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When hunters turned protectors: The story of the Amur falcon

The story of the conservation of the Amur falcon shows culture and traditions can change for the better

The Amur falcon comes from Russia, Mongolia and China, stopping in Nagaland for a month and a half and then crossing India to go to Africa.
The Amur falcon comes from Russia, Mongolia and China, stopping in Nagaland for a month and a half and then crossing India to go to Africa. (ISTOCKPHOTO)

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The first thing I remember about Pangti village, in Nagaland, from 10 years ago is a tornado in the sky. It was like watching a cyclone of mosquitoes, rising up in a grey gyre, coming tightly together, separating, then coming together again. Only it wasn’t a mélange of mosquitoes I was seeing. It was free flying falcons making spirals in the sky before they settled for the night.

There were so many and at such dizzying heights that they looked like smidges of insects. But the birds screeched as they flew, like wild, bubbling laughter. No insect flies with such loud, careening abandon. Our little group had never seen so many Amur falcons before. I had never seen an Amur falcon before.

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A year earlier, in 2012, conservation photographer Ramki Sreenivasan had told me of the industrial- scale hunting of Amur falcons in Nagaland, specifically near Pangti village in Wokha district. Thousands of birds were being hunted in a day. The worry was that at this scale and rate, the global population of about one million birds would not survive. The Amur falcon comes from Russia, Mongolia and China, stopping in Nagaland for a month and a half and then crossing India to go to Africa.

The birds—expert hunters of swift insects—were like flying missiles. They were caught when they spiralled down, tired after their hunts. Nets tacked near tall trees were enough to capture them en masse. In 2012-13, when we asked the hunters their reasons for hunting, their answers ranged from food to sale and fun.

Before going to Nagaland, our team—led by noted ornithologist and then Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) director Asad Rahmani, stopped in Umro village, on the Assam-Meghalaya border. We wanted to see if we could understand the falcon’s migratory routes and stopover sites. We told the villagers we had come to see the October falcons.

A middle-aged man exclaimed that he would show us. We started looking at the trees and the skyline. The man appeared, this time holding two Amur falcons, their necks lolling. “Hold it, it doesn’t bite,” he told me. The bird was small enough to fit his palm and fingers and it would never fly again. Tears filled my eyes at seeing a fierce-eyed bird of prey robbed of the energy to even snap its beak at me. “I wanted to see, not hold,” I said.

Meanwhile, the markets of Nagaland were full of movement. Dead meat was outnumbered by things that were alive—writhing beetle grub, shocked wood spiders, frogs with hind legs bound together. Everywhere, people walked with air-guns. The nonchalance towards killing a wild animal was characteristic of the hunting legacy in many north-eastern states.

It is illegal to hunt wildlife but what is legally wrong may be viewed as right in custom. The first time we went to Pangti village, in 2013, we were asked why we were there. The second question was if we would have tea, and if we had come all the way to advocate for birds (we had sent word ahead), what would we be willing to give the hunters? Soon after, it was clear that it didn’t matter what I thought about birds. The only thing that mattered was what the village thought was right.

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So, we started talking. In the evenings, we gathered in communal kitchens with clusters of dried herbs hanging near our heads and woodsmoke in the air. On some mornings, with crisp sunshine shining off tin roofs, we would be talking before it was time to go to the fields. We showed maps of migration.

As part of a holistic conservation project, we decided to start eco-clubs in the villages supported by BirdLife international, working with the village councils. I would tell the villagers about our South African colleagues waiting for Nagaland’s falcons. We said we would try to bring tourists to the area to supplement incomes. Some laughed, some threatened us, others listened seriously. Graciously, the village council passed a resolution to cease hunting for the migratory season.

Meanwhile, something had begun changing in me—from a researcher, I was becoming a conservationist. And this meant my initial outrage had as much weight as the buoyant saccharum flowers that dot October in the North-East.

Early in the mornings, we would do fieldwork. We counted over 100,000 Amur falcons near the Doyang reservoir, on land owned by Pangti villagers. As dawn broke and the river was gilded with sunshine, the birds would rise in the sky. On hot days, they would rest on the tallest trees. Deciduous, leafless trees were aflush with falcons that looked like foliage.

