It was my stint in journalism that got me interested in conservation issues prevalent across the northeast, where I grew up. I witnessed the ravages of nature up close and this connected me with my childhood interest in nature. Also, having traveled widely across the north-east, I realized that the region was rich in biodiversity. However, the onslaught on nature was enormous because the combined vested interests of the powerful and the moneyed. It was alarming to learn that very fertile areas were not now being used for farming anymore; instead, people preferred to break stones for their daily wages. In other words the value of nurturing the land was replaced with exploiting the land without investing back. The money economy replaced barter which had carried the value of need and not greed.
I also noticed the irony in the situation: despite the region largely being an agrarian community, we are not self-sufficient in food anymore. This was contrary to how societies and tribes existed pre-independence days when every village was self-sufficient in food. Today, things have changed dramatically. There is way too much pressure on the communities and survival is the name of the game. The introduction of money economy has affected the close bond communities possess with land and natural resources. Government policies do not help to nurture or re-establish this bond, either. They do not encourage the traditional farmer to grow more or help him with modern technology. Instead, they try to introduce new varieties of seeds and vegetables to them. These are not weather-resilient. The introduction of new methodologies of cultivation means that farmers waste the entire year in growing crops for which there is no market. In the end, they are left with no food or money.
Amur falcon. Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan
Can you tell me more about Amur falcons? What is the current state of wildlife, according to you?
Satellite tagging has shown us that Amur falcons come from northern China, Mongolia, and the Amur region in Siberia. During winter, they migrate towards Nagaland. They arrive in mid-October and stay on till about the end of November. These birds come in large numbers and stay long, making them easy targets. Their arrival coincides with the ‘explosion’ of termites from the ground. Before the termites breaks forth from the ground, you will not see the falcons. When it is time, almost exactly to the hour, the falcons arrive.
The hunters did not target the first comers, as they are very tired and scrawny, after flying across the mountains for 4000-5000 kms. They would wait for about 10-12 days before erecting their nets, done during the day. A robust machinery ensured to market the hunted the birds encouraged massive scale of hunting by the locals. The birds were roasted, smoked, for preservation to be packaged for other villages and towns.
Amur falcons. Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan
The status of wildlife is critical and with almost every wild species vulnerable to the hunter’s heart. Wild animals like the Asiatic Black bear, Himalayan and sloth bear are rarely sighted these days. They are hunted for their skin and their bile. The bile is used for medicines across the border and suspected to make its way into the Chinese medicine markets. With no investment in local manufacturing enterprises or support to the agriculture products in value addition (pickling, jam, juice, herbal medicines etc ...) hunting, becomes a convenient ‘tradition’ to be practiced to bring in income from a different source. That it is both regarded as a sport and a manifestation of ‘manliness’ remains one of the challenges to undergo change.
Did you work with local communities to stop the hunting? If so, what is the impact this has had?
I have seen rampant hunting of Amur falcons and realized that people hunt them out of lack of awareness. Also, it is not easy to come up immediately with a solution when you are dealing with a situation that offers economic livelihood promises. So, we focused on creating awareness by educating children. That’s how the Friends of the Amur falcon campaign and the Eco-Clubs began. The Friends of the Amur falcon campaign educated children on the Amur falcons and why they must be saved through eco-clubs which we established in three different sites in that area within approximately a 10 km radius. We admitted children from age 9-14. The trainers of these eco-clubs were trained by naturalists. We started the eco-clubs where children of the hunters, fishermen and others were free to attend. We began this in 2013 and it lasted till 2018. In 2019, we ran out of funds, so we couldn’t continue our efforts.
The presence of the eco-clubs created a platform for the community to have a sense of ownership over the phenomenon taking place in the area, and to learn the history of the Amur falcons and of other species as well. I think that one major contribution of the eco-club was sensitizing children to nature and to their immediate environment. Another outcome was that they learnt the art of documentation: photography, drawing skills and awareness of other species. Also, the presence of the eco-club has been a constant in the village. This sent a message to the community that ecologists, conservationists and environmentalists did not come only when the heat was on and leave soon after. It served as a reminder that we continue to be with them, that we were still with them.
Eco-club students. Photo courtesy: Bano Haralu
Are there any memorable experiences you recall that make you feel satisfied about the efforts you have put in?
I’ve had one-on-one conversations with many people in the village. Many hunters have confessed that they now view life in a different light and that they want their children to be sensitive to nature. I’ve had conversations with young kids, and teenagers who are now very enthusiastic about nature and wildlife. The hunting has stopped. We’ve been trying to encourage tourists to come and stay in the village. In the past 5 years or so, we have brought in at least 100 tourists to the Wokha district, Pangti village, Doyang area. This is just the beginning, but such efforts need a lot more assistance from the government, which is not forthcoming.
A view of the Doyang Reservoir. Photo courtesy: Bano Haralu
Going forward, where do you see the future of conservation in Nagaland heading? In India?
In Nagaland, the journey and the focus of conservation must include the younger generation. There’s a need to connect the older and younger generations. Conservation can acts as a beautiful platform for this. Right now, this is being done sporadically through community conservation programs. Some villages across Nagaland have started the practice of the ‘Morung’ form of education; the Morung is the old dormitory where young people are taught their traditional history and crafts and customs. It also includes storytelling of the places around their village. In Nagaland, while the stress is on the community to revive itself, I feel that government policies need to be much more supportive.
What has your experience in this field been like?
There is a greater need for an understanding between the media and institutions across India working on conservation and agricultural issues. Both need each other. At a time when audiences are getting sensitized to gender issues the subject of ‘conservation’, offers many areas where the contribution and role of women to the cause of environmental balance can be explored and shared.
What has been particularly striking is that not enough emphasis is being laid in the society today for children to respect the farmer who grows the food we eat. This is true of city dwellers and of children growing up in the villages across the country.
Bano Haralu (right) with other scientists
By Anisha Iyer