Photo: Sahil Nijhawan/Panthera/APFD
It was March 2012. I was in the Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh conducting surveys for a renowned conservation organisation to determine tiger presence outside Protected Areas of Northeast India. “If you want to find a lot of tigers, you must go high up in the mountains. In our culture, tigers live on tall mountains,” said an Idu Mishmi elder as I sat in his hut close to Roing town, the headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley. I nodded, as you do when dismissing someone, politely. I was well versed in tiger ecology and knew that ‘a lot of tigers’ didn’t, and couldn’t, ‘live on high mountains’. During my years in graduate school and then as a conservation practitioner, I had firmly believed, backed by hard data, that tigers were a conservation dependent species that survived when governments and NGOs, like the one I worked for, put in active measures to protect them. There were no tiger reserves in the area, no guards and the nearest sizeable tiger population was more than 400 km. away in Assam’s Kaziranga. Surely the ‘tigers’ that the Idu elder was talking about were either fictional or unfortunate remnants of a past population.
A few months later news arrived that two tiger cubs had been rescued from a dry well in a village close to Anini about 250 km. north of Roing towards the international border with Tibet. In December that year, with my local mentor, Jibi Pulu (whom I lovingly call Naba Jibi, Naba means father in Idu language), an exceptionally charming and eloquent English-speaking middle-aged Idu man, I spent 10 days asking numerous villagers about tigers. Most reported having seen the animal or its signs. We found tiger pugmarks from river valleys at 1,800 m. up to steep mountain slopes at 2,700 m. – ‘high up in the mountains’ – just like the Idu elder had suggested months ago. How many tigers lived in the rugged temperate forests of these frontier villages? More importantly, why were these tigers even there? Who was protecting them? Dibang Valley lies next...