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Beating The Bush

Beating The Bush

I followed Lobinso Malo on a narrow forest trail, literally running to reach our destination in time for the village puja. A young man in his twenties from the Mishmi tribe, Lobinso was my interpreter and guide.

This Great Barbet Megalaima virens  is a fruit eater that fell to a well-aimed pebble from a catapult. Buyers are easily found at urban and local markets. Photograph by: Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Our destination was Taflagam, the last village on the Indo-China border in Chaglagam circle, Anjaw district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. The bamboo huts in the village stood over five feet (1.5 m.) high on stilts; this served the dual purpose of keeping wild animals out, as well as water during the monsoons. A single wooden log with steps carved on it served as a ladder. It took me a while to get adjusted to the darkness inside one such hut and to figure out what was happening. A long passageway with rooms on one side gave the hut the look of a train corridor. The strong smell of rice beer, opium and meat hung in the air, together with laughter and song. As I looked around, I saw faces glowing in the light of the fire. Hundreds had gathered together in the hut for the puja. Some of them were making laal chai (tea without milk), some smoking bidis, some having khani (opium) in a special bamboo pipe and others drinking apong (rice beer) in bamboo glasses. Pigs grunted from below the room, and were later joined by clucking chickens. The wall behind the men had several tar-black objects; a villager kindly offered an explanation: “Those are animal heads.” I pulled out the torch from my rucksack and a quick flash on the wall gave me goosebumps. Several wild animal skulls were arranged in rows on a criss-cross bamboo frame. The display of serow, barking deer, black bear and takin skulls is part of the Mishmi’s hunting tradition and signifies their animistic beliefs. Such displays can be seen in almost every Mishmi hut. The skulls in the other rooms were mostly of cow and mithun Bos frontalis, semi-domestic cattle that is restricted to the Northeastern states. These heavy cattle are used as ‘bride-price’ (paid by a man for a bride). The number of mithun a man owns is an indication of his status in society.

The villagers made space for me to sit down and offered me tea, khani, bidi and apong. I accepted laal chai while gently refusing their continuous offers of beer and whisky. All eyes were fixed on me and followed whatever I did and said. An unending list of innocent queries of who, why, when, where, what and how began. As I spoke, there was increasing interest about my work, especially about my research on hunting practices. “Because of this, you have come so far?” ridiculed a lady when she heard of the purpose of my visit. Others joined in the laughter. I was used to such disbelief since most people, including educated ones in the region, do not realise the impact of their hunting as this is part of their daily lives. One government officer in Hayuliang had suggested that I visit Nagaland because he assumed the nature of my study was ‘head-hunting’ instead of wildlife hunting!

The feast began with rice and millet balls, and mithun meat on a broad leaf. This was followed by boiled mithun tongue and brain, and later, pork and chicken. Two mithuns, eight cows, four pigs and 24 chickens were sacrificed for the puja. This was the beginning of a five-day condolence puja (the owner’s father had died recently and the puja and the sacrifice were to make sure that his soul departed to the ‘other’ world) with a full-fledged meat feast across all the nine rooms, each room with 20-25 people crowded around the fire. With so much food around, especially meat, my appetite vanished. Towards the end of the course, the owner of the house offered me two black pieces of smoked, dried meat. I was told it was goral. He had hunted it a couple of months earlier.

Bush meat hunting pre-dates recorded human history and the spotting and tracking skill of hunting tribes is legendary. Between shrinking habitats and commercial exploitation of such skills, wild animals are fast vanishing in Northeast India. Often venison  is available for less than the cost of mutton or chicken. Photograph by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Wildlife on the menu

On my way to Taflagam, I had halted at a small village, Chipru, where I spotted a threeyear-old girl patiently waiting while her father roasted something on a fire. Using bamboo forceps, he brushed the black, burnt feathers off the bird, tore off small pieces of the meat and offered it to his daughter. From “jungle ki chidiyas” to large mammals, whether it is a young doctor posted in a remote village or a local MLA, all crave “jungle ka meat” – hunting is an important activity in the region, with a great deal of pride attached to it.

Even kids are nifty with their catapults. Picking up pebbles and scanning the tree tops for birds is almost a game. Dead barbets or leaf birds in their tiny hands are a common sight. Later, they would roast the whole bird and eat it with great joy. Adults, of course, practiced their skills on larger wild animals.

Primarily slash-and-burn (jhum) agriculturists, hunting here is carried out for consumption, festivities and rituals, medicines, additional income in some cases and also as a traditional sport. Gifting fresh or smoked wild meat is a traditional norm practiced during festivals. Weddings without servings of wild meat are unthinkable among the Mishmi tribe as it is a status symbol. One of the weddings I was invited to had 33 baskets of smoked wild meat! Uncles, brothers and relatives from towns join the groom’s hunting party weeks in advance to ensure that there is no shortage of wild meat.

