February 2012: The authors share with us their insightful experience of a biodiversity expedition to Nagaland to explore areas that could be targetted for nature conservation. The idea was conceptualised by Sreenivasan (Ramki) Ramakrishnan and Bano Haralu with inputs from Dr. Ajith Kumar. The survey was funded by the Nagaland Forest Department.
The dusty road wound its way through obscure little villages hemmed in by steep mountains. In the distance, a hazy outline of the 3,842 m. high peak of Mount Saramati, the highest south of the Himalaya, seemed to be suspended above the clouds. For as far as the eye could see lay a mosaic of jhum fields, secondary-growth forests and some remnants of the mighty forests that this area must once have been draped under. It was a scarred landscape, a devil’s playground, the jhum fields invoking images of a gigantic lawn mower that had run amok.
Protecting the protected
We were in the mountainous state of Nagaland on the eastern frontier of India, separated from Myanmar by the Patkai Range of the Naga Hills. The two of us were part of a larger team conducting biodiversity surveys across Nagaland to prioritise areas for conservation. One of our destinations was the Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary located in Kifere district along the Indo-Myanmar border. Fakim was designated as a Protected Area when the Government of India bought 64 acres of land from the village of Fakim for 1,000 rupees an acre in 1980. Today, the area is one of many that does not have the privilege of being protected. Several factors make conservation a challenge in this area, including its location along an open international border with Myanmar, the socio-cultural values of local communities that do not refrain from hunting and political disturbances in the region.
We set out on our sojourn to the frontier on a recently carved mud road from Pungro to Fakim village. The road serves as an artery to the few isolated settlements located in both India and Myanmar. Beyond Fakim there are no roads and we had to trek for about five kilometres to reach the next village and get closer to the Wildlife Sanctuary.
The trail weaved in and out of both new and abandoned jhum fields until the forests were only a stone’s throw away and looked dark and inviting – like an oasis in the midst of a barren and burnt landscape. The climb to Vongtsuvong, literally the ‘good mountain’, was hard and the continuous rain lashing at us made it even harder. Nestled on a hill top and exposed to the elements, the village afforded breath-taking vistas of never-ending forests on one side and a mosaic of old and new jhum fields on the other, with a hard, well-defined edge marking the boundary. The sky was heavy with dark-grey monsoon clouds and the filtered light penetrating through gave the landscape a pre-historic, virgin feel. We spent the night at the pastor’s house in Vongtsuvong, sharing our space with traditional trophies… a Rufous-necked Hornbill, an unidentified large raptor, a flying squirrel and an assortment of langur tails. The next morning we arose not to the calm and peace of a frontier village but to Queen and Metallica numbers belting out from a neighbour’s stereo.
Hunting and burning
Former headhunters, Yimchunger, make up most of the population in these frontier villages, and also made up most of our team. Both Fakim and Vongtsuvong are small villages with about 70 households between them. Virtually everyone depended on swidden (slash and burn) cultivation and hunting. Every house was adorned with dead wild species, the common ones being barking deer, serow, and sundry primates. Hunting is part of the social fabric. Most hunting is to meet subsistence needs, but some species such as bear are hunted for the commercial value of their gall bladders. One hunter claimed to have killed as many as 33 bears in his lifetime. However, even life-forms with low body mass find acceptance in the kitchen. Small birds and frogs are killed for the pot, and insects and frogs constitute important components of the interior decor of Yimchunger and Mogaray houses. Even snakes are hunted, more for cultural reasons than food value. Snakebites are considered highly inauspicious and we were informed that the only way to prevent all other clan members from being subjected to the same experience was to empty out all grain from every house. Interestingly, Yimchunger find it difficult to get married if they have ever been struck by a snake. Little wonder that snakes meet an instant death on sight. Several factors conspire to encourage hunting here… a lack of employment, proximity to markets for wildlife in Myanmar, poverty, tradition and the easy availability of guns and ammunition.
Nagaland Wildlife Conservation Project
Phase 1: A scientific survey to assess the current status of biodiversity and extent of pressures that may influence the same across the state and identify biodiversity rich sites that would be prioritised for conservation programmes.
Phase 2: Pilot the execution of conservation programmes in one critical area identified in phase 1 to get the ‘model’ right as well as implementing existing best practices.