From our continued interactions with students and villagers, it was clear that they found a migratory wild bird very interesting. It meant the bird belonged to many places, that it had come to a hot area from a snowy place. That it was capable of flying over 22,000km each year, as satellite signals from tagged birds showed. That it had impeccable and predictable timing, with flocks filling the sky after the monsoon, when the air was heavy with winged termites. Whether as a hunted bird or a free one, the villagers knew the falcons and their arrival timings well. They liked that the falcons had chosen their village. For the rest of India, Amur falcon was still a new word.

Because it was plentiful, the Amur falcon was evaluated as being of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. We wondered if other citizens would learn to care about a bird they had likely never seen.

Perhaps it was the fact that the villagers trusted us and decided to ban hunting in 2013, but the falcons started getting discussed nationally. NGOs like the Wildlife Trust of India and Wildlife Conservation Trust conducted studies or outreach. Our local partner was a new NGO, the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, led by the Dimapur-based journalist Bano Haralu. The forest department deputed officers on special duty for falcon conservation.

“One of the reasons Amur falcon conservation has worked is the coalition between the communities, forest department and NGOs. Participation and cooperation by the villagers and the community is a prerequisite for any conservation activities everywhere. This is more so in the case of Nagaland, where the land and resources belong to the people. Today, the entire world looks at Nagaland as the falcon capital of the world. This is a new cultural and ecological tag for the state. Through festivals and eco-tourism in the Amur falcon’s name, the bird is now linked to livelihood and recognition,” says M. Senthil Kumar, chief conservator of forests, monitoring and evaluation, Nagaland forest department.

From 2013, I started conducting questionnaires with people on their goals. Each year, they said they would not hunt if the road to their village could be repaired. The road had nothing and everything to do with falcons. My first learning was that daily troubles (between people, or faced by individuals) led them to hunt, for a quick buck or quick sport. When angry even at something unconnected to birds, some people would call me and say they would hunt the falcons a few months later. It was conflict between people that led to conflict with animals.

The second learning was that culture and traditions can change for the better. With the initial outpouring of eco-tourists (now, this has stabilised to a sober but steady number), villagers found merit in valuing the live bird. Recognition came in for Pangti village. In daily lives full of logistical troubles, honour and recognition from the outside world were invaluable.

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Janbemo N. Odyuo, an entrepreneur who lives in Sungro village, next to Pangti, helps people fill out government forms and apply for government facilities and jobs. Earlier, he used to hunt Amur falcons. After hearing of their migratory journey and interacting with us, he gave up hunting, even enrolling as a teacher in BNHS-run eco-clubs in Sungro. “I like the falcon because it comes to our place and our lands,” he says. “I also like it because it is migratory. It is not just of our place.”

This sentiment of happily opening the door to the outside world echoes through the village. Now that tourists, government officials and researchers visit often, the villagers have begun to enjoy their interactions with outsiders and newcomers.

The birds have brought ideas with them. “Through eco-clubs and nature education, students are learning names of wildlife and biodiversity,” says Janbemo. “This way, they can be ready to take state forestry jobs. One day, we will have an IFS (Indian Forest Service) officer from our village.”

Ten years later, I have found that while the differences are many, common ground is worth fighting for. There is a sense of change and opportunity. The birds have become an icon in the state. Even as it celebrates an annual Hornbill festival (without a thriving hornbill population), smaller-scale Amur falcon festivals have started. The falcon arrives as a revered guest. Apart from land owned by Pangti villagers, the birds have also started stopping in nearby Aree village. As long as they are safe, they can go everywhere.

And here is my final learning—even without great size or without being a full-time Indian resident, a small, little-known, still-common bird can become a universal object of affection. Protected in Nagaland and looked out for by birders in Pune, Mumbai or South Africa, the Amur falcon shows us that migration can truly bring us together. This is the land of the endangered tiger but it is also the land of the common falcon.

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. She has worked on Amur falcon conservation since 2013. This piece is dedicated to Ramki Sreenivasan, who died this year.

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