It was late in the night when the loud clucking of chickens woke up a neighbourhood of the Bochagaon village in Kaziranga, Assam. Swiftly, the adults gathered near the pen and saw a large snake devouring a hen. Lanterns and sticks in hand, the villagers surrounded the snake keeping a safe distance. In any other circumstances, the frightened villagers would have killed the outnumbered reptile, but this time, they called ‘the man who speaks nature’.
“Ten years ago, the villagers would have lynched the snake without a second thought, and I can’t completely blame them. However, there’s a growing awareness about the importance of each element in the wilderness and the villagers respect snakes now,” says Manoj Gogoi, a 44-year-old father of two, in conversation with The Better India (TBI).
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What he is too shy to say is that he has been an important cog of this wheel of change in the mindset of the populace. It is not merely the adults though, who have come to understand nature better. Young children too are showing a growing understanding that wild animals need to be protected.
A boy went running to the Corbett Foundation office, a turtle in his hand. “He told us that his family wanted to keep the turtle as a pet. The boy requested the parents to set the turtle into the wild and so he “stole” the turtle and brought it to us. He wanted us to leave it in its natural habitat. Such is the impact of Manoj,” Dr Naveen Pandey, the Deputy Director of the foundation’s office in Kaziranga tells TBI.
This self-styled naturalist’s remarkable journey and experiences have won him many well-deserved accolades. In 2014, Corbett Foundation honoured him with the “Wildlife Warrior” award and last year he became the focus of a documentary called ‘The Man Who ‘Speaks’ Nature’ directed by award-winning Assamese director Dhritiman Kakati.
So what pulled Gogoi to dedicate his life to wildlife conservation?
“I was born in the Kaziranga area of Assam. I grew up in the lap of nature teeming with rhinoceros, leopards, beautiful Himalayas birds and snakes, even venomous ones. It is a familiar environment for me since childhood. Naturally, I developed a genuine fondness for the wild,” smiles Gogoi.
Growing up, Gogoi knew what he wanted to do, and he was determined to move mountains for it. Although he left his studies after his matriculation exam, Gogoi went on to pursue a one-month course at the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai in 2006.
The educational journey, as well as the beginning of his career, played a remarkable role in cementing Gogoi’s passion for saving the wild. Like his father, who was a linesman in the State Electricity Board, Gogoi could have secured a government job. But he decided to chart out an unconventional career path—one that his parents were not too sure of in the beginning.
“He (his father) would get very tense for me as someone told him that catching wild animals is illegal and I can be jailed,” he told East Mojo.
Gogoi pursued his call of rescuing and rehabilitating birds, reptiles and mammals alone for a long time. But at times, people would call him as late as 2 in the night and eventually, he decided to organise a team of enthusiasts like him. With 11 like-minded people, Gogoi started his organisation—the Naturalists for Rehabilitation of Snakes and Birds (NRSB) in 2007. Today, the organisation is 100 volunteers strong.
Continuing to contribute to NRSB, Gogoi also worked as a driver with Assam’s State Tourism Department but his course in Mumbai helped him secure work as a tourist guide in a private resort in 2013. For a long time, Gogoi made ends meet with a meagre monthly salary of Rs 1500 and the, at times, generous tips from tourists.
“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 on rescuing animals,” he says.
No wonder that NRSB’s name spread far and wide, and calls began pouring in for the rescue of large and venomous snakes. This was a positive sign as people were now choosing rescue instead of killing.
“A large crowd gathers to watch the operation. I take that opportunity to educate people about the importance of snakes. I tell them how killing them is not the solution to their problems and how untrained handling of the reptile can be dangerous. Of course, the awareness was not imparted immediately. However, about ten years later, I can see the difference in their attitude. Now, they call me instead of lynching the snakes,” he says.
Change came in 2013 when having heard of Gogoi’s work, Corbett Foundation approached him with an exciting proposal—starting an office in Kaziranga with Gogoi working in their rescue department. Gogoi gladly accepted this offer as he knew that it would not only help take care of his family’s expenses but also widen the range of the rescue operations. The foundation also assured him of bearing the cost of all wildlife rescue operations. “
All of his operations are well documented in the office. We note everything from how far the site was to what time of the day or night we were called to rescue the animal. Manoj hasn’t turned down a request even if it is about 60 km from where he is,” informs Dr Pandey.
The following year, 2014, the foundation bestowed on him the award of ‘Wildlife Warrior” for his dedicated and proactive work.
“It has been a phenomenal journey so far, one that I hope continues for a long time to come,” the naturalist says adding that he only started documenting his rescues in 2007 and the total number of the animals rescued has exceeded 5,000 already.
This number does not take into account the birds and snakes that he rescued in 2005 and 2006.
Gogoi is also involved in conservation education programmes arranged by the foundation. Through such programmes, he tells stories of rescue with such passion that leaves the kids inspired.
“I have learned mostly through experience, and each animal is as special as the other. So far, I have rescued rhino calves, leopards, barking deer, wild boar, jungle cat, fishing cats and other mammals that fascinate tourists on safaris. I have also rescued a 14-feet-long King Cobra—a real threat to my life.”
However, for Gogoi, the most memorable rescue story is of the three tiny kingfisher babies that he saved when they hadn’t even opened their eyes.
“I raised them till they could fly,” he shares proudly.
A wildlife enthusiast who is translating his passion in the rescue of innocent animals, Gogoi certainly is a star. But he rarely owns up to it. Thousands of animals owe their lives to the naturalist who believes it to be a duty to rescue them and take care of them until they are well enough to go back to their natural habitats.
Interestingly, just as we finished our interview, Gogoi received a call informing him that he has been conferred the 2019 Passion Award by India Star Book of Records.
The awards seem to be pouring in and knowing the genuine love Gogoi has for animals, I feel this award is just the tip of the iceberg!
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)