November 1995: It was only my third day in Pakke Tiger Reserve – then known as Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary, – and I was excited by the newness and wonder of everything around. And of being in Arunachal for the first time. The previous day, we had walked 13 km to reach the Khari camp as there was no road in those days, and in the evening, we had marked a transect in the hills. With me, was Vijay [name changed], a sanctuary watcher who had been deputed by the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) to accompany me. In those days, logging operations were ongoing in the Reserved Forests around Pakke and there were several timber mills in the area. The southern boundary of Pakke from Seijusa to Langka was vulnerable to illegal logging and my new assistant was one of the main people that the then DFO relied on to obtain information and stop logging activities inside the park. My assistant had become unpopular among many of the local people. He was often threatened and once his house and belongings were burnt down. I was fortunate to have him accompany me in my work in this completely new place, as it seemed from the very first meeting that he knew the forest well – from the trees to the animals.
The next morning, we went back on the trail to start counting primates and squirrels. After we finished and turned back on the same route, he showed me some snares, which he then said he had set up. Apparently, the previous evening while we were returning, he had quietly set them up, when I had walked ahead. Towards the end of the transect, on one snare was a lifeless Blue Whistling Thrush. There was one more snare, but luckily nothing had been caught in that one. Upset, I admonished him very strongly never to do such things while working with me. Hunting, that too on a transect on which I planned to walk repeatedly over the next several months to count animals!
Over the next several months in those early days and later during my PhD years from 1997 to 2000 and much later when I worked with various tribes spread across Arunachal Pradesh, I was to learn how pervasive hunting was.
There were instances I witnessed of a killing of a monitor lizard, and another time when a bamboo rat was literally dug and hauled out from its burrow. Instances of being offered wild meat in remote locations – serow and Assamese macaque meat by villagers, barking deer by a local Circle officer, being told by another official that he had shot several hornbills and so on. Apart from encountering hunters, seeing hunting instances and recording much dead wildlife. This was all par for the course in the region. Wildlife law enforcement appeared non-existent.
I realized early on, that as someone studying wildlife and working with communities, I could not judge people. Maybe someone else in my place would have reacted differently.
I have seen many people from other parts of the country reacting with horror and shock, condemnation and outrage. Witnessing instances of hunting made me sad as well. However, there are several other sides to it.
First, we need to understand that many communities have a utilitarian worldview of nature. There is a relationship with nature, observations are made and knowledge is gained from close proximity to nature. At the same time, nature is seen, as a resource to be used or consumed. So a bit of reflection is warranted before we begin to impose our values and belief systems on people who have their own.
Second comes cultural history. If national wildlife laws are not in tune with local societal values, mores and customs – there will be a lag and it will take time for people to change. Prior to the framing of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1971, hunting was acceptable in other parts of India as well. Several erstwhile hunters from the princely class have later become famous and passionate conservationists. It was even fashionable to hunt in the fifties and sixties. I remember being shocked to learn that my own grandfather who loved and knew a lot about nature used to go for shikar in the forests of Hazaribagh in the sixties.
A familiar example is piracy laws on music/software, where most of us know it is against the law, but we may violate the law anyway because we feel it is not ‘just’ or too prohibitively expensive or we switch to open-source software. Indeed, many other practices and customs take time to change as the society’s values and the contexts change.
The reasons that people hunted varied – some did it for meat and food at home, some for the thrill and pleasure, some would do it for some quick and ready cash to meet basic needs like salt, clothes, and soap. And, of course, not all members of a community hunted. So tarring everyone with the same brush and sweeping generalizations are a problem.
Wildlife populations have declined in forests throughout the tropics due to hunting, and often, vulnerable species have been extirpated, resulting in the ‘empty forest syndrome’ or ‘half-empty’ forests. Hunting is often viewed as bigger driver of wildlife decline than deforestation.
Hunting and wildlife trade are major issues in Asia, given that human population densities are the highest. Compared to most other Asian countries, India has strong wildlife protection laws, but the enforcement of wildlife laws in most North-eastern states has been mostly limited. North-east India is geographically and culturally closer to South-east Asia, where hunting of wildlife for consumption and trade is extensive and more open.
If hunting has to be stopped, there has to be acceptance that hunting is prevalent. Many officials do not publicly acknowledge that hunting is a problem and are uncomfortable with presentations or open discussions on the subject, even though privately they may acknowledge it as an important issue. It should also be recognized that it cannot be always stopped suddenly. Enforcement is also not the only mechanism to reduce hunting, given the deep-rooted and often historical socio-cultural factors involved.
Hunting for commercial trade (musk deer, tigers, elephants, otters and bears and more recently the pangolins and even the Tockay gecko) is a serious issue.
Quantitative estimates of the extent of such trade are hard to come by, but it is usually limited to fewer people. However, it is often difficult to distinguish between “subsistence” hunting and hunting for trade. An example of this is the hunting prevalent for otters, musk deer and bears. Among the communities I have worked with in Arunachal, I have often come across people who would be in dire need of cash for medical treatment of a loved one. As the local government health facilities are often inadequate, usually, treatment and surgeries are in private hospitals in neighbouring Assam. For example, one man needed to get an appendix surgery for his son which would cost him Rs.12,000. So, an otter was killed. Many times, people who were not regular hunters would go trapping for otters, musk deer, and bears to get cash for ‘subsistence’ living, for survival. On the other hand, the mass killing of Amur falcons at a single site cannot be considered ‘subsistence’ given the scale at which it was being carried out.
