7th June, 2015, somewhere on the boundary of Intanki National Park (Peren, Nagaland)
A short walk scouting for a place to set up a new small mammal trapping grid led to an unexpected meeting with a local hunter. He was from an adjacent village, and was heading into the forest to examine his traps. My field assistant and I tagged along. As I walked, I dreaded finding a wild animal inside the trap. What should I do then? What could I do? Nothing, the animal would most likely be dead by the time we reached...
Within half an hour of the boundary, we came upon a long wooden fence stretching along the crest of a tiny hill. A trap had been set up every 250 meters along the fence. "How did you manage to build such a long fence here, in the middle of nowhere?", I asked astonished. Of course, 'nowhere' is not really an accurate way to judge distances for villagers here, who walk two hours to reach the nearest town for even the most basic supplies. "Well I had help", he grinned through his browned cracked teeth. "My neighbors helped me set it up. Together we lugged these big heavy logs to build the traps. Heavy logs are essential. See how the trap is designed so that the wood will fall upon whatever tries to cross the fence." "Gosh that must have been expensive!" "No, I will help them out some other time", he replied nonchalantly. "How long did it take?" "Three weeks maybe". The concept of time in the region is highly variable, and I realized the futility of my question. "What have you caught so far?" "In the past twenty days? Horin, suvar, billi". My assistant explained it meant deer (likely barking deer), wild pig and some cat. "What cat?" "No not cat, civet. And a pair of yellow throated martens", elaborated my assistant. "I check my traps every day. Otherwise the meat will rot", he explained. "Will you be coming here everyday?" "No", I said, "my sampling grid will be closer to the river". He smiled a smile that crinkled up his browned face and lit up his dark eyes, took the Parle G we offered, and started the hour long trip back to his village.
The date on the photograph says 9th July, 1998.Where was I on the 9th of July, 1998?
I was 11 years old on that Thursday. In school- 5thgrade. My first year in secondary school. I remember adoring my class teacher. I lived in Mumbai. And July in Mumbai means a lot of rain. With rains come the bright yellow bullfrogs, croaking their hearts out to impress equally pudgy lovers. Every shower brings with it a refreshing scent that can refresh the gloomiest of hearts. You can see the rufous crowns of tiny tailor birds as they dart under the canopy only to emerge in the brief spells of pristine silence,‘tuweet’ing away to glory. The silence of the rain does not silence the city.Vendors make the best use of the intermediate lull and begin hawking their wares to hurried mothers preparing their children for school. And I sat in the midst of the umbrellas and raincoats and tiffins and hot milk (that I hated by the way), simply tying my shoelaces…Unaware of an episode that was unfolding in another part of my country…An episode that would reduce me to tears 15 years later.
In the verdant hills of northeast India, an entire village was preparing itself for the big day. Even as I lay curled up on my bed, the best men had been sent out to comb the hills. In the early morning chill of the Barail ranges, brave men stepped out, with a khartoos (shotgun) slung across their shoulders. They were accompanied by young boys, armed with tin cans and sticks off the forest. And even as I tied my shoelaces and walked through the comforting rain towards school, men and boys combed the mountains, in search of the elusive predator.
I enjoyed school. I wonder what scientific principles I learnt in school on that day. Or maybe I read the chapter in Balbharti about the men from Kashmir who made delicious saffron rice and meat. Or Daffodils by Woodsworth, and felt how amazed at how a little snippet of nature has the potential to fill hearts with joy. I shared my tiffin with my friends, ate hot vadapav and danced in the mucky playground.
Out in the Barails, the men were still searching. The torrential rain often depressed their spirits, but not their resolve. They were determined to hunt down the big cat of the jungle, the cat that ruled Indian jungles until a systematic drive by Indians and foreigners, rajahs and peasantry succeeded in bringing India’s national animal to the brink ofextinction. But the villagers were not aware about the debates raging through the country on the issue. They were not aware, or chose to not be aware about legal implications of hunting the species, for them it was a threat to the survival of their children and their cattle – it was all they knew, all they had seen, all they had learned. But in that monsoon of 1998, traditional spears had been replaced by automatic guns. The dao and the bamboo had not been abandoned though- it served as a befitting deathbed to the royal cat.
