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Taking the air out of air guns: a conservation initiative in Arunachal Pradesh aims to save the birds

In Arunachal Pradesh, where hunting has been a community practice steeped in history and culture, the 'Air Gun Surrender Abhiyan' is spelling new hope for conservation

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: April 8, 2021 4:48:53 pm
Four air guns surrendered in Shi Yomi district’s Mechuka on March 23 as part of the Air Gun Surrender Abhiyan. Source: Mama Natung

On April 3, Katan Yomse, a farmer from Tajung village in Arunachal Pradesh, surrendered his trusted air gun in a packed auditorium in Pasighat. Applause ringing in his ears from an audience that included the likes of Chief Minister Pema Khandu and Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, Yomse thought to himself: “Jeeyo aur jeene do.” Live and let live.

Yomse had bought the rifle for Rs 7,000 from the market 5 km away in Pasighat in the early 2000s. In the years that followed, it became his favourite accessory for hunting sprees in the thicket that surrounded his village.

But on Saturday — nearly two decades after he bought the gun — Yomse headed to Pasighat to participate in the ‘Air Gun Surrender Abhiyan’, a state government initiative inviting people to voluntarily surrender their air pistols to stop indiscriminate killing of birds in Arunachal Pradesh.

Since March, 420 air guns from more than 20 villages have been surrendered.

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Locals who surrendered air guns at Pasighat on April 3. Source: Facebook | Pema Khandu

Hunting: a way of life

For many communities in Arunachal Pradesh, hunting is a community practice steeped in history and culture, going beyond the act of killing and eating or selling. In the words of Tashi Mize, Division Forest Officer, Pasighat, it is a “way of life”.

“We have been living with nature for as long as we can remember,” said Mize, who belongs to the Adi community. “Our forefathers were very knowledable about nature. But earlier hunting was more of a seasonal activity, limited primarily to our rituals.”

But with the proliferation of air guns and rifles, found freely in markets, hunting has increased manifold in Arunachal Pradesh. “Everyone owns one,” said Yomse, adding that while hunting with bows, arrows and traps was practice for his forefathers, the weapon he used was a recent, and far more harmful, import.

An anthropologist, who has worked extensively with communities of Arunachal Pradesh, explained hunting in tribal societies “as a means to getting protein, asserting control over land, establishing gender roles — intertwined with belief and spirituality.”

But over time, tradition has been mixed with technology (air guns and rifles), and the act has commercialised. “For example, traditionally bird hunting involved using bamboo traps — these took out birds but did not exterminate then,” the anthropologist, who did not wish to be named, said, “With air guns, it is indiscriminate and can wipe out entire species.”

It is to combat this that the Air Gun Surrender Abhiyan was launched last month. For Mama Natung, Minister of Environment & Forests, Arunachal Pradesh, who has helmed the initiative, the logic was simple. “Arunachal covers an area of 83,743 sq km — out of which 80 per cent is covered with forests, where we have some 500 species of birds and animals, perhaps many more undiscovered,” he said, “If we keep killing them, our forests will disappear.”

For the last few months, his team have collaborated with the district administration, forest department officials, NGOs and Community-Based-Organisations (CBO) on the ground to hold awareness drives.

On March 17, the initiative was launched at Lumdung village in East Kameng District, where 46 air guns were surrendered. In return, the person got a certificate of appreciation.

The programme is completely voluntary and aimed at gradually easing villagers into the concept. “Moreover, we want to raise awareness about conservation. Now if we coerce them to do it, would there be any point?” Natung pointed out.

370 air guns surrendered at Pasighat in an event attended by CM Pema Khandu, Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, Minister of Environment & Forests, Mama Natung. Source: Facebook | Pema Khandu

A new hobby

While the 420 surrenders have been a cause for celebration, the journey has been far from easy.

“Ten years of hard work,” said Talut Siram, Secretary, East Siang chapter of Adi Bane Kebang, the influential civil society group that represents the Adi community in Arunachal Pradesh. The organisation has been promoting the initiative among the community.

“In the beginning most people did not accept what we said, we even got death threats,” said 45-year-old Siram, “But over the years, I have been interacting with nearly 300 villages, trying to highlight the damage we have caused to the environment.”

Village headman of Chandar Village in West Kameng district’s Dirang surrenders his air gun as part of Air Gun Surrender Abhiyan. Source: Facebook

Tada Natung, who is the chairman of a social and cultural welfare organisation in Papu Valley of East Kameng district said many times villagers would initially respond: “Chidiya ko maarne se forest ke saath kya lena dena? How does killing a bird affect the forest?”

“Then we would explain processes like pollination, habitat loss and how, while hunting was a necessary means of subsistence before, now it is not,” he said.

By the third or fourth meeting, they would make headway. “People have started noticing the change in climate patterns. Delayed rains, longer summers which affect their crops,” said Mize.

Six air guns were surrendered at East Siang district. Source: Facebook

Like rest of India, laws like the Wildlife Protection Act apply to Arunachal Pradesh as well, but many times, it does not necessarily translate on the ground.

Conservation scientist, Nandini Velho, who has worked in the state, said many laws are customised in the context of Arunachal Pradesh but its effectiveness is “questionable” on the ground. “But the air gun initiative is something that has not come from outside, but introduced by officers native to Arunachal Pradesh, so it has more chance of working,” she said. Moreover, an effort to curb new technologies of mass extermination (like guns) rather than take on the traditional methods, may work better.

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