A new grassroots conservation model takes root
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes several to save wildlife. In the eastern Indian state of Nagaland, three villages have done just that: working together to save the Amur falcon from mass slaughter. Also on board: governments, green groups and even the church.
Every year, tens of thousands of migrating Amur falcons from Siberia stop over in the state on their way to Africa. The effect is spectacular; the sky is thick with flying birds. It is thought to be one of the biggest-possibly the biggest-falcon roosts in the world. But this layover has made the falcon vulnerable. In the last few years, villagers have been hunting- or rather massacring- the birds for their meat. Green groups estimate that at least 120,000 birds are killed every year, but the numbers could be far higher.
In August this year, just ahead of the hunting season, local conservation group Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT), along with several other green groups, launched a conservation and patrolling programme called Friends of the Amur Falcon. The church (Nagaland is a mostly Christian state) stepped in too, citing the Book of Leviticus in the Bible, which prohibits the consumption of birds of prey.
Meanwhile the government, and the villages of Pangti, Ashaa and Sungro, stepped in. “It is our duty to protect these wonderful birds while they are passing through Nagaland and treat them as our honoured and esteemed guests, in the true Naga tradition of hospitality,” said Nagaland’s chief minister Neiphiu Rio. Rio also threatened to stop grants to villages involved in hunting the falcons. Village councils agreed to make the hunting of the falcons illegal, and levied a fine of Rs 5000 (about GBP 50)on any hunters. Villagers and green groups patrolled the region to catch transgressors.
The Amur falcon is a fascinating bird. It is only the size of a pigeon, but it has one of the longest migratory paths in the bird kingdom, travelling up to 22,000 km in a year. It also survives wholly on insects, making it a very useful bird to have around for farmers. “The ecological significance of this bird is huge,” says Ramki Sreenivasan, wildlife photographer and co-founder of Conservation India, which runs several education centres in the villages. In a “train the trainer” campaign, teachers, church officials, and other village elders are being taught about the falcon and its amazing journey. They, in turn, pass on the message of conservation to hunters and children.
So far, the carrot and stick approach has worked spectacularly. “This hunting season, we have had no killings at all,’ says Sreenivasan. “There is still a long way to go, but the Nagaland government, the central government and the community deserve to be congratulated.” This week, Hungarian scientists working with the local and central government began satellite tagging some of the birds to track their flight paths.
But it may be premature to rejoice. There is already some discontent in the village, with many hunters-and even village heads– arguing they now need an alternative income, if they are to protect the falcon in years to come. There is talk of poultry and fish farming, and demands for government aid. But, as Sreenivasan says, “Money is always used as an excuse for animals being slaughtered, but this kind of hunting has only happened in the last few years. The first priority was to stop the killing of the birds. Now that villagers have given up hunting, parties can come to the table to negotiate alternatives.”
Sreenivasan hopes Nagaland can be used as a template for other states. “Many states display the ’empty forest’ syndrome, where exploding populations have completely depleted forests of wildlife. This could be a case study for South Asian forests. We hope a larger conservation ethic emerges in the region.”
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