In Arunachal Pradesh, each tribe practices some form of hunting. Some use animal body parts to make articles such as mats and bags and sometimes wear them as part of their attire. For instance, the Nyshi (or Nishi) men in East Kameng district wear the casque of the Great Hornbill (see Sanctuary Vol. XXII No.1, February 2002) to symbolise manhood. The Mishmi men in Lohit district carry black furry bags made from the Asiatic black bear while the Monpa in western Arunachal Pradesh make jackets from goral skin to protect themselves from the freezing winters.

As I travelled across the state, I came across a variety of indigenous traps, skillfully made from locally-available bamboo, logs and cable wires. Depending on the target species, specialised traps are made for ground-dwelling pheasants, canopy-species like squirrels and for capturing bears, monkeys and rodents. Modern weapons like guns arrived around a century ago. Captain F. M. Bailey, an Officer in the British Army and an explorer, reported the presence of the muzzle loader, single-barrel muzzle loader and double barrel gun in villages of the Dibang valley during his expedition in 1911-12. He also mentioned the use of Tibetan matchlock and Tower mauser, which are probably not used any more in the region. The guns were brought from Sadiya (Assam) and Tibet.

Photograph by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Value of wild meat

In forests throughout Northeast India, almost every type of wild animal is being hunted. But while people once sustainably hunted bushmeat, it has now reached unprecedented levels. From hoolock gibbons to musk deer, with changing times, the role and value of wildlife in local culture have assumed new dimensions. In higher altitudes, hunters travel great distances for musk deer whose pods fetch huge prices. One tola (10 gm.) of musk pod can be sold for up to Rs. 5,000. Bear gall bladder is priced between Rs.1,600 to 2,000 per tola in eastern parts of the state. Almost every wild animal body part has a market price including bird feathers and the skin, teeth, skull and meat of mammals. Once the economic value of a species is known, villagers put extra effort to find the animals, even if it requires buying more ammunition, setting more traps and exploring new forests. The decline in wildlife is also reflected in the wild meat offered during ceremonies. As one villager fondly remembered the happy old days, he said, “plenty of meat from the jungle some years back, duniya bhar ka jaanwar (all kinds of animals!) but now we only have dry fish.”

Wildlife monitoring studies conducted over the past five decades suggests a drop in the biomass of wild mammals and fowl by over 70 per cent. No one is studying such trends in the Northeast, but considering the fact that even rare species such as Blood Pheasants and Monal Pheasants are commonly seen in markets, one must presume this region is fast being emptied.

Photograph by Dr. Amit Kotia.

Wild meat hunting is a global issue, and is on the rise across the tropical forests of South America, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. In some areas of west and central Africa, the fact that bushmeat has at times been the only source of available protein has exacerbated the problem. In Arunachal Pradesh, the problem appears to be different. Here, people rear cattle, pigs and poultry, but still hunt wildlife for consumption. Hunting is considered part of tribal culture, and wild meat is a preferred consumption choice.

In the Congo Basin, around one million metric tonnes of bushmeat is eaten each year. Annual consumption of wild animals by local people in Brazil has been estimated at 2,800,000 mammals, 531,000 birds and about 500,000 reptiles while in Sarawak, the economic value of wild meat consumed by rural populations has been estimated at $75 million per year. Hunting is identified as a threat for 84 mammalian species and subspecies from West and Central Africa; 34 of these species are listed as threatened with extinction. Unfortunately, statistics of this kind are lacking in India.

Wildlife monitoring studies conducted over the past five decades suggests a drop in the biomass of wild mammals and fowl by over 70 per cent. No one is studying such trends in the Northeast, but considering the fact that even rare species such as Blood Pheasants and Monal Pheasants are commonly seen in markets, one must presume this region is fast being emptied.Photograph by Dr. Amit Kotia.

A way of life

As a part of my research, I interact with teachers, villagers, village headmen, doctors, government officers and local youth leaders. The preference for hunting and bush meat is more or less true of all the Northeastern states of India. In some tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, livestock are used for village festivals, especially the mithun. Shaman-priests, who are also healers, often suggest sacrificing domestic animals for a quick recovery from illnesses and so they are kept as a reserve for medical emergencies. Even in places where there are doctors, people continue traditional practices and visit doctors only for serious cases. Villagers say it is common sense to hunt wildlife, which is freely available and can be procured at any time. Many admit that the taste of wild meat is far superior to domestic meat and is considered to be ‘pure’ unlike the meat of domestic animals that eat refuse littered around the villages. However, it is not just poor villagers who show this preference. People working in banks and government offices in towns hunt during weekends and visit their villages during festivals to participate in hunting rituals. In rural areas, some go hunting because there is nothing else to do. This is also true during the non-agricultural season, especially in winters when farming work is minimal.

