In November 2016, there was a big meeting in Seijosa, a small town near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Seijosa is the circle headquarters of East Kameng district, and also the headquarters of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. 

The main tribal community in this area is the Nyishi, a dominant tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. The meeting, between the Forest Department and the people, was a heated one. The villagers were upset with the existing buffer zone demarcation. They felt they hadn’t been adequately consulted on determining the buffer zone that had been demarcated around the tiger reserve in 2012. They were worried about restrictions on development and their land rights in the area.

An agreement was reached after nearly three hours of discussion. It was decided that the buffer zone would be withdrawn and a committee would be formed to redraw the buffer zone boundaries, after consulting with the villagers.

But Tana Tapi was worried about the outcome, and seemed preoccupied after the meeting. He felt that this step would be detrimental for conservation efforts, and that he’d already made several efforts over the years to accommodate the villagers when the zoning was first being planned. 

In this region, Tana Tapi needs no introduction. Also a member of the Nyishi community, he is the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) and Deputy Conservator of Pakke Tiger Reserve, and has served here for many years (from 2004-2007, and again from 2009 till date).

After the meeting, I met him at his house. I knew he had more pressing things on his mind, but I went ahead and told him about our wish to carry out some forest restoration in the Pakke Tiger Reserve.

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"Tana Tapi is a workaholic. He once told me that he had not taken leave for many years. Some years ago, when he was at home in Balijan on a month’s leave, he ended up working anyway, getting calls from various people, and managing various crises. Barely two weeks later, he decided to cancel his leave and return to work." Photograph: Aparajita Datta

As a researcher and scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), our team has been working to restore some of the areas that were degraded by earlier logging in and around the tiger reserve since 2016. We are doing this in a modest way by planting ecologically important native tree species, hoping to secure the future of hornbills and other wildlife in and around the tiger reserve.   

In 2014, we had established a rainforest nursery in Seijosa for this project. I told Tana Tapi that we wanted to visit the old Mabuso village site, which had been relocated in 1993, and needed help to clear the area of weeds. We had to figure out whether the soil and landscape would be suitable for planting, and we needed his advice. He barely nodded. As was often the case, I thought he had not heard what I had said. I forgot about it, thinking I would bring it up again at a better time.  

Two days later, when I was at his house, I was surprised to see two of the long-time Forest staff from the nearby Dichu camp, close to the old village site of Mabuso. They were looking bewildered and so was I. Then Sir muttered to me, “You had wanted to plant saplings in that patch, so I called them.” (Despite having known him for over a decade, I call him Sir and he calls me Madam. The first time we met, I remember telling him he should just call me by my name, but he continued saying Madam and so I gave up.) It took me a few seconds to realise that he had called his staff to help arrange labourers to clear the weeds and prepare the area for planting. I was taken aback. Two days ago, it hadn’t seemed like it had registered. 

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"His diminutive appearance belies his remarkable agility. I have watched in awe, as he shimmied up an almost vertical surface to the loft in his house to rescue a stranded cat. No task is too menial or small, no matter how busy he is." Photograph: Divya Mudappa

Another time, in 2013, I had spoken to Sir about establishing a Nature Interpretation Centre in Seijosa. The Centre would provide visitors and local people information about Pakke’s rich wildlife, and be a useful space for children from nearby schools to learn about the region’s biodiversity. He said yes immediately.   

These two incidents sum up the way Tana Tapi works – less talk and more action. One of my NCF colleagues once told me she was amazed by the speed with which he provided money for the NIC project. She was used to the slow pace with which work usually gets done in government offices. It’s true: Tana Tapi’s remarkable energy, and his honesty, passion and motivation to get things done is unusual among most government officers.

I came to work in Pakke in 1995, more than ten years before Tana Tapi would first come to the tiger reserve as the District Forest Officer. In those days, it was a very remote place. There was limited staff, almost no infrastructure, and only a handful of camps along the southern boundary of the tiger reserve. The few forest staff there were would occasionally patrol the nearby areas, and once or twice a year, they would venture farther away, on elephant back. I went along with them on some of these patrols. We would encounter people in the forest almost daily, mostly villagers from Assam coming in to extract cane or collect Dhuna (the resin of Canarium sp.) which they would sell in local markets or to traders. (The resin is in high demand in eastern India, even in cities like Kolkata, where it is burnt along with coconut husk to keep mosquitoes away.) In those years, although the situation in Pakke never got as bad as some of the other protected areas in the state, such as Namdapha, we hardly ever saw any large mammals. 

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"Apart from his qualities as a remarkable park manager, many of us think of him as family. He can be harsh when work is not done properly, but at the same time, he is also very caring – he goes out of his way to help various staff members. I remember when I was pregnant he would call me to give advice! Of course, I do disagree with him at times, and have had many arguments with him, but it is all good-natured, and he does not hold it against me." Photograph: Nandini Velho

Things changed rapidly once Tana Tapi came. He set up anti-poaching camps along the southern boundary of the reserve, which were to be manned throughout the year. The guards stationed at these camps would patrol regularly, on the lookout for intruders who came into the protected areas to hunt, fish, or extract other resources from the forest.

