Nature Conservation Foundation’s (NCF) Hornbill Nest Adoption Program in Pakke (Arunachal Pradesh) will kick off in January 2012, aimed at protecting the slow-breeding hornbills from hunting and habitat loss.
It was 4PM and the sun had already sunk low over the horizon and the feeble lights had gone on in the Eco-camp I was staying at. A group of Nyishi tribal headmen from nearby villages had gathered in the Eco-camp. They were there to relate ancient folklore behind their distinctive style of dressing. They sat with the District Forest Officer, discussing various aspects of their changing lifestyles while we waited for a German couple to come back from the forest.
I was in Pakke Tiger Reserve, Southeastern Arunachal Pradesh. Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) has put together a program that will employ local tribal leaders to watch hornbill nests during the nesting seasons. Deforestation and hunting have traditionally threatened most of the hornbill species here (there are 4 species – wreathed, rufous-necked, oriental pied and the great hornbills). Since 2002 hunting has declined, thanks in large part to the cooperation from the Nyishi communities around Pakke. But deforestation still means fewer trees with nest holes and that in turn means increased competition between the hornbills. Long term nest watching involving the communities themselves would likely stem these trends and protect hornbills.
Tajek Wage, the life of the evening, chanting a traditional Nyishi song, sits 4th from the left.
Just as the last vestiges of light disappeared, a fire was lit and the group of headmen (called Ghora Aabhe) settled down around the fire, still talking among themselves and oblivious to the three “outsiders” – the German couple and I. What was to follow was an uninhibited expression of Nyishi culture, which, instead of lasting the stipulated half hour, went on for two and a half hours ~ fueled purely by the enthusiasm of one village headman: Tajek Wage. He seemed to be enjoying himself and he got the other headmen into the mood too. I was told later that this kind of expression had not happened in a long time and that it really was a lovely release for the headmen too, since opportunities to tell stories in their tongue, sing and dance, were few and far between these days.
Pakke Tiger Reserve is a semi-evergreen forest spread over 861 sq. km. in the southeastern part of Arunachal Pradesh.
Besides being home to a whole host of birds, the forest supports a variety of mammals including elephants, gaur, wild pig, tigers, leopards, fishing cat, sambhar, barking deer, goral, giant squirrels, macaques, civets, mongooses and the binturong. There was nothing better than walking in the forests. Wading through the rivers, eating at the anti-poaching camps, and walking where there were no paths or trails – actually hacking our way through – thanks to Tana Tapi and his handy dandy dao! Pakke is an exhilarating forest where you can hear much, see glimpses of creatures big and small and revel in the company of lofty, beautiful trees. I still remember that one brief moment where we came upon a makhna not 2 feet from our jeep and Tana Tapi Sir just drove like the wind. I looked bewildered at him and he smiled and said, “no way are we stopping. these makhnas can charge.”
The lofty emergent Tetrameles nudiflora is used by hornbills as nest trees.
When on foot with Aparajita and the NCF gang, i fell behind frequently to be in the company of these lovely lofty Tetrameles. Leaning against the buttresses and just soaking in its enormity. My favorite part of being in the forest ~ being in the company of trees!
Holes like this one are used by hornbills. Under the NCF program, the nest-watchers scour the reserve forests (forested area around the Tiger Reserve which is equally important for hornbills) for active holes and then keep a watch on them to make sure the hornbills using these active nests are not disturbed in any way.
As part of the initiation and training, the village headmen who will be the initial batch of nest-watchers are briefed by the NCF researchers. They are taught to record the different types of hornbills (associating the English names with their own native names for the birds) and to also track what the birds might be eating.
The Nyishi headmen meeting was an eye opener. Their enthusiasm, interest and eagerness to participate was heart-warming. They had their issues and they in typical Nyishi-way voiced it (some more vocal than others), and the DFO and the NCF crew patiently answered and explained the program to them. It seemed like the start of something good.
The Forest Department is completely on board with the NCF program and the DFO, a dynamic young Nyishi officer (Tana Tapi) was present at the initiation. He fielded questions and worries that the Nyishi elders had. Being one of them, the elders trust and look up to him. He is a man with ideas and plans for the region. But the job is not without its challenges.
Just across the border from Seijosa, the town on the border of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, lies an area occupied by Bodos. The cross-border effects of this agitation is a security issue for the locals. The landscape on the Assam side of the border has also been heavily altered.
All the hornbill roosting trees have been cut down in the Bodo area. Aparajita Datta who has been working in the region since the 1990s remembers a thick forest on this side once with hundreds and hundreds of hornbills. “I cannot bear to see it this way,” she says — there are a couple silk cotton trees (Bombax ceiba) left that are now the roost site for a few hornbills. The deforestation on the Assam side of the border serves as a living example of what the Nyishis can expect if they don’t get involved in the conservation of their forests. While NCF has been monitoring nesting sites inside
the Pakke Tiger Reserve, the trees in the reserve forest (bordering the Tiger Reserve) are the ones most under threat. This new program will start monitoring those trees, which if lost, will leave the hornbills very vulnerable.
The Great Hornbill has been traditionally hunted by the Nyishis for its beak/casque and meat. The upper beak/casque of the Great hornbill was used traditionally in the Nyishi headgear, called a Podum. (This Great hornbill was photographed in the Anamalais)
Here Tajek Wage explains how the Nyishis have understood the value of protecting the species and have given up hunting. Their headgear is now made of fiberglass. Around the campfire that evening, the headmen reiterated that they had bought-in to the change and incorporated the conservation message into their lores as well.
