There were hardly any birds to be seen in Nagaland. It seemed odd. In my three days of driving through the picturesque and hilly landscape, it dawned on me that I had not seen any crows, sparrows, roller jays, drongos, mynahs, or turtle doves. Nagaland’s forests looked to be in reasonable shape. Even in the denuded hills of the Nilgiris you’re bound to find a variety of birds. But the Naga hills were silent. Nagaland is one of seven hill states in India’s north-east and one of the few places in the subcontinent that no imperial force was able to colonise.
The Nagas are fierce warriors, and able hunters. On my way to the northern town of Mokokchung, I saw a boy barely nine years old wielding a catapult and squinting up at a tree. “Nagas are fond of hunting. We shoot at anything that moves,” says Aja Zinyu, general secretary of the Angami tribe’s youth organisation. “If we see a bird or an animal, our instinct is to point an imaginary gun and shoot it,” he says laughingly.
I hadn’t taken Aja seriously. But the truth of his statement was visible in the forests devoid of birdsong. Birds are not just a matter of aesthetics and poetry. They fulfil functions that are important for humans. Pollination, pest control, transportation of seeds from one place to another — birds are vital to the well-being of the plant world. Fortunately, I was not the first to notice the silent hills. The Angami Youth Organisation (AYO) is campaigning to curb hunting in Angami tribal areas.
“We have put up 75 billboards in Angami areas calling for a ban on hunting,” said Khrielievi Chusi, president of AYO. Nagaland is different from India in many ways. Where India wants to be a democracy, Nagaland has a centuries-old tradition of democracy and village republics. Diktats banning hunting cannot just be handed down statewide; each village has the right to decide what is legal.
In Mokukchung, I saw something that tackled the hunting problem in a democratic way. Dr Lanu, a university teacher of political geography and a human rights defender, says he has another important battle to win.
Chuchu Impang, Lanu’s village, is on the hills about 5 km from Mokokchung. Disheartened by the locally absent wildlife in his village’s otherwise bountiful forests, Lanu experimented with some subtle ways to make his village a role model for the Naga conservation movement. Lanu started by convincing the village council, a democratically elected body that takes all decisions. Rather than browbeat hunters with sanctimonious sermons, Lanu got villagers to contribute local breeds of chicken and some robust rabbit breeds. In 2009 and 2011, these were set free in the forest by the villagers. Hunters were setting free their prey. “It was important for them to be releasing these animals,” says Dr Lanu.
Lanu took me to a hilltop, and pointed out the densely carpeted valleys where the animals were released. Strategically placed notice boards declared Chuchu Impang’s forests to be off limits for hunting and fishing.
Lanu Zonga, a group of young aspirants to the village council, were given the responsibility of patrolling the forests to ensure that neither fish nor fowl was hunted. If caught carrying a gun into the forest — even the intent to hunt is an offence — the hunter will be brought to the village council and fined Rs 10,000.
“Hunting has gone down drastically,” says a village elder. The forests are not yet what they were, but lured by the chicken and rabbits, and comforted by the ban on hunting, the wildlife seems to be returning. “We have been seeing bears and boar. Recently, we have seen signs of the tiger,” he says.
Conservation is being achieved with virtually no role played by the State or the Centre.