India's hunting problem: You can't ban a way of life

Hunting may be banned by law but it continues to be a way of life for the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Even government officials and politicians engage in what they see as their customary right. For ordinary people hunting provides their main source of meat, recreation, medicine, and ornaments. Besides, most hunters love the spirit of the chase and the gamey flavour of wild meat. When it is so ingrained in their culture, it is a challenge to convince them of the need to desist from taking wildlife.

 Indias hunting problem: You cant ban a way of life

Tribesmen pose as they return from hunting in the Audhoya jungle, about 350 km (217 miles) west of Kolkata May 19, 2008. Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Domestic poultry, pigs and mithun are insufficient as a regular source of meat and are reserved for festive occasions and sale. So the Arunachalis hunt wild ungulates and primates. Although hunting is wide-spread and intense, the local diet is largely rice and boiled leaves with spicy chutney. They eat animal protein less frequently than do mainland Indians. When the human population was low, weapons were traditional and the main use of wild meat was sustenance, hunting was sustainable.

About 82% of the state is covered in forests, of which the Forest Department protects only 27% . People have customary rights over community forests which form 38% of the state. The human population growth rate of Arunachal Pradesh (3%) is double the rest of India (1.58%). Besides farming and small-scale entrepreneurship, there is no other opportunity for employment in large parts of the state. Modern weapons are now easily available too. With few avenues of employment, hunting is a pastime as well as a means of earning a living. Animals such as tigers, elephants, musk deer, bears, and otters fetch high prices on the black market.

Hunting deals a double-blow to predators such as tigers: not only are they targeted for their highly-priced body-parts, but people compete with them for their prey. In 1984, Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, listed over-hunting as one of the “evil quartet”, or “four horsemen of the ecological apocalypse.” Indeed, in many parts of the state, forests look pristine but are mostly devoid of large mammals. Biologists call this the “empty forest syndrome.” For example, fewer numbers of large animals are found in Namdapha Tiger Reserve compared to similar forests in Southeast Asia.

Paradoxically, new species of birds and mammals are still being discovered in this state such as the Arunachal macaque, a leaf deer, a black barking deer, and a colourful babbler. Even as scientists find these animals, they are in danger of being hunted to oblivion. Clearly something needs to be done.

The primary challenge is to ensure that the tribes realize wild fauna are of greater value alive than dead. For example, following the discovery of Bugun Liocichla, a new species of babbler, by a community-based eco-tourism project based at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, there was widespread international attention and appreciation. Such affirmative action enables local tribesmen who have grown up seeing anything that flies or walks as food, to appreciate their natural beauty and ecological value.

Nagaland also has a similar culture of hunting. A few community-managed programs such as in Khonoma village may show a way forward. In 1998, five years after 300 tragopans were killed for meat, community elders declared a ban on logging and hunting in a 70 sq km chunk of village forest to form the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary. Within two years of the ban, birds responded to the protection by re-colonizing the forest. Today birdwatchers from all over the world arrive to see Blyth’s Tragopan, a gorgeous pheasant that has re-established a population here. The area also hosts mammals such as the Himalayan black bear, serow, leopard, and sambhar. The villagers now propose to extend the hunting and logging ban to an additional 100 sq km. Ironically, wild pigs rebounded in such numbers that they became an agricultural pest and the village elders are considering a relaxation on the ban for this one species.

In Chizami, also in Nagaland, the North East Network, a NGO previously engaged with public health, women’s rights and promoting traditional methods of farming, is now working to reduce the impact of hunting. Two years ago, teachers from seven districts were trained using specifically tailored education programs, on ways of inculcating a love and appreciation of nature and wildlife in school kids. This was followed by the establishment of a nature club whose twenty members, aged 10 to 14, have sworn not to hunt or eat wild meat. At an exhibition of their wildlife and nature photographs, the children spontaneously requested their parents to pledge never to hunt, kill or eat wild animals.

The difference between the two states is: Khonoma and Chizami being just 25 to 30 km from the Nagaland state capital, Kohima, are well connected to hospitals, schools, and employment opportunities. It is possible that these programs worked because hunting was merely a pastime during the fallow agricultural season.

In Arunachal, basic facilities are lacking in most parts of the state. Under these conditions, at least hunting for recreation and economic opportunity can be reduced by providing employment opportunities, and increased policing of the international trade in animal parts. But this is easier said than done. Some of the extensive forest cover would necessarily have to be traded for setting up industries. Infrastructure projects such as dams are seen by many as a source of revenue. The total forest cover of the country is 19%, of which Arunachal contributes 2%. With forests said to soak up the carbon fumes of our consumptive lifestyles, is this a trade-off worth making? Is the cure worse than the disease?

There’s unlikely to be one solution for the entire state. Getting communities to eschew hunting may need to work program by program, location by location. But for many forests, time may be running out. Yet, there is no option but to negotiate and work with tribal communities, as more than half the forest land is owned by them. Instead of being modern-day missionaries, conservationists can at best be the facilitators, providing advice, expertise and new imaginative ideas while inspiring communities to make a commitment to protect their biodiversity.

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2011 07:57:22 IST