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The Clouds Of Hope

The Clouds Of Hope

Dr. Anish Andheria writes about the staggering Amur Falcon migration spectacle in Nagaland and how concerted efforts over a year have helped to stem their slaughter.

A cloud of Amur Falcons bursts out of a grove of tall trees along the banks of the Doyang reservoir, Nagaland. Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

Have you ever seen a swarm of marauding locusts? I have, in Rajasthan – over 15 years ago. The memory of a dust of insects rising from the ground to the accompaniment of the sound of their wings dominated my memory. But on October 19, 2013 the locust memory was surpassed by the sight and sound of an astronomical congregation of Amur Falcons on the banks of Nagaland’s Doyang reservoir. With me were Shashank Dalvi and Ramki Sreenivasan, friends and expert birders who had brought the phenomenon to public notice when they stumbled upon a massacre of gargantuan proportions one year ago.

Nothing can prepare anyone for the phenomenon. Above us a non-conducting wire of the transmission line was enveloped by countless male, female and juvenile Amur Falcons as far as the eye could see in both directions. An equally large number of birds engulfed almost every tree and bush downslope. And an even greater number of birds were circling overhead in falcon fashion, punctuating rapid wing-beats with short gliding motion. Momentarily, they gave the impression of countless eddies in a fast flowing river, each independent, yet related to the other. Oscillating between bouts of speechlessness, awe, ecstasy and personal insignificance, I realised I was experiencing the most heart-warming wildlife experience of my life.

I was escorted to the site by Tachilo, affectionately called Aada, a 52-year-old resident of Pangti village, who until last year might well have been a part of the Amur Falcon hunt in Pangti, which we wanted to cease.

As Aada used my binoculars to inspect a male Eninum (Naga name for Amur Falcon), I hoped a transformation - from delicacy to feathered ambassador was in the making. In the long run only time will tell, but this year, something unique unfolded. The number of trapped Amur Falcons had dropped from over 140,000 to zero.

Trappers from Pangti confirmed that one family could earn anywhere from Rs. 15,000 to 25,000/- in a single season lasting just two to three weeks and that roughly 200 families were involved.  Villagers further confirmed that the falcons had been visiting the valley for decades, but that congregations had swelled exponentially after the Doyang reservoir filled in 2000. Experts conjecture that a change in the moisture regime of the valley may have caused an insect boom that attracted greater falcon congregations. Their long journey through Northeast India to South Africa via Somalia certainly requires them to build up body fat and the Doyang valley suddenly became a preferred feeding ground.

In October 2012, over 140,000 Amur Falcons were trapped and killed for human consumption by the villagers of Pangti. Photo Courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India.

The Hunt

Last year, a group of bird experts including Ramki Sreenivasan of Conservation India, Shashank Dalvi, researcher and birder, Rokohebi Kuotsu, a young naturalist from Khonoma village, and Bano Haralu, a television journalist and Managing Trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT), travelled to the Doyang reservoir in the Wokha district to authenticate the reported presence of thousands of Amur Falcons that were being hunted by the local community. Within hours, they witnessed the gory sight of markets stocked with hundreds of skinned or living birds, all for sale.

And how were the birds caught? They were netted, like fish! The falcons spent the day perched on transmission wires, soaring in the sky, or hawking insects in thickets where they were inaccessible to hunters. But come evening they would descend to roost in forested patches along the banks of the reservoir, where local tribesmen set up massive fishing nets, 35 m. long and 10 m. tall, to trap the unsuspecting birds. Once the falcons were entangled all the hunters had to do was come and collect the trapped birds from the nets each morning.

Shashank and Rokohebi estimated that each hunting group would set up around 10 nets that would trap 20 birds each day. With roughly 60-70 hunting groups operating in the area this translated into a daily catch of between 12,000 and 14,000 falcons. Assuming that the peak migration lasted for a minimum of 10 days, this amounted to a shocking 120,000-140,000 Amur Falcons slaughtered around the Doyang reservoir alone. This was, of course, an underestimation since the migration lasts longer and some hunters also used guns and catapults.

Captured birds are kept in mosquito nets or cane baskets, from where they are transported on poles carried over shoulders, de-feathered and smoked before being sold. Hunters get paid between Rs. 14 to Rs. 25 (under 50 U.S. cents per bird). The birds travel far after they die… all the way from Pangti where most hunters reside, to Wokha and even Dimapur, 140 km. distant.

Birds are smoked in great numbers to facilitate later sale in markets as far as Dimapur, nearly 140 km. from Pangti. Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India.

Saving the Birds

In just under two days, the team of birders saw more bird deaths than they had experienced in a lifetime. Bano contacted every influential person she could in Nagaland. Ramki and Shashank appealed to the wildlife community across India. Newspapers, television channels and http://www.conservationindia.org flashed the gory details of the falcon trade, creating national support for the falcons. The wildlife community backed the initiative automatically. State government departments including the forest, police and district administration were roped in and the attention drawn to the issue by just four bird conservationists resulted in action on the ground. Deputy Commissioner of Wokha issued an order against hunting of Amur Falcons. He also alerted the Superintendent of Police, and local community leaders. The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Wokha addressed 50 village heads, council members and student bodies of concerned villages. The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) of Nagaland issued instructions to seize nets. Forest Department personnel were deployed at sensitive locations until the end of the migration to monitor the situation. Dead birds were confiscated and burned. Live birds were released. The then Minister of Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, wrote to the state government in support of the falcons.

