Anglong, Gogoi volunteers along with the forest department. Niren Duwarah, a resident of Bosagaon village, has an interesting incident to share.
“During the flood last year, 60-80 hog deer passed through our compound. One of them entered our bedroom and took shelter there. We had many valuable items in that room and were thinking that those might get ruined if the deer starts running around. We informed Manoj and he came and took out the deer without any damage to the valuables,” he says.
Over the years, Gogoi has become some a sort of a phenomenon in Kaziranga, who is known and revered across Kohora to Bagori. Not just the adjoining areas, he has travelled to Jorhat, Sivasagar and Tezpur for catching snakes and birds. There has been a wildlife documentary made on him which was shown on the Animal Planet television channel. Last year, a documentary titled ‘The Man Who Speaks Nature’, directed by Dhritiman Kakoty, won the first runner-up.
Gogoi forms an attachment with every animal he rescues. “When I keep an animal with me in the rescue center, I try to spend as much time with them possible. I try to learn about their characteristics as much as possible. It is a very painful moment for me when finally the time comes to release them in the jungles. I don’t want to part with them. But it has to be done nevertheless because that’s where they belong,” he concludes.