In Assam, a battle to save a rare flower

A group of men and women in Assam are fighting to save a flower — by growing it in their backyards, bonding over it on Whatsapp and a month ago, formally grouping into a society for its conservation

In January 2003, two days before Bihu, Khyanjeet Gogoi, trekking in the forests bordering Dibru Saikhowa National Park, was picked up by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) — at the time the most dreaded militant outfit of the Northeast.

Held hostage in a secret “jungle” camp on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, the militants interrogated Khyanjeet: “Why are you here? What are you looking for?”

“Orchids,” the 23-year-old replied.

It was an answer no one expected. Three days later, the slightly bemused ULFA cadres left Khyanjeet on the banks of a river; he was free to make his way home.

That trip, remembers Khyanjeet, was futile. “I was looking for a rare species of orchid that was apparently growing wild at the national park.” Needless to say, those orchids were never discovered, but the quest continued.

For Khyanjeet, ever since 1994, has been travelling only in search of orchids. Over the years, he has recorded 395 species in Assam alone, discovered 35 new ones, named three himself and cultivated several more in his backyard in the small town of Rupai in Upper Assam’s Doomdooma, where he teaches Biology at a local high school.

Today, the 38-year-old has many monikers in Assam: the orchid expert, the orchid whisperer, the orchid man, and is often called by the government to identify rare species.

“If my friends invite me for a holiday, the first question I ask is: is there a forest near by?” says Khyanjeet, over the phone from Rupai, “Because, if there are forests, then there are definitely orchids.”

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in February 2019. Full article here.