Arunachal Pradesh, home to 26 major tribal groups and several sub-groups shares its borders with Bhutan in the west, the Tibet Autonomous region of China in the north, and Myanmar in the east. With its alpine meadows and lowland tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen, and temperate forests, the region has a great diversity of habitats. Being a part of the Eastern Himalaya, it has been identified as one of the 34 global biodiversity hotspots. The state is not only a paradise for ornithologists, but also anthropologists and explorers who study the dialects, beliefs, handicrafts, customs and oral histories of indigenous tribes. The tribes in this region are different from the rest of the country in terms of dietary habits, belief systems, lifestyle and even appearance. One such example is the consumption of beef and pork, which is not taboo, as it is in some other parts of India.

Even young students on the way back from school take a toll on biodiversity in the Northeast, as can be seen from the array of creatures, including a Black Drongo and a Leaf Bird, hoary-bellied and red-bellied squirrels, laid out for display.
Photograph by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Villagers are often surprised to know that there is a Wildlife Protection Act, but quickly say that “that would not deter us.” The socio-economic and cultural realities that drive hunting and the cost of implementing the law in remote and rugged mountain villages make it difficult to end it. Though people around Protected Areas seem to be vaguely aware that their activities are illegal, awareness of wildlife law is generally very low.

Research work on wild meat hunting is at a preliminary stage. Any research and conservation interventions require innovative ways to tackle this multi-faceted problem. The ecology of the species hunted, the socio-economic aspects of the indigenous people, the cultural links to hunting, the legal issues and sometimes the political view need to be considered while crafting solutions. There have been a few attempts by non-governmental organisations, but the effectiveness of these projects needs to be evaluated.

The paws of the Himalayan black bear and the sun bear are, of course, the handicraft of adults who will sell such animals for a fortune to the highest bidder. Often the traps they lay throw up clouded leopards and even tigers.Photograph by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Will people give up hunting?

The Dalai Lama does hold some influence in the Tawang district and in Anjaw, where the Monpa and Meyor Buddhist tribes are present. A hunter in a village near Walong returned a transformed man after attending a talk by the Dalai Lama in Delhi. Some villagers in Tawang feel that following a visit by the Dalai Lama in 2002, hunting has declined. However, such reform is rare and may occur only in Buddhist villages. Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of the Northeast need a strong wildlife conservation strategy that involves education, livelihood alternatives and detailed research. Getting people to understand that if they continue their hunting practices, their forests will soon be empty is the first step. Unsustainable hunting will result in the loss of plant-animal interaction that facilitates forest regeneration and maintenance. Research in Africa has shown that even moderate hunting can affect the structure of mammal communities. However, with wildlife seeming to be more valuable to local people dead than alive, what incentives can we provide to protect wildlife?

“It is a lot of hard work, carrying your food, guns, and sleeping in the jungle in cold weather. The younger men are not that strong,” said an old man sipping apong in a bamboo glass. “Because they now go to school, they have other interests,” he added. I met a young hunter, known for his trapping skills. Sitting on a log, tuning the radio, he candidly said, “I want my son to go to school and become an officer, not hunt in the forest.” This is good news, yet while we work to turn around the younger generation through education, forests are being emptied and something needs to be done immediately.

Almost every wild animal body part has a market price including the teeth, skull, meat, bones and skin of mammals such as the clouded leopard. Once the economic value of a species is known, villagers put extra effort to find the animals, even if it requires buying more ammunition.
Photograph by Rohit Naniwadekar.

Some innovative methods have been employed around the world. After confiscating snares from poachers in Zambia, they were put to use by turning them into beautiful traditional ornaments. In support with Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), the co-operative designed by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to encourage poachers to surrender firearms and snares and receive job training, efforts are being made to convince local tribes about the need to protect wildlife. Tribal knowledge of wildlife must be harnessed and converted into livelihoods that can benefit people and the biodiversity.

Anyone who has been visiting the Northeast for the last five to 10 years can see the changes sweeping across the region. The ambitious hydroelectric projects and increase in road networks are a recipe for disasters waiting to happen. The people of the Northeast have long been deprived of basic facilities like health care, electricity, roads and jobs and their aspirations must be met. The challenge is to provide these without losing the natural heritage of the region that is vital for its future security.

Almost every wild animal body part has a market price including the teeth, skull, meat, bones and skin of mammals such as the clouded leopard. Once the economic value of a species is known, villagers put extra effort to find the animals, even if it requires buying more ammunition.
Photograph by Ambika Aiyadurai.

Source: by Ambika Aiyadurai, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXVIII No. 5, October 2008.


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Bittu Sahgal

May 29, 2013, 01:32 PM
 Television, Facebook, WhatsApp, cellphones... all non-traditional adaptations used pretty widely by tribal communities who have every right to such technologies ... yet some human rights activists quote 'traditional rights' when we ask that people be convinced to move away from slaughtering animals in the pocket sized forest that survive! In the end ecological realities will force good behaviour on all people, urban, rural, tribal and non-tribal.