It wasn’t the passerine Bugun Liocichla that first brought field biologist Nandini Velho to the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, Velho claims she “didn’t know a thing about biodiversity” when she found herself, a young graduate student from Mumbai, in a remote forest of the Northeastern state back in 2006.
But shortly after that, in the same year, things changed: a bird first spotted by Dr Ramana Athreya in 1996 was identified as a new species — the only new bird species to have been discovered in the country since 1947. The Bugun Liocichla, an olive green bird with yellow wings, put little-known Eaglenest on the map. And since 2006, as conservation activities have ensued, the region has become a world-famous birding hotspot and the Buguns, the tribe after which the bird is named, have won awards for their efforts in community conservation.
However, the story of Eaglenest itself is much older — and that is what brought Velho, who went on to specialise in conservation biology, back, time and again.
In 2015, Velho, along with Goa-based graphic artist Anjora Noronha, started working on a ‘memory project’ to piece together the history of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary through a story that goes right back to the 1962 Indo-China War.
“Even if didn’t know much about biodiversity on my first trip to Arunachal Pradesh, I was hooked to the place. Today, I have been working in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary (West Kameng district) and Pakke Tiger Reserve (East Kameng District) for ten years…in my time here, I have discovered just how bio diverse the place is and the incredible story of the people who live here,” says Velho.
It was perhaps Vehlo’s sustained interaction with the Sherdukpen and Bugun tribes, who primarily live in the area, that led them to open out their homes and hearts to her when she decided to do the Eaglenest Memory Project, funded by a grant from the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation.
The villagers recounted accounts of the Indo-China war in 1962, when many people passed right through Eaglenest to take refuge in Assam. “Not just that. People shared photos from their old albums, others got information of electoral rolls from the past when a place within Eaglenest was declared as the most remote polling station, yet others came trekking with us through their past migratory routes,” says Velho.
And all the while, artist Noronha made rough sketches of the conversations and experiences. “During the interviews we always asked for descriptions of places as they were. Then I would quickly draw out a very rough sketch and show it to the person we were interviewing, and then build on it,” says Noronha.
The book, published by the World Wildlife Fund, is 120 pages long and was launched last week. The authors maintain that the book isn’t intended to be repository of factual information about Eaglenest but a “visual recreation” of the landscapes and historical sites of the past.
“Apart from Eaglenest being a unique example of government and community collaboration, what’s so special about the book is that it is telling those stories about Eaglenest that no one is aware of — the area has witnessed so many historical events in the past,” says Millo Tassar, DFO, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.
And it is these broad themes, referencing past events, that make up Velho and Noronha’s book: the Indo-China War of 1962; the Besmeh trail of migration (the annual winter migrations of the Sherdukpens); logging and conservation activities (the logging operations that occurred in the area till the Supreme Court banned it in 1996); the Dalai Lama’s visits (which led to the influence of Buddhism) and finally, people’s perspectives — what changed and what remained the same over the years.
While the researchers spent 45 days in the field just collecting data from areas around Eaglenest such as Tenga, Rupa, Thungri, Singchung and the Ramalingam area, a long elaborate process followed. “After the first draft, we took our interpretations back to the people, got corrections done, and only then published it,” says Velho, who ensured that the copyright of the book was given to the residents of the Singchung Bugun Community Reserve, a 17 sq km reserve near Eaglenest, that is looked after jointly by the tribal members of the Bugun community and the Forest Department. “The work is as much as the residents’ as it is ours,” says Velho.