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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Assam tourism fest flies into controversy for endangering birds it’s trying to help

The five-day Jatinga festival in Assam has drawn flak for endangering the very birds the festival is aiming to raise awareness about.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Published: October 24, 2019 6:04:15 pm
An FIR has been lodged at the Halfong police station regarding the threat of birds during the ongoing Jatinga Festival in Assam’s Dima Hasao district. (Photo: Facebook)

For five days now, the Jatinga Festival, in a bid to promote tourism and awareness on migratory birds, has been on in full swing in Assam’s Dima Hasao district. Music concerts, sports competitions, ethnic food stalls and craft workshops to promote the area’s rich tribal culture are all part of the festival organised by the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC) — the autonomous body that governs the district —  along with the Dima Hasao Forest and Tourism departments. 

However, on October 22, Congress activist Aching Zeme lodged an FIR at the Haflong police station alleging that the said migratory birds the festival is supposed to be protecting are instead being threatened. Zeme goes on to write that the festival is a “gross violation of the Deputy Commissioner’s order” passed on September 30 which prohibits use of “high halogen power lights” among other things under Section 144 of the IPC, that is in effect in the area.

The DC’s order came in the light of the annual migration of birds into Jatinga and Doiheng village areas between the months of August and October, long mistaken to be lead to a mysterious case of mass bird “suicide”.

“The problem is that the festival’s location (at the roosting place of the migratory birds) features activities that carry on till late night, with bright lights and loud music. The birds get attracted to the light, get disoriented and fall — and I have seen many posts on social media where people are holding these birds and clicking pictures at the festival,” says Daniel Langthasa, committee leader, Dima Hasao District Congress Committee, who also wrote to the DC regarding the same.

“Almost a decade of efforts by the administration to create awareness about saving these birds among the locals has drastically improved the situation,” says Langthasa, “at one point, 300-400 birds would be killed in one go.” The festival, according to the complainants, is undoing all the good.

What is the Jatinga bird suicide mystery? 

As far back as 1905, the Jaintia settlers at the Jatinga village — located 9 km from the district headquarters of Haflong — noticed hundreds of birds migrating to their village. 

“This rather unusual phenomenon put them in a fix,” writes IAS officer and ornithologist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury in his book The Birds of Assam. Earlier that year, a tiger had killed a domestic water buffalo in the village, and during the search for the carcass, they witnessed hundreds of birds flying in their direction, “some even settling not their bodies”. The villagers understood this to be a “God-sent gift to compensate the loss of the buffalo and so killed them for food. Later on they discovered it (the bird migration) was a regular annual feature.”

The killings would take place between mid-August to October when the birds would migrate. “The migration would be precipitated by certain weather conditions: a moonless night, a dense fog, a slight drizzle and a South Westerly wind,” says Choudhury. The villagers would sit below with their bamboo poles and petromax lamps, ready to hunt the birds when they arrived.

A sketch of the bird hunting at Jatinga village from Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury’s book The Birds of Assam.

Over the years, as Tiger Bitterns, Black Bitterns, Cotton Teals, Little Egrets, Emeralds Doves, Black Drongos and in one unfortunate case the rare and elusive White Winged Wood Duck was caught, the theory of the “Jatinga bird suicide” developed, making the village famous the world over for this strange and mysterious occurrence.

“But it was no suicide. They were being hunted and killed. Earlier the villagers mistook the mass arrival as an otherworldly occurrence but scientifically it is because of the winds that would disturb their roost. This would cause them to fly off to seek refuge. Once the winds stop, the birds fly back to the roost,” says Choudhury, adding that birds in the area are decreasing not just because of the killing, but loss of habitat due to slash-and-burn cultivation and timber smuggling. 

Phenomena of mass bird migration like this have been recorded in Mizoram and Western Ghats in India as well as the Philippines. 

Over the years, many conservation activities have led the villagers to stop hunting these birds. In 2010, a similar festival was held which Choudhury himself was part of, but that took place only during the day. “If such a festival does happen, it should take place in Haflong, not in Jatinga where the birds migrate. And definitely not between August and October, when the birds migrate,” says Choudhury

The Forest Department’s view 

The forest department, however, insists no birds have been harmed during the festival. 

“The FIR says the birds are ‘disturbed’ and been ‘captured’, but no birds have been harmed. We have taken all precautionary measures. Our staff is on duty round the clock,” says Muanthang Tungnung, Chief Conservator of Forest, Dima Hasao, adding that the main migration will happen only after October 26. “That is why we were careful to hold the festival before. Now the birds haven’t even started flying.”

The DC, who took cognisance of Langthasa’s letter, has written to the Superintendent of the Police about the alleged use of lights and loudspeakers at festival, which is ending Thursday. Tungnung says in case of any untoward incident involving the birds, the forest department will look into it immediately. “There have been three cases where birds have been found at the festival site. But they have been handed back to the Forest Department and released back into the wild carefully, following all the norms,” he says.

“But that’s the point. The birds are getting attracted, whether they are harmed or not is a different matter. You cannot call it a ‘bird festival’ when you are not following the guidelines and ethics of organising a festival involving birds,” says Langthasa.

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