Falcon Hunters Become Fervent Preservationists
By GARDINER HARRIS
JAN. 4, 2015
PANGTI, India — Driving the last 20 miles of road to this tiny village takes at least two hours and a fondness for heights, so it seems unlikely that this area of jungle near the Myanmar border will ever become a popular destination for birders.
But those who do brave the road — ignoring State Department travel advisories about “sporadic incidents of violence by ethnic insurgent groups” that recently resulted in at least 75 deaths in neighboring Assam State — will get to witness one of the most extraordinary migrations of a raptor species in the world.
Just two years ago, residents slaughtered hundreds of thousands of the birds — Amur falcons — and sold them to local markets here in Nagaland and in Assam, states in the crooked finger of Indian land that loops over Bangladesh beside China and Myanmar. But this October and November, millions of the falcons passed largely unmolested through India on their way from Russia to their wintering grounds in southern Africa.
The reversal was the result of a concerted campaign by a few conservationists whose video of the killings produced worldwide revulsion and embarrassed state and local officials into action. But villagers here have since become surprisingly enthusiastic stewards of the birds they once slaughtered for food.
“We saw the birds as God’s blessing, like manna from heaven, and we hunted them more and more and depended on them more and more,” said R. Obemomo Jami, Pangti’s village manager, who like many Nagas is fervently Christian. “Then the world came to know that the Pangti village people have created a great sin. And so the village passed a ban.”
In the wake of the hunting ban, many in the village have struggled. Two private schools that depended largely on money generated by falcon hunting are suffering as families strain to meet tuition payments, officials and hunters said in separate interviews.
So people here are hoping desperately — and probably vainly — to attract cavalcades of tourists. Some villagers fixed up their homes and even installed new toilets for the hoped-for clientele, and conservationists helped construct several birding platforms.
So far, though, tourists have yet to discover this stunningly beautiful landscape, where the sounds of Christian hymns at several robust congregations drift over the village’s tin roofs every evening.
“Still, we will not go back to hunting,” said Zanthungo Shitiri, president of the local fishermen’s union, whose members did much of the hunting. “I have not gone even once to hunt.”
Amur falcons are small birds of prey that feed mostly on insects. They breed in the spring in Siberia and eastern China and then, aided by strong westerly winds, migrate in hordes in October and early November through India to South Africa.
A recent effort to affix satellite trackers on seven falcons found that Amurs fly nonstop up to 2,000 miles for two to three days at a stretch when passing over the Arabian Sea. This feat may be possible because of a countermigration of dragonflies, which the birds eat. They also feed on termites, locusts, ants and beetles, but will occasionally dine on small birds and frogs.
Falcons have been coming to Nagaland for as long as anyone can remember, but a dam across the Doyang River created a reservoir in 1999 that seemed to attract millions more to Pangti. The Nagas, a tribal people proud of their hunting heritage, shot the birds indiscriminately, but soon realized that fishing nets spread over trees could capture thousands at a time as the birds flocked in the evenings to roost.
Hunters said that in five weeks of work they could earn almost $500, or nearly half the average annual income in India. Local officials estimated that villagers killed 100,000 to 400,000 birds annually, and men carrying bamboo poles sagging with scores of dead birds became a common sight.
Pangti is so remote that conservationists heard nothing but vague rumors about vast killings. A slow-burning insurgency and a cumbersome government permit process for visitors discouraged travel, although violence has declined significantly and travel permits are no longer needed.
“Nagaland was closed for decades, so it’s mostly unexplored territory for Indian naturalists and bird watchers,” said Ramki Sreenivasan, a co-founder of Conservation India.
Bano Haralu, an amateur ornithologist, joined Mr. Sreenivasan and two others in finally visiting Pangti in October 2012.
“The closer we got to the village, the more dead birds we saw,” Ms. Haralu said. “It was awful.”
Less than a year earlier, India had participated in an international conference on protecting migratory species, so the pictures of mass slaughter that the conservationists published online were deeply embarrassing.
State wildlife officials, who had been in Pangti for nearly two years because of troubles with wild elephants, suddenly promised a crackdown on the killing. Under pressure, the Pangti Village Council banned the hunt.
Perhaps the most successful effort has been an educational program in schools that teaches children about the life cycle of Amur falcons and why they should be protected.
“We do nature walks with the kids, and we also do classroom teaching about the falcons,” said Yibeni K. Tanthan, a teacher in the neighboring village of Sungro.
The brightest posters in the schools are now those advocating falcon preservation, gifts from conservationists. The children sing a song about the falcons that urges: “Don’t chase them, don’t let them fly away from us.”
Mr. Shitiri of the fishermen’s union said the children’s embrace of the birds has been crucial.
“So many of the children decided very fast for preservation,” Mr. Shitiri said. “So that is the main reason we are in for total preservation.”
Now that Pangti has stopped killing the birds, reports have emerged that roosting sites elsewhere in northeast India are being targeted. Officials have promised to trace the reports and stop other killings.
Mr. Sreenivasan said the birds, while not endangered because of their vast numbers, may play a crucial ecological role.
“Are they controlling the insect population in three continents? We don’t know, but I think we’ll eventually find out that the Amur falcon’s doing something extremely significant,” Mr. Sreenivasan said. “Why else would they fly halfway around the world?”
This July 2014 video is called FLYING FREE1: CONSERVATION OF AMUR FALCON: NAGALAND: INDIA.
And this video is the sequel.