The middle-aged man arrives in his newly-purchased second-hand four-stroke bike. Moments later, seated by the hearth, he offers a bowl of cooked meat with a broad smile and a statement: “You are lucky, not many get to eat the meat of the (Asian Palm) civet cat again.” Unabashedly proud of his hunting skills, the man narrates how he killed a leopard once. The bike, standing parked in his compound, is the fruit of two flying squirrels he captured during his last hunting trip. Colourful feathers of birds, horns and skins of varied wild animals are among some of his prized possessions. Even his seat has deer skin on it, gifted by an uncle who has since stopped hunting.
The Naga hunter shows no signs of remorse, for hunting, he believes, is what a man is born for. “Animals and birds are meant to be hunted. We Nagas have been hunters all through our life,” he states, a little annoyed on being told it’s a crime to kill protected animals. “Gach na katibi koishe, aaru itiya janwar bi na maribi kobo naki. Bosti laga jungle aase, government laga nohoi (First you asked us not to fell trees, and now you want to stop us from hunting. The jungle belongs to the village, not to the government).”
The 48-year-old hunter is not wrong about the ownership rights of the forest. Unlike other parts of the country, only 11.7 per cent of forests in Nagaland is under the control of the state and the rest is under control of individuals or communities. In rest of India, the state forest departments retain legal and territorial control of the vast majority of forests areas.
Nagaland’s Intanki National Park, Puliebadze Wildlife Sanctuary, Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary and Singphan Wildlife Sanctuary together total just 241. 20 square kilometres, a meagre 1.45 per cent of the total geographical area of the state. With most of the forest wealth not under control of the government, the onus of conservation and protection of wildlife rests on the communities or the people.
“Nagas by nature are hunters and gatherers. It’s in our blood and you cannot do away with that long-practiced lifestyle in one shot,” says Steve Odyuo, founder of Natural Nagas, an environmental organisation. Considering the culture and the land holding rights of the Nagas, conservation has to begin with the communities, largely the Naga villages.
Steve, who has been one of the architects behind the amazing Amur Falcon conservation turnaround in Nagaland, observes that “there has been significant change in the mindset of the Naga people with regard to conservation”.
Conservation initiatives like that of the Natural Nagas and concerted efforts by the government are creating an impact, asserts Satya Prakash Tripathi, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Nagaland. “A lot has changed. We are taking people into confidence and now they are coming forward to work with us for conservation of wildlife,” Tripathi sounds reassuring.
Senior forest department officials also flag issues with awareness of laws. “They think it’s their right to hunt protected by special provisions of Article 371(A). But the Nagaland government ratified the Wildlife Protection Act in 1981, and that makes hunting and killing of any protected animal a crime.”
The department has adopted a multi-pronged approach to take on the culture of hunting by creating awareness and using both incentives as well as coercion. “While we are untiringly conducting awareness camps and bringing local institutions like village councils on board to work with us, the state government has notified that if wildlife crime is detected in any village, including killing of migratory birds, all developmental funds for that village would be stopped.”
At the same time, the government is doling out incentives to wean people away from hunting. There are, for instance, 18 community reserve forests where the villages are tasked with protecting the reserve with assistance from the government. These forests are owned and managed by the community but protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act.
“The concept is catching on as it not only brings benefits to the village but also gives it recognition at the national forum,” says Tripathi, adding that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is giving funds for maintenance of these reserves and providing alternative livelihood like poultry and piggery.
Kechangulie Kense, a youth leader and former general secretary of Nagaland Tourism Association, says while there is a change, hunting is still part of the traditional way of living for Nagas. “But I believe one day it (complete ban on hunting) will become possible. Not immediately but in the long run.”
Kense, an Angami Naga, informs how the Angami youth organisation had some years ago issued a directive banning hunting in all its areas, largely Kohima district. “Each Naga village is a sovereign entity, and one village cannot interfere in the affairs of another. So, enforcement of the ban is not the same everywhere.”
While some areas enforce a year-long ban, others allow hunting in certain months. “Our intention is to gradually increase the duration of the ban and eventually achieve complete ban,” Kense says. “I personally feel hunting should be totally banned, otherwise a day will come when our children would have to see certain creatures only on Google,” he adds. There is also the fact that now it is no longer about sustenance and has become more of a sport, he says.
Hailung, a Zeliang Naga, who is known for his animal tracking and hunting skills, is in demand by the second week of November when the animals are moving about more carefree after the rains. “It continues till February. Many friends or friends of friends from the towns call me up to book me for taking them on hunting trips. It’s recreation for them,” he says.
Hailung is also the person to go to if someone is looking to purchase animals or lizards whose meat or bones have ethnomedicine value. A few years ago, Hailung made a killing by capturing the (Asian nocturnal lizard) Gecko, believed to cure HIV and a host of major ailments.
Meren, a 41-year-old Nagaland state government employee, remembers the time when he as a child used to go around armed with a catapult. “I was a good shot and killed countless birds, including sparrows, even as a kid,” he whispers, making sure his 7-year-old daughter cannot hear him. He still hunts, and for larger game, but only once a year and that too on the sly. “I know it’s wrong, and I publicly applaud conservation initiatives, but hunting seems to run in my blood. My son who loves birds, alive, was inconsolable the first time he saw a bird I had shot down. He told me that his teachers in school talk about protecting birds. I was shocked. At his age, I used to go around the neighbourhood boasting of my father’s kills.”
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