Hornbill hills: the hunter

by Swati Sidhu

When Budhiram, Tana and Kagum set out into the forest hunting for Paga…

 

Somewhere in the hills of Arunachal, a boy, a man and a dog hurried home in the failing light. The hills were not high, but were rugged and steep. Up close, different shades of green seemed to merge into the grey hills behind. A river thundered cold and torrential water down the hills, but magically became warm and gentle once it reached the plains.

In the forest, trees with almost bare crowns rustled their remaining leaves. Their branches stuck out against a dark sky where clouds covered the stars. On the forest floor, dry leaves crunched noisily as the boy, man, and dog tried to find their trail. Subconsciously, the boy pushed his right hand into his pocket where he felt the round pebbles. These pebbles made him feel safe.

A sharp sound of bamboo breaking came from the opposite slope. Elephants were in the vicinity and approaching. Budhiram’s hand dived into his pocket and brought out one pebble which he gently threw at his deaf uncle, hitting his right shoulder. Tana stopped, his back straight and tense, he turned his head and sniffed. He gestured at Kagum to not bark. Leading the company, he left the gentle trail to make his way down the steeper slope. The three hurried in the dark, picking their way between bamboo clumps. The slope had not much to offer, other than the bamboo itself. Its soil was sandy and loose as if the river bed had been turned inside out and raised to form these hills. Darkness and urgency. Slip and fall. Until they reached level ground again.

They were finally on their way home, having spent an entire day roaming the forest, checking all the bird and squirrel traps they had set up on tree branches, until they found their prized quarry – paga, a hornbill. As they walked into the village in relief and triumph, the paga lay lifeless at the bottom of a woven sack.

But years later…

Years later, when walking through the forest, Budhiram noticed a hornbill flying overhead. He hid himself from view and became motionless to watch. Minutes later, the hornbill perched close to a hole in a large tree, looked around him, and started feeding fruits to his partner inside the cavity, who stuck out her beak to receive them. Watching them, Budhiram was filled with an admiration for the bonding among these birds. He wondered whether there was a hornbill that still awaited the one that he had caught in his trap those many years ago. Today, Budhiram is a protector, not a hunter, of hornbills.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 25 February 2015.

Picture: A Wreathed hornbill feeding fruits to his partner inside the nest at Pakke Tiger Reserve.
Credit: Samyak Kaninde