Studying The Farmers Of The Forest
Photo: Aparajita Datta.
Rohit Naniwadekar speaks to Sanctuary’s Anadya Singh, sharing vital information on hornbill behaviour from his 11 years of experience and research, expounding the idea behind the Pakke Paga Festival and articulating the importance of community participation in conservation efforts.
A Scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, member of the Hornbill Watch Team and the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme, Rohit Naniwadekar has conducted extensive research on seed dispersal patterns of hornbills, and their conservation status in Arunachal Pradesh. He further substantiated his research with surveys administered across five states in Northeast India to understand changes in hornbill distribution.
Why and how important are hornbills to our forests?
90 per cent of tropical trees are dependent on animals for dispersing of seeds and regeneration. Hornbills are special because they feed on a diverse array of fruits in tropical trees, specially large-seeded plants which otherwise have a limited set of frugivores that can disperse their seeds safely.
My doctoral research has shown that in areas with high numbers of hornbills, like the Namdapha Tiger Reserve, hornbills disperse 3,000 – 4,000 seeds per day per square km. Our telemetry research on hornbills has shown that hornbills are potentially dispersing seeds as far as 10 km. from the parent plant, enabling plants to expand their range. This has earned them the title of ‘farmers of the forest’. My doctoral research has also shown that a decline in hornbill numbers results in poor regeneration of plants that are dependent on hornbills for dispersing their seeds.
How has the distribution of hornbills changed over the past 20 years?
Hornbills feed on fruits that are patchily distributed. Our telemetry research has shown that they often leave Protected Areas and visit neighbouring forest areas in search of these fruits. This makes them vulnerable to anthropogenic threats, especially hunting.
Intensive surveys across five Northeast states in India have revealed that distribution of the Great, Rufous-necked and Brown Hornbill has reduced by almost 30 per cent in the last 20 years. Our surveys in Arunachal also indicated a probable local extinction of hornbills from several sites in the state. This is partly due to hunting pressures and partly because of loss of their preferred habitats i.e. the lowland forest in the region.
Were any changes recorded in nesting and mating patterns of hornbills through the years?
Hornbills are dependent on secondary cavities in large trees that are either formed by branch falls or old abandoned cavities made by large woodpecker species like the Great Slaty Woodpecker.In and around Pakke, where our team has been monitoring hornbill nesting patterns for almost two decades now, we have seen takeovers of nests which were previously used by different hornbill species pointing at possible competition for nesting cavities. A large chunk of preferred hornbill nesting habitat in Assam was lost in the past few decades, which consequently has caused increased competition for nest cavities.
What is the cultural value of hornbills in the Northeast states of India?
Hornbills are an integral part of the local culture and tradition of several communities in Northeast India. Many communities have folk tales based on hornbills. Hornbill body parts, such as the tail feathers of the great hornbill, are used by several communities like Wanchos, Tangsas and Noctes in Arunachal Pradesh and by Nagas to adorn their headdresses.
Similarly, the Nyishis in Arunachal Pradesh use the casque of the Great Hornbill, and occasionally Wreathed and Rufous-necked Hornbill, to decorate their ‘bopias’ (traditional hats). Being such an important part of the local customs across Northeast, several communities have placed hunting taboos which prevent people from hunting hornbills during the breeding season. The locals believe it will bring bad luck if the male is killed while the female and the chick remain incarcerated in the nest cavity.
Photo: Eastern Himalaya Program, NCF.
How important has the government’s role been in conserving the biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh?
The forest department, particularly in Pakke, has played a pivotal role in conserving the biodiversity in and around Pakke Tiger Reserve. They have won the support of the locals, successfully involving them in wildlife conservation in the area.
The forest department ably led by Mr. Tana Tapi in Pakke has also provided employment and other benefits to the local community here. He roped in the district administration and several not-for-profit organizations in his wildlife conservation efforts.
These efforts are being replicated by dedicated forest officers and conservation organisations in other areas of Arunachal Pradesh, such as the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and D’Ering national Park.
Do you plan to extend your conservation efforts and operations to other parts of Arunachal Pradesh and the neighbouring states?