Slowly, he also visited the northern areas of the park, where no one had been before, as these areas were far away and required several days of walking and camping to reach. Over the years, he appointed staff from the surrounding villages and established anti-poaching camps there, too. Currently, there are over 39 anti-poaching camps all over Pakke. Before Tana Tapi came to Pakke, only a handful of Nyishi people from the surrounding villages worked in the Forest Department. But now, the Pakke Tiger Reserve is the single largest employer of local youth. 

One of the first things that Tana Tapi did was to improve access inside the Pakke TR by building a motorable road all along the southern boundary of the reserve. This was crucial: Pakke TR has an area of 862 and is mostly hilly terrain, so without road access to the interior, it is impossible for field staff to patrol and protect the area. Every year during the monsoon months, this road from Seijosa to Bhalukpong becomes unmotorable. But Tana Tapi makes it a priority to ensure that it is repaired as soon as possible. So by September or October, the staff can reach the anti-poaching camps again. 

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"The forest staff call him Makhna (a tuskless male elephant, often very dangerous!). They admire and respect him, but also fear him. Although sometimes some may complain because of all the work they have to do, I have seen many of the old-time staff become remarkably motivated and take pride in how things have changed in Pakke because of Tana Tapi’s leadership." Photograph: Rohan Pandit

These efforts have paid off. I remember a long trek I did with him in November 2013, a distance of about 72km from the Nameri East anti-poaching camp to Bhalu Nala in the northern higher reaches of the park, and back. It took us four days, over which we had some lovely elephant sightings, and saw Yellow-throated Martens, Sambar, Barking Deer, Capped Langur, Assamese Macaques and hornbills. Sir even saw a Black Bear on the return journey.  

NCF’s unpublished data from recent years, and some studies by others, too, indicate that the abundance of key faunal groups such as herbivores and primates is much higher in Pakke than in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, for instance, where protection efforts have been limited. Compared to the numbers from years past, this is a marked difference. As for tigers, recent estimates from the low-elevation, southern areas of the park, state that there are 7 to 9 individuals, which is reasonably good for forests in this region. Additional survey efforts in the higher areas are likely to yield higher tiger estimates. 

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"Despite all the awards and recognition, Tana Tapi remains a humble man." Photograph: Divya Mudappa

Tana Tapi has received much recognition for his work. In these parts, he is something of a legend. Outside Arunachal Pradesh too, a lot has been written about his efforts in Pakke: in the Outdoor Journal, in Down to Earth magazine, in Conservation India, to name just a few.

He has won numerous awards for his exemplary stewardship of Pakke Tiger Reserve as well, including the Sanctuary Asia – RBS award in 2010, the Governor’s Award Arunachal Pradesh in 2011, the Bagh Mitra award from the World Wildlife Fund India in 2011 and the Best Anti-poaching award from the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2012, among others. 

But he remains a humble and simple man.  

Truly, no task is too minor for his attention. Over the years, there have been countless ways he gets involved – from ferrying the department’s projector to the local school himself when we wanted to give a talk there, to ensuring that blackboards for the students were made properly, to personally helping set up a weather station for Pakke in his office. 

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"It is because of Tana Tapi’s qualities and his leadership, that everyone wants to give their best for Pakke, and support from diverse non-governmental sources has poured in." Photograph: Pratibha Riswadkar

His dedication to Pakke extends beyond his jurisdiction too. One year, Sir decided something needed to be done about the 20 km approach road to Seijosa through Assam. The Assam Public Works Department is responsible for its maintenance, but the road had been in such a terrible condition for so many years that he took matters into his own hands, and used his own resources to repair a stretch of it. He is completely hands-on – I’ve seen him pitch in and help the labourers while they are undertaking road repairs. I know of very few people, especially officers, who would go to such an extent.   

I am often asked about what will happen to Pakke and its success story once Tana Tapi, now 53, leaves. There have been several attempts to transfer him but so far, somehow, it has always been stopped. I hope that the systems and infrastructure he has established will endure, and the people he has motivated along the way carry on his legacy. Kandra Brah, among the best of the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) staff once told me that despite the hardships he faces, he would give his all to protect Pakke. Several others have echoed similar thoughts – a loyalty that has stemmed from the leadership provided by Tana Tapi.

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"Working in Pakke spoils you. Tana Tapi is welcoming to all researchers and NGOs. His house is always open to visitors. I often tell the younger researchers who work there how lucky they are, and that they should not expect this level of access and cooperation when they work in other areas." Photograph: Aparajita Datta

There is no doubt that Tana Tapi would be a hard act to follow for any new park manager, but I am hopeful that nowadays there are several young tribal officers in Arunachal Pradesh who, inspired by the DFO they’ve learned so much from, are committed and motivated enough to ensure that Pakke and its wildlife continue to thrive.

The Hornbill Nest Adoption Program was set up in 2011 by the Nature Conservation Foundation to protect hornbill populations and their nesting habitat in forest areas outside the Pakke Tiger Reserve. In the last six years, 103 hornbill chicks have fledged. You can support the program by adopting a hornbill nest for one year for ₹6000 and becoming a hornbill parent. You’ll find more information on other research and conservation projects in the region here, and you can read our story about the program here.