Thank you and setting the record straight

The recent Whitley Fund for Nature Award has brought support and attention to our work in Arunachal Pradesh, for which I have felt grateful, as it will help scale-up our current work. It also came with a fair amount of media attention, celebrating this recognition, which I appreciate.

At the same time, as it often tends to happen with media articles, facts have got mixed up during reporting as the authors of these articles did not first check them with me. I agonized over what to do about it. Madhu Katti advised me to write a blog post about it. I dilly-dallied over this as usual, but finally I thought I should write – because inaccurate reporting misrepresents the work, and inadvertently devalues the partnerships that we have established or seek to establish through our work.

It started with the article in the Hindustan Times that appeared to have used very little information from the Whitley Fund for Nature Press release, some information from the National Geographic website and presumably in journalistic enthusiasm, attributed out of context quotes to me. And then other websites/newspapers seem to have used this article to write more such articles with a few added embellishments/changes here and there. Given the rash of such articles that are out there for the world to read/see, I felt I should set the record straight.

The very first line had me uncomfortable.

‘A young wildlife biologist who converted bird hunters into their saviours in remote forests of Arunachal Pradesh was awarded the 2013 Whitley Award..’

I find this sentence somewhat derogatory and patronizing to the people we work with. I did not single-handedly ‘convert’ them. The change that happened among the Nyishi people living around Pakke Tiger Reserve is something that has happened over a long period, some of them changed due to personal experiences, others maybe due to constant engagement/dialogue with various park authorities/officers and researchers/scientists and others because they were provided incentives. Through our work, we are recognizing, facilitating and strengthening that change. For most of the people who were hunters in the past, the monetary and other incentives were not necessarily the only reasons for the change.

I believe it is insulting to characterize a people just as ‘bird hunters’. These words somehow put down people whom I respect and work with. We view them as equal, if not more important partners in our conservation efforts.

And, flattering though it might be, being described as a young wildlife biologist at 42… ☺

The later sections of the Hindustan Times article went on to mix up our work in Namdapha with the Lisu with the current work/project around Pakke Tiger Reserve with the Nyishi, and again used words that were patronizing.

 

‘But their killing by locals for meat and habitat loss because of shifting cultivation had threatened their existence deep inside forests.’

This is a creative interpretation of the actual situation. Yes, of course, people do kill hornbills and habitat loss threatens these species, (as it does most wildlife), but it is not necessarily because of shifting cultivation only. Nowhere in the Whitley Press release or other websites that report parts of my work, do we say it is because of shifting cultivation.

The article, perhaps inadvertently, manages to convey that ‘locals’ only are the bad guys. This is a simplistic interpretation of a highly complex and nuanced situation. We are talking about forest-dependent rural communities, often economically marginalized. Shifting cultivation is an age-old practice and is a form of subsistence cultivation in hilly terrain, where there are few alternatives for people dependent on subsistence agriculture. In fact, it is possibly less harmful for biodiversity conservation than logging, conversion of primary forests for tea, other cash crops and plantations! There are other larger drivers of habitat loss, which have little to do with local people. Hunting itself has been a traditional practice and is carried out for a variety of reasons in northeast India. It may not be sustainable anymore, is against the law and several species are targeted for commercial purposes and most species possibly cannot sustain the current hunting and other pressures. However, the issue is complex and cannot be represented in simplistic words that put down the region’s tribes.

‘Many tribals were not aware that Due to their predominantly frugivorous diet, the brightly coloured birds with loud calls have always been considered important agents of seed dispersal in the tropical forest.’

This one had me cringing too. The words “Many tribals were not aware that..” were perhaps copy-pasted on to a completely different sentence perhaps taken from the Nat Geo website, while forgetting to change the letter in ‘Due’ to a small d!
Of course, local people, especially hunters, are aware that hornbills are seed dispersers. People observe, they know. But that is not the point. The knowledge of a species’ ecological function is not enough for hunting to stop, or for these birds to no longer be viewed as a resource. Their connections/relationships with nature are at multiple levels and while hornbills have much folklore/myths associated with them and hunters also marvel at the pair bond of hornbills; they also see it as source of medicine, meat and for other cultural uses. The way the sentence reads is again patronizing as it seems to convey that ‘scientists’ have to come and teach everything to ‘poor tribals’. We learn a lot from people, especially hunters as most have excellent natural history skills and knowledge of the forest.

A small and poor tribal group in Namdapha National Park, called Lisu, were hunting the birds and logging for their fuel needs.’

What do I say about this? The Whitley Award is in support of our hornbill conservation work, not for our work in Namdapha with the Lisu at all. Secondly, the Lisu may occasionally hunt hornbills, but they do not particularly target them for specific body parts, unlike some other tribes that use hornbill feathers and casque/beaks. And yes, most forest-dependent communities will need to cut some timber for fuel needs – they have no alternative! But this is not the same as ‘logging’ in the sense with which this word is usually used to mean commercial extraction/harvest of timber for wider markets.

And hornbills actually are one faunal group who are doing well in Namdapha, with high densities of 4 species as shown by the research of Rohit Naniwadekar.

Thirdly, yes, the Lisu are a small community, and yes, many are poor in economic terms, but again the sentence reads in a derogatory way.