Phase 3: Based on learnings from phase 2, roll-out a state-wide five-year plan for the entire state. Phase 1 details in which the authors of this article were involved in:
Surveyed 10+ sites across the state with Forest Department input/support. Scientific partner – NCBS – South Asia’s premier wildlife biology and conservation institute.
Eleven scientists participated for six weeks between May and June 2011.
Taxa covered – Woody plants, mammals, birds, herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) and butterflies.
An amazing but empty forest
Our final destination for the day was a large rock overhang some kilometers inside the Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary, our camp for the next week or so. The skies had opened up but we were soaked to the bone right from the start of our journey at Vongtsuvong. It took us an hour of walking through jhum fields to get to the sanctuary, where we were greeted by the most terrible nettle thickets and an absolutely astonishing forest.
To say the place was ‘green’ would be an understatement. Trees sported thick, verdant canopies, exposed trunks and rocks were cloaked in a mossy layer, the forest appeared to be a giant green sponge, soaking every drop of moisture that came its way. Our guide, a hunter from Vongtsuvong, led us past swollen streams to the rock overhang that was also a favourite camping spot for hunters. We reached the rock, (yes, it too was carpeted under a thick layer of green), which had a large cavern beneath it. This was to be our camp.
The constant drip of water momentarily dampened our spirits but one look at the surrounds compensated for any misgivings we might have had. With the help of our guide, we installed camera traps along likely animal trails hoping to capture creatures that used the area. Along the way, we startled an unsuspecting barking deer and were left with the sounds of alarm calls and hooves crashing through the understory.
After sundown this universe turned surreal. The hoot of forest owls and the twinkling of hundreds of fireflies were awe-inspiring, but this tranquil world was shattered by gunshots night after night. In our brief stint there, all we saw were Malayan giant squirrels, though we did hear barking deer and rhesus macaques now and then. Coming, as we did, from an entirely different cultural landscape, it was hard for us to fathom that hunting could be so prevalent and important in one’s culture.
Our days were spent mostly revisiting camera traps to check for signs of activity or to change locations. The rain was incessant. We eagerly collected our traps but the only animals captured were rodents and a barking deer. Such a low capture rate was worrying and disheartening, but we had only spent a week there with eight camera traps installed in a relatively small area. Most large-bodied animals and carnivores have large home ranges and this combined with the hunting pressures in the area would require more intensive camera trapping over a larger area and for a longer duration of time. Besides, on one occasion, one of our guides could not resist the temptation to hunt when he spotted a troop of macaques high up in the canopy. Such incidents further reduced the chances of getting any animals to trigger our camera traps.
New village, old story
Our return journey a week later to Vongtsuvong was dull. We had barely any evidence of wildlife on our cameras. The only evidence we had was of hunting and gun-shots within the Protected Area that had been notified in concurrence with the local people of the area. We also realized that hunting not only decimated wildlife but many animals escaped injured and would probably die elsewhere later.
We reached the small hamlet of Vongtsuvong with less than 20 occupied houses to find that some villagers had done better than our camera traps. There were freshly hunted flying squirrels and barking deer for dinner. Some of our local field assistants hesitated a bit but eventually accepted the meal! On our return journey to Pungro, we were accompanied by a chicken and a pet dog named Poku. They were being taken to the market to be sold. The cost of the seven 12-bore rounds their master fired on the macaques in the forest had to be recovered. This was evidence enough that bush-meat will always be preferred to domestic meat… unless the price to be paid for bush-meat was substantial. The only carnivores we saw during the entire survey were those adorning walls, the only hornbill was on display at the pastor’s house, shot by the pastor and the only barking deer was the one in the pot.
We decided to try our luck in a different place, this time in a recently declared community conservation area in Phek district. We spent another week camera trapping in an area of forest set aside by 13 villages with a seasonal ban on hunting since January 2011, called Shatuya Forest. Although here, too, we heard gunshots and saw freshly-killed endangered species such as the clouded leopard, we were more successful in our camera trapping efforts. The elusive spotted linsang, the more common leopard cat and the Himalayan palm civet were some of the animals captured on the camera traps. This proves that all is not lost even in an over-harvested, over-hunted landscape like Nagaland. All it needs is some protection, which goes beyond the mere designation of an area on a map. Dialogue and attitude changes are imperative to make a real difference.
by Nisarg Prakash and Priya Singh, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 1, February 2012