Militants Release Three WWF-India Volunteers

GUWAHATI, Assam, India, February 8, 2011 (ENS) – Three of the six WWF-India volunteers kidnapped on Sunday have been released and are well, the conservation group said in a statement today. The three who were released are all women.

WWF-India said it is working closely with government authorities and the Bodoland Territorial Council for the speedy release of the three remaining volunteers. “We are also in touch with their families and assuring them our full support and assistance,” the nonprofit group said.

Entrance sign at Manas National Park (Photo by Norbert Kalman)

“These young volunteers were part of the WWF team carrying out tiger habitat occupancy surveys in the area,” said WWF-India today. “These young and committed individuals were working towards helping to conserve the important biodiversity of the area for the larger benefit of the local community, the state and the region. Conservation is an apolitical activity that contributes to the well being of people, society and nature.”

Appealing for the release of the three male volunteers who are still being held by the militants, the group said, “We are deeply distressed that our innocent volunteers, while carrying out field work which has no bearing on any political agenda, have been made the target of an armed group.”

WWF-India has been working with local communities, governments and institutions across India for more than 40 years. The group’s staff and volunteers are based throughout the country in areas which are often remote, difficult and inaccessible.

Armed and masked militants abducted the six young volunteers, including the three women, while they were working with WWF-India on a tiger census in Manas National Park in the Himalayan foothills on the border of India and Bhutan.

The volunteers were carrying out field monitoring for the All India Tiger Estimation Project in the park’s Ultapani area, some 200 kilometers west of Guwahati when the abduction occurred Sunday afternoon.

Tiger reserve in Manas National Park (Photo by WildSunny)

“They were accompanied by members of a local wildlife NGO, but the militants segregated the group and whisked them away at gunpoint,” said a police spokesperson.

Dr. Anupam Sarmah, WWF India’s senior coordinator in Assam, is representing the global conservation organization in talks with the authorities. Other senior members of WWF-India are also present and are monitoring the situation, the group said.

“We have also been informed that the volunteers are safe,” WWF-India said Monday, adding, “The Bodoland Territorial Council and the state government authorities are working to resolve this crisis.”

“A group of about 20 armed militants kidnapped them while they were carrying out tiger and elephant counting and monitoring exercises inside Manas National Park,” Kampa Borgoyary, deputy chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council told the “Hindustan Times.”

The militant group has now been identified as the outlawed National Democratic Front of Boroland, whose objective is an independent Bodoland in areas north of the Brahmaputra River, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Members of the National Democratic Front of Boroland, 2003 (Photo courtesy Outlook India)

The newspaper gave the names of the abducted WWF volunteers as: Saiyad Naushad Jaman, Pranjit Kumar Saikia, Tarali Goswami, Gautam Kishore Sharma, Srabana Goswami and Pallabi Chakraborty.

The NGO community in Assam has appealed for the safe and immediate release of the volunteers.

In a statement issued Sunday the NGOs said, “These volunteers are innocent students from our own native state and educational institutions. The NGOs hope that good sense will prevail and the volunteers will be immediately released unharmed in order to enable the civil society organizations and their workers to contribute towards nature conservation – especially for the communities living in and around the forested areas.”

Manas park is a tiger reserve and is inhabited by 22 of the 41 endangered wildlife species listed under India’s Wildlife Act, including the Indian rhinoceros and Indian elephant.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee proclaimed Manas National Park to be a World Heritage Site in 1985, but it was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1992 after militants of the Bodo tribe seeking political redress gained control of the park.

“This [abduction] is a setback for Manas,” UNESCO representative Ram Bhuj in New Delhi told the “Hindustan Times.”

The park’s infrastructure suffered great damage from 1988 to 1993 and political instability between 1990 and 1996 destroyed hundreds of trees and animals, including some 50 percent of the park’s rhinos and 30 percent of its tigers, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Center.

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