A Hunting Community Takes Steps Toward Conservation

Schoolchildren playing in Pangti village of Nagaland in Nov, 2013
In the fall of 2012, the people in this northeastern state, which is known for its hunting traditions, killed about 150,000 federally protected Amur falcons, the highest number recorded in India, as the birds made their annual flight from Siberia at the end of October to stay in the Doyang reservoir for the month of November on their way to southern Africa.

Villagers caught the falcons in the Doyang reservoir by tacking fishing nets between trees, then breaking their wings and stringing them together while the birds were still alive and shrieking. Because so many were caught, the birds were sold for as little as 10 rupees, or 16 U.S. cents.

A year later, the number of Amur falcons killed in Nagaland: zero, after state officials and non-profit organizations like the Bombay Natural History Society began a yearlong campaign to educate locals on the necessity of protecting these Russian falcons. As a conservationist, I was part of the Bombay Natural History Society’s efforts to raise global awareness of the Amur falcons’ plight in Nagaland. In a state with nearly no conservation history and an enduring hunting ethic, our task was enormous. Killing falcons, which are protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of1972, is illegal. In fact, killing any wild animal, except for those considered vermin or causing harm to humans, can lead to imprisonment and fines, but most Nagas illegally hunt –birds and animals every season and have gained a reputation as being willing to eat anything that moves.

The hunting culture manifests itself everywhere in Nagaland, especially in homes, where photos of family members holding up an illegally hunted wild animal are prominently displayed. In one living room in Pangti, a picture of Pangti’s last wild tiger, cornered and shot, with its lips pulled back over its teeth, is framed in golden colors. Most houses have porches and patios decorated with antlers, graying animal skulls and bone —some old, some new, and all procured from outlawed hunting expeditions.

We wanted to work with the community near the Doyang reservoir to value the bird as a free-flying raptor, and not just a commodity. Education became the chief strategy employed by the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, supported by the Bombay Natural History Society. The organizations started eco-clubs in schools to teach children the value of conservation, who in turn asked their parents to stop hunting. The groups also enlisted the support of local Baptist church leaders, who delivered sermons that urged Nagas to refrain from hunting birds of prey.

Our efforts were bolstered by the state’s sustained political will for wildlife conservation. After the nonprofit Conservation India released a video in November 2012 documenting the slaughter of the falcons, the state government received letters from environmental activists around the world decrying the killings, and the central government also asked Nagaland for a report on what it was doing to address the issue.

State forest department officers began patrolling the area near the Doyang reservoir in October and emphasized that villagers who captured falcons would be fined. The forest department also dedicated two officers to Amur falcon conservation and initiated monitoring of the birds through satellite tagging. Three falcons, caught and tagged from the reservoir in November, have been christened Naga, Wokha and Pangti, named after their state, district and village respectively.

In 2012, Naga, Wokha and Pangti would not have lived long enough for their annual flight to Africa. The tagged falcons stand for a certain kind of ownership of science over wildlife. They are also a symbol of India’s legal commitments under the Convention on Migratory Species to giving safe passage to migrating birds and animals.

If you ask ornithologists, they will say migrating falcons are international citizens, belonging to Russia and India and Africa. This is distinctly different from how Naga villagers have traditionally perceived the falcons, and indeed, other wildlife.

During a visit to Doyang reservoir on a sunny Sunday this past November, the chief minister, Neiphiu Rio, made a sentimental appeal to villagers. Accompanied by high-ranking officials from the departments of animal husbandry, forests and parliamentary affairs, who were holding binoculars and photographing the birds, Mr. Rio called the falcons Nagaland’s “esteemed guests” who needed to be shown “Naga hospitality.”

When state officials called for an end to the illegal hunting of the falcons in November 2012, abandoned nets hung from trees, with dead falcons tangled in them. Among them was Tajolo Jami’s net.

“Amur falcons are so easy to catch,” said Mr. Jami, 52, from Pangti village. “We don’t have to do anything. They just fly into nets. You could call it, I think, a stupid bird.”
Working in terraced fields during the day, Mr. Jami lives in a wooden house where he has hung hunting trophies on his walls. But he was among the villagers who abstained from hunting in the fall.

Ronchamo Shitiri, chairman of the Pangti village council, who is in his 60s, said that he hoped this change of behavior would alter outsiders’ views of his people as outlaws. “We have been known for hunting. You have made us infamous for it,” he said, grimacing, referring to environmentalists. “Now you should also know us for doing something good. We will be known for something more than hunters.”

Long accustomed to hunting, and seeing the potential to make a relatively easy seasonal harvest and sale, villagers had turned to trapping falcons.

Their other sources of income had run into problems after the Doyang dam, a huge structure generating 75 megawatts of electricity, was commissioned in 2000. In a wet, mountainous state like Nagaland, it is not irrigation but flat land that is most coveted by farmers. The Doyang reservoir came up in some of the flattest areas in Doyang, submerging cultivable fields.

Attracted by the new body of water and the sugar cane and wild bananas that were growing on the banks of the reservoir, wild elephants trampled over several crops, say villagers. Suffering losses, villagers decided to capture Amur falcons, which were now congregating in dizzying numbers over the reservoir, for their livelihood.

Villagers have argued that if they are not allowed to hunt wild birds and animals, then they need to be provided an alternative way to generate seasonal income. “Laws are made; they are then forgotten,” said Mr. Jami. “Give me a reason to not hunt that is of use to me.”

In return for abstaining from hunting, some villagers want the broken road connecting Doyang to the rest of the Nagaland to be repaired. Others want help with employment. Of the 250-odd fishermen in Pangti village, all have attended school. Five have graduated high school but are unemployed. “We need a viable exchange of knowledge,” said Bano Haralu, the managing trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. “Instead of giving capital or resources, we think giving villagers skill training is a good idea.”

As part of its first efforts to train villagers in eco-tourism and revaluing wildlife, the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust is teaching children from the villages of Doyang, Asha, Pangti and Sungro how to use binoculars, identify local biodiversity and trace bird migrations. Children in particular have shown that they are willing to rethink the hunting culture they have inherited.

Though hunting is part of the Nagaland culture, it is not necessarily a tradition that defines the community, said Subhadra Channa, an anthropologist who teaches at Delhi University. “If a hunting tradition is male-dominated or led by males, then that may be leaving out the experiences of women within the same community. What is considered traditional does not need to be seen as representative of an entire community,” she said.

Though our efforts to change the hunting habits in Nagaland were successful this past fall, engagement with the people needs to continue. It is the human problems that need to be attended to in order to save the falcons. “The church has called for an end to hunting, because falcons are guests from God,” said Mhonimo Kyong, a Pangti village elder. “But if alternative arrangements are not done, people will hunt again, as they always have.”

Neha Sinha is a conservationist with the Bombay Natural History Society. She is guest faculty at Delhi University’s School of Environmental Studies.