As I skipped into puddles and stretched tiny fingers out to feel the rain, the still mountain air of the far-off tribe reverberated with war cries. In the brief lull from the rain, they had spotted the fiery orange object of their hunt- the majestic Bengal tiger. The forest was full of drum beats, of men howling, shouting, trying to prod the beast into the arms of the gunmen.The tiger ran out from its bamboo cover, from north to south and east, but it was cornered. The forest was full of strange sounds, and instinct drove the beast straight towards the west. The guns were ready, shots were fired, a roar was heard. And then… Silence. The tiger had fallen like the melting sunset…
I was out in the rain again, building imaginary bridges in puddles. In the northeast, men were hacking the very bamboo where the tiger had hid with their daos. Using twine and years of experience, they built a pyre on which to rest the beast. As I built imaginary houses with open umbrellas and crowded under them with friends, the tiger lay alone, cold, a mass of its glorious self. And as I returned back to the comfort of my home, children from the village started peeking out and looking at the magnificence of the beast that lay before them. And as I ate my dinner, there was a feast for the hunters who had been out since dawn. The dead tiger lay tied up in a corner, every now and then a child would go up and stare at it. And wish he could one day do what his elders had done.
The children of the village never got a chance to emulate their elders. Like many other children in the rest of India. This tiger, that the village had tracked, chased, scared, shot, shot again, carried across their shoulders, tied on the bamboo, and photographed, THIS TIGER WAS THE LAST TIGER OF THE REGION.
Fifteen years have flown past, and the children of old now have families of their own. The world has gone on around them, the youth are travelling out to study in the city, get fancy jobs and settle with families. The villagers still hunt, but they get smaller quarry now, an occasional deer or wild boar. Now they go behind smaller game – civets, squirrels, birds and whatever else that crosses their way.
I have changed too…from electronics to conservation biology…it has been akin to riding a roller coaster.
There is a singular truth that has not changed, the truth that is taped to the wall in front of me. And a truth that is fast replicating itself in the rest of the northeast. The lush evergreen forests of that country lay barren of the apex predator that ruled the hills – Empty forests with bleeding trees are all that remain as testimony to untold stories of ruthless extinction.
I think back to the faded photograph and my head bows down-in shame, in reverence to the mighty cat and in regret at being a silent witness.
P.S: Photograph is real, story may/may not be fictional
The cold blanket of darkness began enveloping the mountains as I stepped into the relative comfort of the traditional Naga hut. He sat there with his wizened face, creased with experience, lit up by the flames of the crackling fire in the kitchen. He invited me to sit next to him on a low wooden stool even as his wife offered me hot tea. His grandson peered at me hiding behind his father’s trousers, inquisitively as Naga children did wherever I went. I looked at him and smiled, he smiled shyly and ran off outside.
I turned my attention back to the old man. “How old is he?” I asked of the ex-village chairman who had graciously accompanied me and offered to act as my interpreter. “Oh he is the oldest man in the village. Some say he is 70 years old. Yet others claim he is 90 years. Nobody knows”, he answered. I looked back at the old man and smiled. He smiled back at me, a flash of browned teeth. Encouraged, I ventured ahead-
“How was the forest in your childhood?”
He looked at me, then looked into the fire. He sighed, the deep long sigh of nostalgia. Staring into the fire, he began (interpreted later by my guide):
“Trinkle trinkle trinkle. I still hear the stream in my sleep. Every monsoon, the stream would flow besides our village, before disappearing into the forests below. As children, we loved splashing in the stream, chasing frogs, catching fish, rolling in the muddy water. Mother would be waiting for us at the door, rolling pin in hand. How we would run! She would come after us, shouting ‘Pigs! Rolling in the mud! Who will wash your clothes now!!!’ Sometimes, she caught up with us and gave us a sound thrashing. Other times, we got lucky as she got tired or had to hurry off back to the kitchen. My father would return from the jhum fields in the evening, dao slung across his back. Occasionally he would bring back a partridge or a pheasant caught in his traps. We would have a feast that night.
