Growing up, the Shola rainforest, located in the laps of the Nilgiris, was young P Sivakumar’s backyard. Born and raised in Tamil Nadu, he spent his early years collecting colourful seeds from the forest area. Sometimes, he even planted them, and watched them grow.
His frequent visits to the forest also helped him get acquainted with forest officers in the area. “We used to salute the officers who protected and guarded the forest area. Often, we received chocolates from them, and were encouraged to learn more about the forest,” says 46-year-old Sivakumar, who himself is now the field director at Kaziranga National Park.
“In 1993, Manoj Kumar from the West Bengal cadre was deputed as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in the area. He recognised my love for forests and suggested I join the forest department,” he says.
Odd jobs to pay fees
When he was in Class VIII, Sivakumar wanted to stop studying due to his parent’s weak financial condition. “My parents worked as labourers with the forest department and were struggling to feed the family. The officer asked me to stop blaming my life and parents,” he says.
The officer instead motivated and suggested Sivakumar take up part-time jobs to meet his expenses. “After convincing my parents, I started working in phone booths and printing presses, with the forest department as a labourer, and started taking tuition classes,” he adds. He was appointed as a permanent teacher at a tuition centre, a job he continued for five years. He completed his graduation and post-graduation from Forest College and Research Institute, Mettupalayam. Later, Sivakumar pursued the civil services examination to clear Indian Forest Services (IFS) in 2000.
Dream come true
After completing his duties as a probationary for two years in the Assam cadre, Sivakumar joined as an assistant conservator of forest in Tezpur in 2002. Since then, he has been spearheading various initiatives in terms of community-oriented forest programmes, protecting the endemic species in the Eastern Ghats, and protecting the wildlife.
In 2009, to appreciate his conservation work, the World Bank presented the officer with the National Forestry Award. Later, during a stint in Digboi, he played a crucial role in identifying 250 species of plants for conservation. The department created a herbarium housing native and endemic plant varieties.
“We succeeded in creating a nursery of 165 species. The nursery can help with the conservation and regeneration of the forest. To regenerate local species, at least 100 plants need to be planted in the area. In case of loss of the species in the forest, the plants from the nursery can be used for reviving them,” Sivakumar tells The Better India.
Beyond the conservation of the forest and creating livelihood for the community, Sivakumar also played a crucial role in protecting one-horn rhinos. The Kaziranga National Park is home to about two-thirds of the animal population in the world.
“There were a lot of issues of poaching of rhinos, and the animal also disappeared from Laokhowa area. Efforts were made to translocate rhinos from Kaziranga to revive the population. The existing population also needed safeguarding from illegal activities,” he says.
Sivakumar says conservation and development efforts came together in such a manner that from one visitor in 2009, Kaziranga registered a footfall of 8,000 visitors in 2019. “In 2020, we saw about 3,500 in one month alone,” he says.
His most recent promotion came in 2019 as chief conservator of forest and field director of the Kaziranga National Park. In the past two years, he has created six wetlands for wildlife, especially for elephants, rhinos and wild buffaloes.
In 2020, Sivakumar earned a new title from the locals – Mr Kaziranga. This is because he executed a pending decision with government orders of expansion of the habitat, from 430 sq km to 900 sq km in area.
The UNESCO world heritage site, which had six expansions over time, got three more habitats linked to it recently, after the government was notified through the order.
Kaziranga was identified as a reserved forest in 1908, after which in 1916, the status was upgraded to a sanctuary. In 1950, the forest received the status of a wildlife sanctuary, followed by the tag of a World Heritage Site in 1985. The wildlife sanctuary then became known as a national park from 1974 onwards and received an additional tiger reserve tag in 2007.
Over the years from 1977, the park expanded from about 430 sq km in stages until the 90s.
However, it was after two decades that the recent additions came, in September 2020, after government notifications.
Explaining the delay in expansion of the area, Sivakumar says, “The animals in the national park, especially the rhinos, have always been under threat of poaching. The priority of the officers over the decades was to protect endangered wildlife.”
He adds, however, that now that the species are comparatively safe, the aim is to increase and improve the habitat.
“With the expansion, there are nine corridors planned for the animals to move freely in, without any human interventions. Increasing the habitat becomes crucial considering the growing population of animals,” he says.
“The newly expanded area has fuel stations, human infrastructure like houses and dhabas, which were set up by the population evicted recently. The infrastructure will be removed to allow grasslands to develop for animals to feel at home and suit their habitat,” he adds.
“I feel that the name Mr Kaziranga has been given to me because the government orders materialised in action, despite opposition from locals. A lot of encroachments are removed, and pressure has been put on poachers due to strict vigil and protection activities. The total dominance of the forest department over the area has increased,” he explains.
More tourist destinations
Sivakumar says that future plans include a proposal to create an elevated road over the national park area in three segments of 35 km to allow free movement of animals.
“Restrictions are also being placed on vehicle movements to ensure the wildlife habitat is least disturbed. There are sensors placed to track vehicle movement inside the park,” he adds.
The officer says that currently, a lot of focus is being given to the new touristic locations for visitors. “The park has six new locations, making it a total of ten spots for tourists. The plans are also on to allow boating, trekking, cycling in the fringe areas,” he adds.
Sivakumar says that he will only feel the job is completed once these new proposals of technology advancement and improving tourist experience reach their goal.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)