Budheswar Baro

Wildlife conservation can appear to be an extremely noble, rewarding experience but that is how it portrayed on camera. What about after the cameras are turned off? Can it be a viable career for people who have lived next to forests all their lives and if yes, how sustainable is it? What are the pitfalls and the dangers?

The answers to all these questions, and much more, can be found in a conversation with Budheswar Baro, a revolutionary-turned-poacher-turned-nature conservationist.

An Assam native, Baro’s life has been so full of adventures that there are not one, but two documentaries on him. While one was produced by world-renowned Vice Studios in 2021, the second documentary will release on April 28 on Moviesaints.  

The Story of Budheswar is a short documentary produced by Abhimanyu Hazarika and directed by Bishal Swargiary. Previously screened at the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) Film Baazar, the largest South Asian film market, the documentary made in the Bodo language follows up on the story of Budheswar Baro (Buddhiswar Boro).  

“I learned about Budheswar Baro after reading an article about him on the internet about poaching, and it prompted me to make a film on him. As a student of Tourism and Travel Management, I had always wanted to do a project on something related to nature and wildlife. The story of Budheswar Baro inspired me to do the project,” says the young director.

As inspiring as his life is, Budheswar Baro’s life has been fraught with challenges. Born in an unwelcoming environment dominated by lawlessness and underdevelopment, Baro’s childhood was subjected to parental and institutional neglect amid the politics and violence of the Bodo Liberation Movement in Assam.

At a critical juncture in his life, posed with the challenging questions of survival or death by hunger, Baro turned to poaching in the Manas National Park (located in the Baksa and Chirang districts of Assam) and, inadvertently, became involved in the liberation movement during the heydays of the struggle in the 1980s and 1990s. However, with the surrender of the insurgents and the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), Baro gave up weapons in 2003.

Since then he has been part of the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES) and their effort to revive and conserve the UNESCO World Heritage site as the two-decades-long struggle for autonomy had left many scars on this natural paradise. According to reports, above seventy one-horned rhinos were slaughtered in the forest for their horns during this time.

Speaking with EastMojo, Kalicharan Basumatary, the ex-president of MMES and a former member of All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) said, “The Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society is a society formed by the forest department which actively deals with the rehabilitation of former poachers and loggers who have surrendered to the ABSU, and as well as to conserve Manas National Park and raise awareness about it. Budheswar Baro was part of the first group of people who had voluntarily surrendered at that time.”

“This story deserves to be told because whatever he is doing for the last seventeen years must be made known to the world. It’s something neither you nor I can do. It calls for much more dedication and commitment to sacrifice everything for nature,” says the self-taught filmmaker.

In 2021, his life’s transformation was documented by a Vice Asia documentary titled Bad Blood: The Wildlife Poacher, wherein, Baro stated his renewed awakening on the other side of nature. The documentary shows how Budheswar Baro, a poacher for fifteen years, realised the importance of the forest and the threat to human life from its depletion. He laments on his past doings, and with regret-filled eyes, looks back at the incident during one of his hunts where he survived but lost one of his arms.

In 2021, his life’s transformation was documented by a Vice Asia documentary titled Bad Blood: The Wildlife Poacher, wherein, Baro stated his renewed awakening on the other side of nature. The documentary shows how Budheswar Baro, a poacher for fifteen years, realised the importance of the forest and the threat to human life from its depletion. He laments on his past doings, and with regret-filled eyes, looks back at the incident during one of his hunts where he survived but lost one of his arms.

It also sheds light on the emotional toll that the lives he had taken have had on him. But the documentary fails to take note of his present personal struggles. This is where Bishal Swargiary’s The Story of Budheswar comes in. It not only elaborates on Baro’s professional life but also highlights his personal, present tragedy. It dwells on his life’s trajectory and explores his hopes and regrets of dedicating himself wholeheartedly to the cause of restoring the forest from the brink of a biodiversity loss.

“With this documentary, my main goal is to inspire people. Maybe tomorrow someone can be inspired to do what Budheswar Baro is doing today. It is a collective call to all to love and save nature,” says Swargiary.

“I am honoured to be a part of two documentaries. It’s been seventeen years that I have been engaged in this line of work and it feels good to get some recognition in this way,” says Baro.

A ruminative narrative of a man who is now forced by fate to almost choose between his love for nature and providing for his family, the fifteen-minute documentary also asks several difficult questions as to how their efforts are being recognised and rewarded.

“People like Baro are very important because another person might think a hundred times before dedicating selflessly to a cause. Other people are also working in similar fields and sectors but they are also getting paid. In our case, he is not. The financial remuneration comes only once a year, that too about Rs 5,000-6,000. Supporting a family on that kind of money is never enough,” Swargiary adds.

“It would be a lie if I said that the amount of remuneration we receive is sufficient to support a family. But, because I’ve committed to a cause, I’ll see it through to the conclusion,” says Baro. 

And despite meagre earnings, Baro and his team are pleased with what they have accomplished thus far in terms of conserving the forest, combating the illegal wildlife trade, and raising public awareness about the need for conservation.

“He can be described as a ‘hardcore nature protector’. He used to be misinformed about the value of nature, but today he is a changed man who wants to devote his life solely to the sake of the forest. However, he hasn’t received the recognition he deserves for his dedication and effort because we pay him a pittance in comparison to his efforts”, says Basumatary of MMES.

“And we are helpless because our society’s financial situation isn’t very sound. We have asked the forest department to provide them with the opportunity to work in the department itself, to involve them in their operations, and to pay them proper salaries. But everything, however, has gone unnoticed”, he adds.

Involved in the illegal trade of smuggling elephant tusks, rhino horns and deer meat across the Bhutanese border since the age of sixteen, Baro’s expertise in the jungle and his familiarity with the modus operandi of the miscreants are being used successfully to prevent poaching for the last seventeen years. According to reports, Assam presently has roughly 200 tigers, with Manas National Park coming in second – behind Kaziranga National Park – for the state’s most tigers.

“Now, if the government believes me and my team is deserving of their assistance, they must help us. The sooner, the better. Because a single person, let alone a family, cannot survive on 6,000 rupees each year. Even in the forest, we must supply our rations. And, so far, we’ve been fortunate in terms of health. I’m not sure what I’ll do if something serious happens to me,” says Baro.

“Likewise, our wives are very hardworking and do their best to help the family in whichever manner they can. They are engaged in animal husbandry and sell pigs and hens to help support the family. It would have been impossible to have come this far without their support,” he adds.

With the help of many such reformed poachers, former loggers and other stakeholders and NGOs, the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society, with cooperation from the locals, has been able to put an end to the merciless killing of wildlife, unauthorised felling of trees and other such activities detrimental for the forest by a huge margin. And Budheswar Baro continues to play a successful role in the initiative of rehabilitation of wildlife and sustainable conservation of the national park and wildlife sanctuary.

Once defeated in the same battle of prioritising his needs over nature to come out of the shadow of poverty, Baro is now determined to fix the forest no matter what it takes, but he has high hopes from the government.


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