‘Datta established a community-based conservation program with them to reduce hunting and save wildlife by first improving the quality their lives. “We started schools; built river embankments to stop erosion and protect agricultural land; and supplied solar panel lamps that power homes and save the enormous expense of kerosene and batteries,” she said.’

This bit is correct, but totally out of context as it is work we carried out for 8 years (2003-2010) on a different issue/problem in Namdapha with the Lisu. The text is taken from the Nat geo website, but the quote attributed to me is in the context of the Whitley award!

The context of the Namdapha work was different; the goal was to reduce hunting of wildlife in general, especially of large mammals, not hornbills per se.

‘Her team also provided fuel-efficient stoves and water-heating devices in an effort to reduce deforestation.’

Yes, we did do this in one Lisu village, but it was not enough to address ‘deforestation’. And again it has nothing to do with the Whitley award and the current work/project.

‘In addition, the tribal community for the first time got access to better health facilities and education.’

Again, we did this till 2010 at a small-scale, but it was not necessarily the only access they had. And it was not enough, given the remoteness of the area and numerous communication and other logistic difficulties in achieving this and lack of a sustainable long-term way of ensuring both funding and delivery of access to health care and education.

‘And now they were working to find market for handicrafts made by the tribals.’

We did try this for a while, but the effort did not work because it was difficult to establish reliable and viable markets for the products and difficulties in ensuring quality and adequate supply from such a remote area.

‘The efforts had resulted in protection of the fragile birds.’

NO! As I said before, this work in Namdapha had nothing to do with the protection of hornbills.

The current work/project that we are working on in terms of hornbill conservation and research (and the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program) is in and around Pakke Tiger Reserve with the Nyishi community and this is the work to be taken forward and scaled up with the recent Whitley award.

The Namdapha – Lisu work (from 2003 to 2011) was not so much only about hornbills, but in general about finding solutions between the people and park management, reducing hunting of wildlife in general, monitoring abundance of key faunal groups and assisting the community in various aspects on health, education, rural energy. NCF Research scholar Rohit Naniwadekar carried out his PhD field research on hornbill ecology in Namdapha from 2008-2011, but our community-based conservation work there did not focus on hornbills. It was a larger issue of park-people conflict and finding solutions to the problems in Namdapha, but that is another story.

Below is the full Whitley media release which I had seen (the link to the official shorter one finally sent out by Whitley Fund for Nature to the media is given above)

India’s north-eastern region is known for its biological and cultural diversity. The region encompasses two global biodiversity hotspots. The region harbours the world’s northernmost tropical rainforests with an estimated 7000-8000 species of flowering plants, over 600 bird and 150 mammal species. Large forest areas still remain, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, in part due to low human population density. Arunachal is home to over 25 tribes and 110 sub-tribes. However, hunting and deforestation threaten the survival of wildlife and their habitats. Most forests are community-owned, yet conservation efforts have largely been Protected Area-centric. Hornbills, a conservation flagship, and seed dispersers in these forests are declining rapidly.

42 year-old conservation scientist, Aparajita Datta leads a programme in the Eastern Himalaya at the Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO established in 1996 to promote science-based wildlife conservation in India. Focussing on hornbills as a conservation flagship, she is seeking to improve the status of hornbill populations outside Protected Areas by establishing models of community-based conservation, augmenting knowledge of the ecological needs of hornbills and threats to their survival, and creating a wider rural and urban constituency for conservation through an outreach programme that facilitates citizen participation in conservation. She and a team of NCF researchers are engaged in understanding the anthropogenic drivers of wildlife decline, studying plant-animal interactions and long-term monitoring of hornbills and other key faunal groups. She is also actively engaged in advocacy, evaluations and policy issues related to management of tiger reserves, especially in Arunachal Pradesh. Working directly with local people in Arunachal on conservation and protection of wildlife habitats outside designated parks in a partnership with the Forest Department, this project is seeking to consolidate long-term conservation approaches in the larger landscape for hornbills and other wildlife.

 

Thank you again, everyone, for the interest in reporting our work.

3 thoughts on “Thank you and setting the record straight

  1. In my opinion, the way the press article is written is much more inspiring than your conscientious corrections. 🙂 Often, I feel that the precision you desire is not sought by many newspaper readers. If I imagine my parents reading the newspaper, they might have found it boring if your corrected version were to be in press. Unfortunate it may be, but such is perhaps the way with things. So, in some sense, not much damage done other than as you point out the characterisation of tribal people you work with.

    Anyway, when we demand the level of precision we do for articles in the press in general, I can see why you were cringing. Nice that you could take time to put this down.

  2. That’s true – about precision not being sought by readers:) And I agree that what we write as exact/correct with clarifiers/nuances or even the Press release is boring and dry..I had written a para on those lines initially, but removed it before I posted..

    but in this case, crucial facts were also incorrect (talking about Namdapha and the work there and connecting it to the hornbill work), apart from words used that characterized people from local communities in a poor light. Also, the fact that whole sentences were copy-pasted from another website (without attribution)..don’t think that’s allowed in the print media either.

  3. Aparajita,

    Appreciate the effort taken to set the record straight. Just goes to show that media reports need be to checked by readers as well.

    Having been born in Digboi, the North East is very close to my heart, especially Arunachal Prades. Would love to participate in any way I can.

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