Not losing momentum with the expose, the NWBCT kick-started a ‘Friends of the Amur Falcon’ campaign covering schools and villages in the Wokha District as a build-up to the migratory season in October 2013. Other NGOs including the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and Natural Nagas, in association with the Forest Department, pitched in with round-the-clock patrolling of falcon roosting sites during the migratory season of 2013. This was possible with the support of NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Trust, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bombay Natural History Society, Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation and Birdlife International.

An all-important satellite tagging project was jointly initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Convention on Migratory Species Office (CMS), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Nagaland Forest Department to map the migratory pathway of the falcons. Three adult birds were fitted with a 5 gm. Platform Transmitter Terminal (PTT) and released on November 6, 2013 near Pangti. The birds christened Naga (male), Wokha (female) and Pangti (female) have provided vital information on their migratory routes. For instance, it took them under three days to fly across the Indian Ocean, without stopping. In two months they traversed India, Bangladesh, again India, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. As I write this piece (January 18, 2013), both females are in South Africa, while the male is in Botswana. Their roosting sites have been changing on a daily basis, indicating a large feeding range. The tagged birds’ can be monitored on http://www.satellitetracking.eu/inds/showtable.

With a round trip of 22,000 km., the Amur Falcon has one of the longest annual migratory pathways among birds. Data derived from three radio collard birds have shown that the falcons pass through several countries including India, Bangladesh, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to reach their prime wintering destination, South Africa. Photo Courtesy: www.satellitetracking.eu.

A Success Story

The peak migration of 2013-2014 is now long over. Although one cannot rule out sporadic hunts using guns and catapult, no mass trapping was observed, nor sale of any significant quantities of Amur Falcon meat in Nagaland’s markets. All the NGOs, the Nagaland government, and the community of Pangti have reason to be proud. To my mind, however, the heroes are Bano, Ramki, Shashank and Rokohebi.

But let me not leave Sanctuary Asia readers with the impression that all is now well. The immediate threat to the falcons has undoubtedly been averted, but are we even remotely close to finding long-term solutions for the Amur Falcon in the Doyang valley or Nagaland? This objective will only be achieved when sustainable plans to supplement the income of the people of Pangti are implemented. Tourism is one option. All of the land in the Doyang valley, excluding the reservoir, is actually owned by the community. If a business-cum-conservation model can be devised in consultation with the villagers, keeping the well-being of the Amur Falcon uppermost, something interesting will definitely emerge.

But since the peak migration lasts just three weeks, falcon tourism alone may not suffice. Clearly the scope of tourism will need to be widened to include other wildlife and wilderness. The region is home to some of the most charismatic species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and plants.Local knowledge within the community could keep any nature connoisseur enthralled. The challenge is to evolve an economic model that ensures fair and handsome distribution of income so that everybody is gratified. If the community is happy, I know that the falcons will be safe.

Anish Andheria is the President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) that works closely with 83 Protected Areas across 17 states. WCT also teamed up with other NGOs to support the Amur Falcon conservation efforts.

A people’s movement to save the Amur Falcon spread like wildfire through Nagaland in 2013, encouraging villagers to protect the birds as part of their heritage. Consequently, the killing dropped from well over a lakh falcons in 2012 to almost zero in 2013. Photo: Ishaan Raghunandan.

Amur Falcon Fact File

Physical features: The Amur Falcon Falco amurensis is a relatively small bird of prey. The male is dark grey with a chestnut lower belly and thighs, bright orange-red legs and facial skin. The female is similar in size but differs markedly, in having cream or orange underparts, with dark streaks and bars, a slaty head and distinct bars and spots on the wings and tail. The face bears a dark eye patch and moustache. The juvenile resembles the female, but may be paler, with reddish-brown or buff edges to the feathers.

Ecology: The species feeds mainly on insects including grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles and winged termites, but may also eat small birds and amphibians. A social bird, it is usually found in flocks, sometimes numbering thousands in the non-breeding areas. Nesting is solitary or in small colonies. The nest may be built in a tree hollow or in an abandoned nest of other birds. Three to four eggs are laid between May and June. Incubation lasts around 28 days. Both male and female help in parental duty and the chicks fledge in a month.

Range: At 22,000 km., the species makes one of the longest annual round-trips among birds. The entire population leaves the breeding area in Asia from late August to September, generally travelling in huge flocks that include both adult and juvenile birds. The birds on their way to Africa travel over the Indian Ocean but the return journey from Africa to Asia, which occurs between February and March, takes place over land via the Arabian Peninsula, with the birds reaching their breeding grounds in April and early May. It has a vast breeding range in Asia, from eastern Siberia, east through Amurland to Ussuriland, and south through northeast Mongolia and Manchuria, to North Korea and northern and eastern China. It spends the winter in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly from Malawi to South Africa. During migration, it passes through parts of India, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Threats: There are no major threats in their breeding range. However, the grasslands inhabited by them in southern Africa during the non-breeding season are under intense pressure from agriculture and commercial afforestation. The falcons are noisy by nature and hence people in urban areas uproot roosting trees to drive them away. They also suffer high mortality on roads, when swooping down on insects. Another emerging threat is of opportunistic hunting for food in Northeast India.

Status: The global population is assumed to be over one million. The species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and listed on Appendix II of CITES.

 

An adult Amur Falcon female. Photo: Dr. Anish Andheria.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 1, February 2014.

 
 
 

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Jennifer Scarlott

February 7, 2014, 12:24 PM
 "The most heart-warming wildlife experience of my life..." I have often heard people describe their experience of seeing enormous flocks of birds this way. So grateful to the small team that went into rapid action to stop the mass slaughter of the magnificent Amur Falcon.