The Nyishis are traditionally a proud community and well known around Arunachal Pradesh among other tribes as a frank and open tribe. Much is changing in recent times in the Nyishi communities. Traditionally animistic, they have largely converted to Christianity now. They have always farmed – shifting cultivation in the mountains and also have had farms and fields in the plains. This has come with its own set of problems that they are facing increasingly these days.
In 2004 the Pakke river flooded and became much wider than it was. Washing away concrete structures and fields, it left the Nyishis with untold losses.
Some recouped and have re-established their farms growing rice, millet, wild potato, ginger, maize, tobacco and coriander. But they face elephant raids regularly leading to much loss. Pahi Tachang, a patient, thoughtful, soft-spoken village headman said, “I spent Rs. 39,000 on my fields. The elephants raided and I lost about Rs. 28,000 worth of crops. I have made only Rs. 11,000.” Most of these crops are for consumption within the family ~ so losses mean more expense to buy from outside. But there was little animosity towards the giant pachyderms in his voice. There was a resigned, yet tolerant tone as he said, “we are in their home. All we can do is keep watch on the machan at nights during the “Kheti” season.”
The Nyishis need and depend on products from the forest. Take for example this Tokko tree (short-nosed bats roosting among the leaves of this one). The leaves are needed for the traditional Nyishi house-roofs. The tree grows like a palm – straight up and branch-less. The fruits are eaten by many animals, including the hornbills. To climb the tree and take only the leaves is a tedious, time-consuming process. Moreover, the tree is easily available in the wild. The Nyishis tend to chop the tree down to reach the leaves. This tends to be unsustainable. In other places in Arunachal, this tree is cultivated in gardens and the leaves from the farmed trees are used.
When we went over to Tajek Wage’s house, he brought up the tokko issue. The roof of the Nyishi house here is built with dried tokko leaves. One potential option in this area too would be to cultivate the tree and use the farmed trees rather than leaves from the wild ones. The worry, however, is the presence of elephants. The young saplings might be at risk from raids.
The Nyishi culture was mainly an oral culture. They do not have a traditional script. However, now they do have a romanized script and kids all go to school. Pahi Tachang, for example, has sent all his four children to school and college. Education is seen as essential among the Nyishis these days.Tachang believes that education is the answer to hunting. “If the teacher is good and keeps the kids interested, they will not resort to hunting.” But he and other elders did stress that the relevance of what is taught in schools to Nyishi life was very important and there was much room for improvement.
Tachang married his wife (seen here) when she was about 10. But he will have none of that for the youngest of his daughters (seen here). He has put the other kids through college and married them off only after they became adults. Nyishi girls were once betrothed and married off as kids. Marriage was an expensive business too. The girls were “worth” several mithun (cattle). It was seen as a power play with the rich being able to afford the girls, regardless of age. Polygamy is common in Nyishi villages, dictated only by how many wives one can afford. Tachang says all that has changed, for the most part. Now girls don’t marry until they’re 18 and they choose their husbands. He credited Christianity with “leveling the power fields” by not requiring the traditional pujas and sacrifices.
Nyishi women largely take care of matters at home and in the field. The local school teacher was also a Nyishi woman. But the future in terms of employment looks bleak for the newly educated generation of girls graduating from school.
Employment in Nyishi communities is very ad hoc. A government job is big. The Forest Department employs quite a few people in anti-poaching camps and other jobs. But most of the other employment is unorganized, irregular and consists of odd jobs and “contracts” for building and infrastructure projects, if there are any. The next generation rarely finds good jobs and either moves out of the community or, if they stay back, work in the fields.
The DFO, Tana Tapi has installed a strong network of anti-poaching camps which are manned by about 6-7 forest guards each, like this one, deep in the forest. This one is sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Services. Most of the anti-poaching camps in Pakke are well equipped and appointed as opposed to some that we see in other forests around the country.
The anti-poaching squad has a tough life. Living away from their families for days on end and vigilant for armed and dangerous poachers, there have been a few casualties in “encounters.”
PD Majhi was an anti-poaching squad leader who was killed in an encounter. His story serves as inspiration to the whole crew today in Pakke. But an encounter is stressful and some guards have been known to suffer from post-traumatic disorders. Yet, the job is sought after among the Nyishi community, and an officer like Tana Tapi serves as encouragement for a well regulated anti-poaching set up.
In speaking to the gentle, soft-spoken 65 year old Tajeng Tachang, one got the feeling that he has seen a lot of changes in his life. Now there are more and faster changes. They all realize that there is much to preserve and much to protect in this part of the world. Not just in terms of their environment but also their culture. Their stories, their knowledge and their songs. Pahi Tachang and other elders (and some youngsters too) were eloquent in their concern of a dying-out of the ancient ways and traditional knowledge. How the Nyishi people manage their present will determine the fate of the rich biodiversity and the subsistence of the communities in this part of Arunachal Pradesh. The three-way partnership between NCF, the Nyishi community and the Forest Department promises to yield a strong conservation success story in Pakke. The Hornbill Nest Adoption program begins in January 2012. It will be interesting to watch what unfolds.
On the last day as i watched a pair of wreathed hornbills come home to roost on the last Bombax ceiba tree in front of me, i was hopeful that history would not repeat itself on that side of the border. People like the thoughtful Pahi Tachang, the gentle Tajeng Tachang and the enthusiastic outspoken Tajek Wage held the future of the Nyishi landscape in their hands for now. But as i saw the sun sink below the horizon over the Pakke river I couldnt help wondering what life and livelihood for the future Nyishi generations would look like.
If you are interested in contributing to the NCF Hornbill Nest Adoption Program, find more details here.