In the last 15-20 years, North-east India has become India’s biological frontier with more surveys and exploration by biologists leading to the discovery of ‘previously undescribed species’ from varied faunal groups ranging from birds, mammals, herpetofauna, fishes and invertebrates. Most often scientists have relied on the knowledge of local hunters and communities to find such species.
Yet, paradoxically, it is also an area, barring the states of Assam and Tripura, where hunting of wildlife is pervasive. “Subsistence” hunting is widespread and intensive. There is concern over the wide range of targeted species and the high hunting intensity. And along with increasing forest loss has resulted in declines of several species. People argue that hunting and consumption of wild meat is increasingly indefensible and unsustainable.
A more nuanced understanding
Hunting is regarded as a primary threat to wildlife in Arunachal and some other north-east states. A combination of wildlife protection laws, awareness programs and community-based conservation initiatives are viewed as important to stop or reduce hunting. Indeed, these are important and needed. A successful long-term initiative to stop hunting will depend on knowing the reasons people hunt and to what extent they are dependent on it for their livelihoods or for cultural reasons and on the ability to enforce the law through local institutions as much as the state-run ones.
However, while law enforcement is necessary, only focusing on law enforcement as a means for stopping hunting will not work. We cannot and should not ‘criminalize’ entire communities and people. Criminalizing these activities only makes some people go underground and do it anyway.
The point I am trying to make is that hunting can and must be reduced and stopped; and I have spent the better part of my own work, trying to work with communities to bring about a change. However, the ability to bring about change depends on a variety of factors and the context.
We could not do it in a place like Namdapha due to many reasons: the lack of a larger institutional backing, and the inability to provide sustainable and suitable livelihood options to a community in a remote location. Even though community pledges and bans on hunting worked to an extent for a few years, it was an individual effort difficult to sustain without larger institutional interest and support from the state and other agencies. More importantly, the larger issues of land rights and the people-park conflict also affected the ability to sustain the reduction of hunting.
This is in contrast to a place like Pakke, where there has been a reduction in hunting due to several factors – here, people living in the villages along the south-eastern boundary are not really dependent on hunting for income.
They do not have insecurities related to their status/land rights and tenure. There is no serious conflict with the park authorities, although people do grumble about their livestock losses to large carnivores and crop losses to elephants. However, the story is a little different towards the villages near the northern boundary where hunting is still prevalent.
More local initiatives are needed to bring about a long-lasting reduction in hunting. By working with several individuals from different communities I have come to understand to some extent, the individual motivations of hunters. Engaging with them directly maybe a more effective albeit difficult strategy to bring about changes.
There have been remarkable changes in and around Pakke through the efforts of the Forest Department, the local people and conservationists – local institutions have banned hunting and instituted heavy fines – a recent incident of hunting of a hornbill by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police resulted in local outrage and the local institution demanding payment of a hefty fine. This would have been unheard of even a decade ago, when I first began work there in 1995, when I had witnessed the dead Blue Whistling Thrush killed by my own assistant, and when hunting of hornbills and other wildlife was socially more acceptable. The wildlife laws existed even then – but the awareness and the societal acceptance was minimal. The changes took time to happen. Only law enforcement by the Forest Department would not have helped in bringing about the larger change in the minds of people. Similar change is fortunately taking place in a few other areas of Arunachal and other states in the north-east, notably even in Nagaland. Some of these initiatives are self-driven by the local communities with or without the encouragement and support of conservationists and organizations and/or state institutions, while others have been initiated by and driven by external organizations and state institutions.
The case of the mass killing of Amur falcons in Nagaland was highlighted by conservationists in the national and international media and immediate action helped to stop the slaughter – but here too, the co-operation and coming together of the Forest Department, local communities, and different Non-Governmental Organizations was ultimately required to change the situation on the ground. However, most hunting is not of this scale – it is low-intensity and for particular targeted species by few people in the community.
Now, my first guide and friend from whom I learnt so much, has assisted and guided many other researchers and visitors in the forests of Arunachal. He is a remarkably skilled naturalist. His contribution to my research in Arunachal Pradesh was tremendous. His skills in the jungle and observation powers are unparalleled. He had never been to school, yet he would put many formally trained scientists to shame with his remarkable intelligence, careful reasoning, keen observation and curiosity. He has developed a conservation ethic and empathy for wildlife. He has also recently developed an allergy to meat in any form. He tells me ruefully that this may be the way he is paying for his past sins – because of all the wild meat he had killed and eaten in the past.
His transformation from an avid hunter to a keen wildlife watcher who now cares for the fate of wildlife and forests is remarkable.
I have been fortunate to have worked with several more remarkable people who, once they had undergone a change of heart, became strong advocates for wildlife.
Therefore, it is important not to cut off that dialogue. Each of them had a story to tell on their reasons to hunt, and eventually, to stop and to become protectors.
Bill Adams wrote ‘The challenge is not only to preserve ‘the wild’ but also peoples’ relationships with the wild (emphasis mine). I agree whole-heartedly.