Sikkim: How brave workers saved a govt-run rabbit farm from complete destruction
Rabum's Angora Rabbit farm in-charge Passang Bhutia (right, in white)

The devastating floods in Sikkim have not only broken the back of the state’s infrastructure, they’ve also undone years and years of hard work of several people. From those who have lost their homes to the ones still counting their loss from livestock death, it is clear that it will be weeks, if not months, for Sikkim residents to recover from the deluge.

Passang Bhutia, 58, however, has other reasons for despair. Among the casualties of this natural disaster were hundreds of Angora rabbits from the Rabum Angora Farm (Angora Rabbit Demonstration and Breeding Farm).

The situation could have been much worse had the brave workers at the farm not rescued about 150 of the 400 rabbits living there.

Bhutia, the man in charge of Rabum’s Angora Farm, spoke to EastMojo and shared how he had devoted his life to this venture, having joined the farm in the nineties. He reflected, “It has been a long journey towards uplifting the community, and now it feels like it’s all over.”

Established in 1996 as a research centre in collaboration with the Sikkim Animal Husbandry department, Rabum’s Angora farm initially focused on researching how German Angora rabbits could adapt to Sikkim’s high-altitude climate. They found that these rabbits settled well and bred successfully in the region. By 2000, the farm had evolved into a training centre for Angora rabbit breeding, contributing to developing the high-quality germplasm line. In an effort to create local employment opportunities, the farm trained villagers in research-based scientific methods of raising these valuable animals.

Passang Bhutia emphasised the farm’s commitment to sustainable practices, aiming to benefit both the Indian textile industry and the remote communities in Sikkim. He mentioned, “Indian Army defence personnel purchases Angora wool items in Sikkim. Numerous tourists visiting Sikkim received Angora wool items as a memento. And we had intentions to explore export opportunities, having successfully optimised our production process after years and years of hard work.”

Bhutia asserted that the farm has been dedicated to sustainable practices and working on a balanced system that benefits the Indian textile industry as well as Sikkim’s remote villagers.

The practice of raising Angora rabbits in rural Sikkim had been steadily growing, with women’s self-help groups adopting the farm’s training workshops, resulting in increased local employment opportunities. Bhutia added, “We trained around 40-50 ladies in rearing these exotic rabbits. They were weaving the wool into products here and generating income.”

Angora wool, prized for its exceptional warmth and plush texture, had been a source of employment in local rural communities, some of which had become tourist attractions, offering visitors the opportunity to interact with the fluffy animals and learn about wool production and traditional weaving processes.

“We transformed unproductive high-altitude land into something productive after years of research and infrastructure development,” Bhutia said. “Around 6-7 permanent employees, all locals from Sikkim, were employed to feed, gather fodder, clean, and attend to the exotic German Angora rabbits.”

However, the flood, the likes of which Bhutia had never seen, disrupted the well-established system that had taken decades to build. Bhutia revealed, “We had set up infrastructure, developed grass for rabbit food, and installed hand machines worth Rs 70,000-Rs 80,000 each.”

When asked about the losses incurred during the tragic incident, he said, “It’s a tragic loss of both animal life and resources. The losses were massive.”

The production at the farm has been 6-10 kg of wool per month on average, he shared. “Today, if we import a German Angora rabbit of the germplasm line, one rabbit would cost about Rs 1 lakh or more. And we had 400 rabbits in our stock, out of which only around 140-150 could be saved.”

When asked if they had anticipated a natural disaster of this magnitude and whether the farm was designed to prepare for such emergencies, Bhutia admitted they hadn’t. “Sikkim is known for landslides and floods, but we didn’t expect such a devastating flood. We weren’t accustomed to this level of destruction.”

He further elaborated, “Locals in Lachen would sometimes warn us about floods from the 1960s. However, when we selected this location for the farm, it seemed suitable. This is a narrow valley, and the river was quite low. When we chose the spot for the farm, it seemed like the right fit. We never imagined it would rise up that much and affect us this way. It was the velocity of the flood that made it worse. The uneven terrain of North Sikkim perhaps increased the speed at which the flood with all its debris hit the rabbits.”

On that tragic night, farm workers received urgent calls from their family members, who alerted them to rising water levels. Before communication lines were cut off, they hurriedly evacuated to safer areas. “They were concerned. When they returned to the farm in the morning, they were met with a disheartening scene: most of the rabbits were missing,” said the Rabum Angora Farm in-charge.

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One of the rabbit sheds was swept away by the flood and cages hung precariously on top of a debris pile caused by a landslide triggered by the flood, Bhutia said. Despite the risks, determined farm employees climbed to the dangerous spot and successfully rescued more than 100 rabbits, with no injuries or casualties among the workers.

Also Read | Sikkim floods: Evacuation underway in Lachen, Lachung

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