In my childhood I was always afraid of the forest. You barely had to walk a few hundred meters before the trees got together, the thick canopy blocking out all traces of sunshine. The forest was so dense that the stream we played in was rumored to have black water before entering the village. The trees had huge trunks and towered over us as we walked the path adjoining the forest. In the mornings, the trees were filled with cackling hornbills that feasted off the fruits.
The ex-Village Chairman tells me you are interested in hunting. Let me tell you about how we hunted in those days. Early morning, the men would set off into the forest, hunting dogs and all. Towards noon, the dogs would locate the animal. The men would circle and close in on the quarry, spears in hand, walking silently through the forest. Then came the strike…the animal would be rendered immobile by fright and confusion – as the spears pierced its body. The victorious hunters would return to the village, and the hunt would be shared by the community…Those were the times.”
The dancing flames lit up his eyes as he evoked a past long forgotten. I let him draw comfort from his reminiscences and silently took his leave.
The next morning, I gazed out into the rolling lands. The raw shimmering light lent a golden glow to the crowns of mountains. For miles together, I could only see tall grass. The grass that establishes itself through succession when trees are fed off to the timber industry. The trees in the distance looked young- none of them had the dark menacing character that the old man had described. The hornbill, Nagaland’s state bird, had not been sighted near the village since a few decades. Hornbills are known to prefer old growth forests; without the wizened trees, the birds disappeared as well. Guns have replaced spears and occasional selective hunting has been replaced by indiscriminate killing. Big game such as the Sambar deer were plentiful in those days- today, you would be extremely lucky to even sight one, let alone hunt it. Rodents, pheasants, smaller cats face the brunt of hunting, the hunter of the 21st century shoots any animal he encounters during his foray into the grass-dominated jungles. He also travels further, spending more time to catch what two generations ago, his grandfather managed with much less effort.
The same story was repeated to me by hunters across Nagaland. Of higher efforts and reduced yields. So often did I hear it, that I had to stop myself. And ask WHY? Why is it so difficult to find game? Is it guns? Commercialization? Exploding human populations? Jhum? Logging? What is tipping the balance? And how can we change the future? For wildlife? For a people whose lives are so intricately tied with the forest? And I think back to the old man’s shy grandson, already bereft of a culture, of an experience that he deserves.
P.S: Experience narrated by a friend Roko (with some imaginative edits of my own).
Dawn, interjected by the yapping of the barking deer, was breaking across the frosty mountains. A lone civet cat,satiated by the night’s meal of berries, slunk into the shadows of the forest. A wild boar mother grunted in her sleep as her piglets lay suckling. A langur baby stretched its long gray arms and blinked into the golden light filtering through the dense canopy overhead. Hill partridges began their chorus in the forest just as the domestic cock started crowing to wake the village. I turned in my sleep, pulling the blanket over my head to try and stay warm in the chilly morning.
This was my first visit to a heaven I had fantasized about for years together. I had finally reached Nagaland…and my journey was just beginning. I was in the state to research the complex interaction between wildlife hunting and the tribal communities’ way of life. ‘Can’t be late for my first day’, I reminded myself. Pulling myself out of bed, I made my way to the kitchen and sat in front of the comforting fire. I had spent my night in a traditional Naga accommodation provided by Uncle L and his wonderful wife. Aunty, as I called her, could speak only in Angami, and her attempts at conversation were lost on me. It was the first time in my life hearing the language. Through a combination of hand gestures, we would converse during mealtimes - she offering me more food and I signing that the food was fantastic. I sipped on the hot chai as V walked in. V was my guide, who later became a good friend in Nagaland. “Let’s follow the children today”, he said,signaling me to hurry.
