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The Flight Of The Falcon

The Flight Of The Falcon

Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India Vivek Menon provides Sanctuary Asia readers with an account of one of the most extraordinary conservation success stories of recent times.

Amur Falcons darken the skies around the villages of Asha, Pangti and Sungro in Nagaland during their six-week annual migration break. Photo: Vivek Menon.

A small white bird undertakes the longest-known bird migration in the world – the Arctic Tern flies around 72,000 km. linking the Arctic to the Antarctic in its circumpolar flight. Many other birds make incredible journeys as well. Sooty Shearwaters fly 64,000 km., Short-tailed Shearwaters 43,000 km., Northern Wheatears and Pectoral Sandpipers 29,000 km.

Yet one species remains unheralded among these elite avian jet-setters: the Amur Falcon. From the Amur region of Russia, northern China and Mongolia, this lithe grey raptor sets out for southern Africa 24,000 km. away. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps close to a million, falcons fly in mixed flocks and enter Indian territories along the northeastern border with Myanmar. They encounter here the massive Doyang reservoir in Nagaland, its vast blue waters and surrounding jhummed land serving up limitless insect eatables to the travellers.

Food and water! Midway Restaurant! They stop for a break. In recent years we have found that this break in journey is about six weeks long. And for those six early winter weeks, the falcons darken the skies around the villages of Asha, Pangti and Sungro.

When the birds first descended onto the Wokha district the villagers thought that manna had descended from heaven. They were quick to set their fishing nets upright across the Doyang and soon the hunters became prey. Over a hundred thousand birds were trapped and killed in 2012 and when I first visited Doyang, villagers told me about exotic falcon recipes. But that was three years ago. A quiet revolution has swept the Naga villages in the interim and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) is fortunate to have been part of that amazing story.

The female Amur Falcon has brown streaks on her body, with the horny facial parts in lemon yellow instead of orange like the male. Photo: Vivek Menon.

Hunters Turned Saviours

Cut to today. I glide on the Doyang in a small local boat as legions of birds fly around me, twittering madly. “How many birds are there...” Dr. Erach Bharucha, eminent naturalist and WTI trustee tries to calculate. “How big is the sky?” I ask teasingly, for there seems no end to the circling swarms. Experience tells me that there are more than half a million falcons here. Could there be up to a million? Who knows? What we do notice is that there are very few dragonflies visible and it seems as if all the raptors in the world are after them.

Nribemo Merry, the secretary of the Amur Falcon Union, steers our boat expertly between the swarms as we approach the roost. “Look!” he shouts excitedly, for just ahead on the rocks that mark the beginning of the roosting area, a dozen birds are caught in fishing nets. We alight carefully and approach the nets. “This is accidental,” Merry is quick to clarify; “some pieces of fishing nets that have floated ashore.”

We cut through the nets with a long knife to disentangle the birds. Before long I have an Amur Falcon in my hand. “Release! Release!” scream his mates, swooping around my head in locust-like swarms. The bird is a male, a glossy grey above with a white wing lining. His eyes, cere and claws are the colour of ripe blood oranges. His underside near the vent is streaked chestnut. “On your way friend,” I whisper as I throw him into the wind. Two flaps and he is off, swallowed up in a moment by the vast clouds of his kith and kin. We repeat the manoeuvre with the remaining birds. The brown-streaked females have the horny parts of the body in lemon yellow instead of orange. They fly stronger I find; the natural toughness of a woman, perhaps.

I have attended several meetings, ceremonial welcomes and award ceremonies in the Wokha region since WTI launched its community project here. But it is this small, unplanned ritual that makes my spirit soar with the falcons. The freeing of these dozen birds seems to embody what WTI, along with the local village councils, the Amur Falcon Union, the Arunachal Forest Department, the Wildlife Institute of India and many other NGOs – including BNHS, the Natural Nagas and Conservation India (the original whistleblowers) – have done to turn an annual massacre into an internationally-accepted conservation success. The local villagers have been at the centre of this change; MOUs were signed and monetary and technical assistance given to the community to help them forego the hunting of falcons.

Later in the evening we sit down at Pangti village for a council meet. As the villagers present me with a red clan waistcoat, a hundred-odd falcons circle lazily overhead. These falcons, may they ever soar, I pray, on a thousand gilded hopes across Nagaland, across the Deccan peninsula, over a thousand miles of ocean chasing dragonflies and dreams till they reach their wintering grounds. And may they descend next year once again on the Doyang, becoming the latest emissaries of a spirit that links the cold northern regions of the world with our own country.

I had photographed the last Siberian Crane that once linked these lands, at Bharatpur over a decade ago. The Amur Falcons carry another binding thread between Russia, Mongolia, China and India – one which I hope our modern nation states will use to further our ancient civilisational bonds.

Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.


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