The idea behind our surveys in Northeast India was to help identify sites important for hornbill conservation. We have identified a few such sites in Assam and Nagaland and have initiated dialogue with the local community members to initiate hornbill conservation efforts at those sites.
How important has the local community and tribal participation been in the protection of hornbills in the Northeast states?
Protected Areas are often not sufficient to protect hornbills. To give an example, Wreathed Hornbills occur in very high densities in Namdapha Tiger Reserve during the non-breeding season from September to February. However, during the breeding season, they leave the 1,985 square km. area and breed outside Namdapha.
In Arunachal Pradesh and some other Northeast states, a large chunk of the forests outside Protected Areas are Community and Reserved Forests. Given the vast expanse of these Community and Reserved Forests that lie outside Protected Areas, a significant proportion of hornbill population occurs here making them important for hornbill conservation in the region.
The Nyishi community from Seijosa has led the way for hornbill conservation. Hornbills were hunted in the past, primarily for their beaks that were used to decorate their headdresses. However, in the early 2000s the community banned the hunting of hornbills and also replaced the original hornbill beaks with artificial ones, thanks to the efforts of the forest department and Wildlife Trust of India. In 2011, the Ghora-Aabhe Society, the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department and Nature Conservation Foundation jointly initiated a Hornbill Nest Adoption Program. The programme presently employs 17 Nest Protectors who protect 36 hornbill nests in the reserved forests adjoining Pakke Tiger Reserve. They protect the hornbills and their nests from hunting, logging and fires. In Thanamir and Fakim and other sites in Nagaland the local communities have banned hunting of hornbills and impose heavy fines if and when the ban is violated. These are some promising signs for hornbill conservation in Northeast India.
In what way does the Pakke Paga Festival help create awareness about hornbills and their habitat?
Paga in Nyishi stands for the Great Hornbill. When we first conceptualised the Pakke Paga Festival back in 2013, it was with the thought that if a hornbill festival has to happen in Northeast India, it has to happen in Pakke. Here is where hornbills are found in great abundance, with the local community striving everyday to save the species. Their efforts had to be celebrated and advertised.
In the long run, not only will this encourage the locals who are working tirelessly to save the species of their region, it will also provide economic incentives to them through the tourists that attend the festival.
During the festival, we had specific events that allowed visitors to observe hornbills inside Pakke Tiger Reserve as well as outside, when the hornbills come and roost near villages. This is one of the only areas in Arunachal Pradesh where hornbills come and roost in the villages. A short film showcasing the efforts of the locals in hornbill conservation was also screened during the festival.
Additionally, visitors could directly interact with the Hornbill Nest Protectors and learn more about them, their work and the place. Post festival, we plan to publish popular articles and have an active dedicated social media campaign to spread the word about the festival and the importance of the place for hornbill conservation.
Should other states take a cue from Arunachal Pradesh and hold similar wildlife festivals to save their endemic species?
Recently, when we were discussing the Hornbill Festival of Nagaland, which is a world-famous annual event, we thought of how the festival could be used to highlight hornbills and the need to conserve the species.
We not only need more such wildlife festivals across India but we also need to think of ways where wildlife conservation can be included in existing festivals that are celebrated be it the Pangsau Pass festival in Jairampur, Hornbill Festival in Nagaland or Chapcharkut Festival in Mizoram.
From your long years in Northeast India, what has been your favourite hornbill experience?
It is very hard to pick one. My initial years in Northeast India were spent in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, where sightings of huge flocks of hornbills were commonplace. When I travelled across other parts of Northeast India, I realised how privileged I was to have worked in Namdapha, for hornbill sightings were rare at other sites.
I have come to relish those rare sightings, be it just hearing the call of the Great Hornbill while walking across Tokalo Wildlife Sanctuary in Mizoram or watching two Wreathed Hornbills fly to their roost as I pushed my car out of slush outside in Ntangki National Park Nagaland.
One experience that stands out is when I observed 40-50 Wreathed Hornbills flying from a fruiting fig tree in Namdapha. The sight and sound of the birds was mesmerising. It is an experience I sincerely hope future generations will be able to witness and enjoy.