“Sure” I said, jumping up and gulping the hot chai as fast as I could. As we walked towards the mountain streams, V said, “This is the last week of December. Our village declares an open season for hunting beginning today.” “For how long?” I wondered. “Until the village has enough wild-meat for the community feast”, he answered.
“The children have divided themselves into three groups. Each group will now compete to catch the maximum number of birds”, V continued as I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain slope. We soon came across a partially dry stream, with isolated pools stretched out across its length. A little ahead, we met two young boys, all of 10 years old. They were bent across one of the tiny pools. V called out to them. They answered, then shrunk, aware of a stranger girl clad in jeans and three jackets, gasping for air following a short climb. V assured them (I would do no harm?) and invited me over to see them at work. One of the boys, mouse-like,fished out a brownish gooey substance from a tin can and started rolling it into a thin, wire-like structure. The second boy got a twig, no longer than 7 inches and began to wind the gooey wire across the stick. Then carefully, they set it across the shrunken pool and skipped off upstream. “How does this work?”I asked acting out the true city idiot.
“Come ahead and I will show you”.And so I followed V further up, each step a growing embarrassment because of my non-existent stamina. Every pool I saw (53 before I lost count) had the curious twigs laid across them. “Look at this twig” said V. I looked down to see a flurry of feathers, leaves and a beak staring up at me. “Bird traps. Made with a natural gum called khetcha”, V explained. I went down on my knees, in regret and curiosity. And so I saw my first bird of northeast India – cold, dead, its wings stretched out and stuck to the gum, its feathers wet by the chilled waters it had alighted to sip. “The sticks are placed across the pool in a manner such that each bird has to perch on the stick to drink water from the pool”, said V. This bird is a Rufous-crowned Bush warbler”, he continued as we started descending towards the village. ‘Warblers’, thought the birdwatcher in me- I can never distinguish between the species. “But that bird is hardly a morsel”, I tried to reason. What good is such a tiny bird as food? “On New Year’s Eve, all the children contribute their catch to the village. We make khichdi out of the birds”, V explained.“And did we cover the territory of one of the groups during the hike?” I enquired. “Oh no! Of course not. The stream goes much further up into the mountain” he semi-chided, semi-teased me at my low stamina. Making a quick calculation in my head, I asked “And the children set up the sticks in the morning and get the birds in the evening?” “No. The kids check the traps thrice a day”.
“The traps can’t possibly hold larger birds” I asked of V, concerned that smaller birds were being selectively hunted, and a little hopeful that the bigger birds made it through the hunting season. “Ah! The kids are experts with the catapult”, V pointed out a lone boy aiming high up in the tree. He missed, the bird flew off. “Perhaps not all”,said V, almost apologetically, even as I jumped in joy at the bird having escaped.
Back at Uncle L’s home, V’s younger brother was rolling clay into perfect round balls. Dismissing them as “Catapult bullets”, V invited me in for breakfast. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were standard (though very tasty)- rice, dal and potato vegetable. One night V cooked an omlette. “I learnt it in the city” he said. “Why return?” I wondered,thinking back to the regular mass exodus of rural populations into cities. “I like it here” was his simple answer.
Another afternoon, V pointed to a circle of kids closing in, suddenly breaking out into shouts. “They are trying to catch a bird with bare hands”, said V. “That’s impossible. The bird will fly off!” I interjected. I was proven wrong. The group caught their quarry.Laughing at my dismayed look, V explained, “The birds get so scared by the noise that they just freeze. It is very easy to catch them.”
To witness the entire generation engage in trapping, killing and rejoicing at a catch of almost 293 birds within a mere span of 3 days got me thinking: Where does one draw the line between culture and conservation? Who should draw the line? Does labeling a region as a ‘global biodiversity hotspot’ or a ‘wildlife sanctuary’ solve the problem? How do we stop the tides of extinction from wiping out wildlife and remain sensitive to local sentiments at the same time? And is the day when all the birds will vanish and the forest will fall silent closer than we imagine it to be…