Members of the Changlangshu community project
Members of the Changlangshu community project

From hunter to protector: Wanmei leads Changlangshu's conservation revolution

Local youth in the Northeast are transforming their villages into tourism hubs through sustainable initiatives

Konyak Naga tribal Wanmei’s double life is not a secret. He is a teacher by day and an eco-warrior and restoration expert by dusk. This transition by sunset comes easy for the man who used to hunt with the bow and arrow like his forebears. He has now made a turnaround and become the protector of the forests where he used to hunt.

Perched 5,000 ft above sea level with winter temperatures dropping to 8°C, Changlangshu epitomises the term ‘Instagrammable village’. This scenic spot in Nagaland’s Mon district, situated along the Indo-Myanmar border, would have ended up as just another pretty, but remote place if not for the 38-year-old Wanmei.

He has been instrumental in bringing Changlangshu on the restoration map and garnering attention to this otherwise obscure idyll. Wanmei and others like him were encouraged to play an important role in advocating for and implementing a law that prohibits hunting in the region between April and September.

Wanmei was handpicked in 2015 as a Green Hub Fellow to promote conservation and restoration efforts across the region. The Green Hub was founded in 2014 by Dusty Foot Foundation and the Northeast Network. The fellowship offers a one-year residency for youth across the Northeast.

Twenty individuals are selected every year and offered a basic stipend of up to Rs 5,000 per month for a 10-month internship that includes training in video and photo documentation, learning about sustainable livelihood, climate action, and community wellbeing. The Royal Enfield company supported Wanmei’s conservation work with a grant of Rs 5 lakh in 2022.

The motorcycle manufacturer is working with 100 Himalayan communities to establish conservation and responsible tourism practices across the Himalayan region, led by people like Wanmei. They are rediscovering their natural and cultural heritage. “Through our fellowships, conservation grants and annual events such as the Responsible Tourism Conclave, youth are empowered to play a pivotal role in creating and promoting winning models for conservation and sustainable tourism,” says Bidisha Dey, executive director, Eicher Group Foundation, the CSR arm of Royal Enfield.

Childhood friends and school dropouts Tatir, Tayi and Tajo from Labukore village in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh—all between the ages of 20-26 years—will agree with Dey. They’ve been hunting animals since they were 11 years old. Last March, all three signed up for the fellowship. This summer, the hunters-turned-green warriors are gearing up to host the 12-day Takin Expedition from Arunachal Pradesh’s Menchuka. “We used to earn Rs 700 a week by selling meat of Missim Takin, an endangered goat-antelope. Now, we drive tourism to our village and generate employment for the locals,” says Tajo.

The animal is native to the region. The three friends now believe in the sustainable conservation model thanks to the fellowship. They have enlisted the support of the villagers to create a tourism experience for urban tourists. The villagers have turned their homes into homestays where the women are hospitality partners. Local youth have work as porters, nature walk organisers and travel planners. Using their videomaking skills, the three friends haves archived local folklore and stories in English for tourists to appreciate the local culture.

The young villagers now understand that the same intimate knowledge locals have of their forests and wildlife can be repurposed to protect rather than kill. They persuade their communities to stop hunting as a choice between opting for a conservation-based livelihood versus exhausting a shrinking, fragile resource which they draw sustenance from. Sustainability heroes are found in the unlikeliest places as a new legion of Nature’s protectors.

The New Indian Express