About a six-and-a-half hours away from Assam’s famed Kaziranga National Park is another reserve area, called Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. It has been brought into focus by Bibhuti Lahkar who on 3 September won the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Heritage Hero Award. He was the first Asian to be nominated for the honour.

Manas, which hasn’t been as popular as its neighbour, was in 1985 declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, it is home to the world’s last Pygmy hogs, the smallest animal of the pig family. It is also where Nepal’s Terai grasslands meet with the Bhabar type grasslands, creating a unique habitat of eastern moist deciduous forests, in which over 650 species of flowering plants grow.

In 1992, UNESCO put the sanctuary in its list of endangered world heritage sites. It was around the same time, that scientist and conservationist Lahkar’s now 20 year journey with Manas started. In 1993, he’d started work with an NGO called Aaranyak, which aims to foster the conservation of North East India’s biodiversity. Lahkar started studying the sanctuary’s grasslands for his doctoral thesis and grew familiar not only with the landscape of the place, but also its people. This would’ve been important at the time, especially as the region was fraught with the perils of insurgency and the Bodo agitation, before the Bodoland Territorial Council was established in 2003.

These local connections led Lahkar to become deeply involved in also educating and training the area’s youth, working with and rehabilitating people who were once poachers and hunters. Many now help the forest department’s work in the region. Given these efforts, UNESCO removed Manas Wildlife Sanctuary from its endangered sites list in 2011.

In 2013, Lahkar showed that humans and elephants can live together without harming one another. By overseeing the installation of a 14 kilometer long electrical fence, he ensured not only the safeguarding of low-income households in the region, but also no elephant casualty since. The Manas Wildlife Sanctuary also shares its border with Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park, and Lahkar, through his efforts created across national borders, a system for wildlife monitoring.

The other finalists at the IUCN World Conservation Congress that was held in Hawaii, US were: Bantu Lukambo and Josué Kambasu Mukura for their work in Congo’s Virunga National Park, and Yulia Naberezhnaya and Andrey Rudomakha for their joint work in Russia’s Western Caucasus.