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.”
Growing up in the city, I have been mollycoddled and spoilt to the hilt. Like most city kids are. Ensconced in the comforts provided by parents, and society, it is difficult to imagine a child attack an animal (although stray dogs do pack in on the former). So, 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 was troubling. Where does one draw the line between culture and conservation? 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 sentiment sat 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…