College in Upper Assam rainforests breeds several young environmentalists

A deer frantically hurtled down a hilly slope, trying to get ahead of its invisible predator. The predator – a majestic Royal Bengal tiger – followed moments later, only to disappear in a flash in the same bushes.

This pursuit did not take place in a thick and wooded jungle, but on the campuses of a college in Haut-Assam.

Welcome to Digboi College, located in the eponymous oil town, which is located right in the Indo-Burmese hotspot rich in biodiversity.

The incident happened 12 years ago, but Bhaben Das, a guard at the college, remembers it like it was yesterday.

“Until then, I was sitting outside. After seeing the tiger, I remember walking into the house and locking the grill, ”he recalls.

A long-tailed broadbill seen on campus. (Photo credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

India has many educational campuses rich in biodiversity: from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, which is home to a multitude of wild animals.

Digboi College, however, is more than that. It shares its border with the Upper Dihing Elephant Reserve and is just 22 km from the recently notified Dehing Patkai National Park. Another forest is even closer: the Soraipung range under Digboi Forest Division, one of the entry points to the national park, is barely 6 km from the college.

Rajib Rudra Tariang, who heads the college’s zoology department, explained the vastness of the wildlife spotted on campus over the years: “We have identified 19 species of mammals, 180 species of birds, 33 species of snakes, 12 species of lizards, 167 species of butterflies, seven species of frogs, over 300 species of moths and several other species of insects and spiders, ”he said.

Digboi College is home to over 100 species of butterflies. Pictured is the ‘Paris Peacock’. (Photo credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

A wild and wild campus

The richness of diversity on campus is not lost on the students and teachers of the college. The greenery of the campus has created a whole crop of environmentally conscious young people.

College students actively participated in the 2020 “I-am-Dihing-Patkai” virtual campaign, a widespread movement in the state to protest illegal charcoal mining in the Dihing Patkai Reserve Forest.

It might be hard not to worry about this given the ecological richness of the college’s location. As ornithologist and cartoonist Deborshee Gogoi, who teaches marketing in the university’s business department, said, “In 2012, an artificial orchard was created especially for the animals on campus. Barking deer calved inside the campus. Herds of elephants visit the campus in winter. Once, a deer head was dropped near the college cycle stand by a leopard.

Library assistant Heramba Patgiri, who joined the college in 1984 and is currently the oldest member of staff, recalled seeing packs of dhole (wild dogs) and wild boars inside the campus more early.

A deer barking in the college fruit garden. (Photo credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

The college is also a gold mine for bird watchers. “Some extremely rare birds like the chestnut-backed thrush and the rusty-bellied short wing are found on our campus,” Gogoi said. It was also on the route of American ornithologist Noah Stryker, who set a world record in 2015 by spotting 6,042 birds of the 10,400 estimated species in the world, on a non-stop journey across seven continents.

Green warriors

Tariang, who has been teaching at Digboi College since 2008, is an expert snake catcher. He makes sure no one in the area kills them. Whenever a snake is spotted, he and his assistants – students and teachers at the college that Tariang has trained over the years – take care of it. “Every year a few students in my department learn to catch snakes,” he said. Due to his heart problems, Tariang said he had started to delegate most of the work to the younger generation. “Today, I only accept 20% of the calls I receive. However, I have trained 10 to 12 young people who replace me.

Digboi College’s unique location attracts many students. Niranjan Nayak, a graduate student from the zoology department, said: “I have been interested in wildlife since childhood. I was educated at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Tinsukia, where my art teacher suggested that I try to get admitted to this college. Now I think it was the best decision of my life.

Sumit Das, a final-year botany student at the college, echoed Nayak. “My attraction to my botanical subject grew at this college, as I was able to observe first-hand an incredible biodiversity.”

Students from the Department of Commerce install bird nests on trees for World Sparrow Day. (Photo credit: Deborshee Gogoi)

He added: “Here we have trees like Hollong, Kadam, Nahar, Indian Rain Tree, Ajar, Deodar, Arjuna, Tree Fern, Magnolia, bamboo species, orchids, climbers, etc.”

The college’s National Service Scheme (NSS) unit adopted the forest village of Soraipung, which is home to 86 families. Villagers were trained in solid waste management, that is, converting solid waste into organic fertilizer. “We also trained young people from the village to become bird guides,” Tariang said.

The Digboi College Environmental Cell has also undertaken a project to identify the habitats of the Assam state animal, the white-winged wood duck in and around Digboi, a project in which Gogoi is the principal investigator.

As Das, the botany student, put it, “The greenery of Digboi College reaped the seed of environmental awareness in my mind.

The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45.

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