The Boy and the Boar

EDUCATION FOR ALL: A Community Learning Centre for Musahar children built by the Mithila Wildlife Trust in Dhanusha.

Last week, as I was enjoying lunch with my soft-spoken colleague Dev Narayan Mandal, he said something in passing that caused me to down my cutlery. It was one of those run-that-past-me-again moments.

In the two-and-a-half years that I have known Dev he had never shared this remarkable story from six years ago.

In 2012, Dev returned to his home in Dhanusha district after working on animal rescue for ten years in Delhi. Coincidentally, this was soon after I myself returned home to live in the UK after eight years in Nepal.

We never met then, but it is easy to see how our paths could have crossed in India. I was heading up operations to rescue Nepali child slaves who had been trafficked to perform in Indian circuses. The last operation was to free little girls from the dangerous Great Apollo Circus in Dehradun. Dev himself had been involved at that time in a raid on the same circus to free some bears.

After returning to Nepal, Dev set up the Mithila Wildlife Trust (MWT) to try to reverse the environmental damage in the beloved local woodlands from his childhood. Forests that were supposed to be protected were being illegally logged.

He got retired forestry workers to volunteer, and with the collaboration of 13 villages set out to protect the Dhanushadham Forest. Today, the rewilding program is a success and is being replicated elsewhere in Nepal.

The forest had another problem, the poaching of wildlife by the local Musahar community that traditionally hunted for game meat on behalf of higher castes, and because they were not allowed to eat what they killed, they were only permitted to eat rat meat, hence their name.

Times have changed, yet this centuries-old tradition survived in another form – illegal hunting of wildlife. Dev was convinced that the way to tackle this might be to set up a Community Learning Centre (CLC) for the education of Musahar children, and those from other excluded communities.

Dev's rationale was that, aside from the edifying impact of education on young minds, at least if the children were in class they would not be poaching in the forests.

He made a start by supporting extra tuition for the first batch of 28 Musahar children at the home of a college student, Jit Narayan Sada, who was paid a small allowance by the MWT so he himself could complete college studies. The response from the Musahar community was cool, but three years later a boost was to come from the unlikeliest quarter.

One day in 2016, a 12-year-old Musahar boy named Bishnu Sada was charged and gored by a wild boar. He was knocked off his feet, partially disemboweled, and lost consciousness. The group chased off the boar and carried Bishnu back to the village, traumatised and fearing the worst.

Dev sprang into action, and took Bishnu to Janakpur Hospital, about 45 minutes away, where surgeons said Bishnu was beyond saving. To attempt to do so would be a total waste of money.

Undeterred, Dev contacted Biratnagar Hospital, 200km to the east, sending surgeons their pictures of the gaping wound and exposed intestines. They agreed to attempt to save Bishnu's life. Against the odds, they were successful.

Using his persuasive skills, Dev encouraged the impoverished Musahar community to contribute Rs400,000 to meet Bishnu’s medical bills and then sat down with the community leaders and asked them to quantify the annual financial return from their hunting activities, illicit or otherwise.

After a great deal of discussion and number-crunching, they concluded that these were worth Rs300,000. Dev then pointed out that for this past year, they had effectively been in deficit. He suggested to the village elders that they would have been better off investing in their children's education rather than poaching wildlife.

They agreed, and each household made a contribution at the very least of a piece of timber towards the set-up of the first Community Learning Centre—a simple construction of wood, clay and thatch.

Since then, the CLC has grown from strength to strength, the original centre replaced by a brick house through a grant provided by the McGough Foundation (UK).

This year, the number of students has increased to 286, with extra tutors being provided by the non-profit, SAATH. The teaching model is innovative. Jit Narayan Sada himself has left and enlisted in the Nepal Army, the first from the Musahar community. Funds permitting, better qualified new CLCs will be set up for other communities.

I met Bishnu this week, he is a shy, slightly built lad, with a ready grin. He has every reason to smile having passed his 10th Grade SEE test, a rare achievement in his under-served community, and is  now enrolled in his first year of a Diploma in Engineering course.

I will follow Bishnu’s academic progress with admiration for him, and for the man who saved his life.

Lt Col (retd) Philip Holmes is founder and CEO of Pipal Tree Foundation

To support Dev Narayan Mandal’s Community Learning Centres, visit the ‘Big Give’ summer appeal. Donations until the 4th August are automatically doubled in value:

Read more: Learning all about the birds and the trees, Priya Joshi