The flight of the Amur Falcon
Pangti (Nagaland): I am standing at the scene of a massacre like no other. Last year, like every year since 2006, a tenth of all Amur falcons were killed here. That’s an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 a day for the 10 days the birds spend in Nagaland, en route their winter migration from Russia to the southern part of Africa.
All around me, on trees, on the power lines across the village, are the falcons. This is the annual migration of the Amur falcons (falco amurensis) over the Doyang reservoir in the Wokha district of Nagaland. I may well be witnessing one of nature’s great spectacles. The number of birds is staggering, and estimated at well over a million, although no one wants to put a number to it.
“This is probably the single largest congregation of Amur falcons recorded anywhere in the world,” says Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founder of Conservation India, a website dedicated to wildlife and nature conservation.
The birds are not endangered, but the species is protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Convention on Migratory Species, to which India is a signatory (which means it is mandatory for the state government to protect the birds), but conservationists worry that a few more years of the literal decimation of the species could make it critically so (the taxonomy of conservation recognizes species as vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered, in increasing order of the threat they face and decreasing order of number still alive).
Last October, to ascertain information on large scale hunting in this remote region, Sreenivasan, Shashank Dalvi, research associate at the Centre for Wildlife Studies, and Bano Haralu and Rokohebi Kuotsu of Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT) visited Doyang to witness first-hand the massacre of Amur falcons on the banks of the Doyang reservoir.
Amurs are killed for food and sale as food. Hunters set up nets on the roosting sites of the falcons on the banks of the reservoir. The birds are trapped either as they come in to roost in the evenings, or leave the roost at dawn. The catch is removed every morning and transferred to mosquito nets or cane baskets so that the birds are alive (live birds fetch more).
The field trip by Sreenivasan and his associates—the first to officially record the massacre—alarmed conservationists.
In an article, How to make 2.5 billion termites disappear? A case for protecting the Amur Falcon, published in the 29 November 2012 online edition of Ornithological Observations, scientists Henk Bouwman, Craig Symes and Hannalene du Plessis establish that the Amur falcons’ “predatory nature may have consequences in its breeding and non-breeding areas. Large reductions in Amur Falcon numbers are therefore likely to have far reaching impacts on agriculture and the environment”.
For instance, the falcons reduced the number of African bollworm, a pest of sorghum in South Africa and keep a check on the termite population. Further, “any significant reduction in falcon numbers may have severe consequences on a sub-continental scale, potentially affecting millions of commercial and emerging farmers”, the authors warn.
A unique journey
The Amur falcon is a small grey insectivorous raptor, pigeon-sized, locally known as Elinum (which refers to the bird’s wing beats) in Nagaland. According to James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie (who wrote the book Raptors of the World), the population of the species is estimated at over a million.
According to a paper by Andrew Dixon, Batbayar Nyambayar, and Purev-Ochir Gankhuyag that cites references from the published work of Ferguson-Lees and Christie, and other ornithologists, the species can be found from Transbaikalia, Russia, and central Mongolia, east to Ussuriland (southeastern Russian Far East) and south to the Qinling Mountain range in central China.
“The species undertakes one of the most notable migrations of any bird of prey, departing their breeding grounds in late August and September, moving south through China, skirting the eastern edge of the Himalaya to reach north-east India and Bangladesh, where they settle temporarily to fatten before embarking through the Indian subcontinent and across the Indian Ocean to southern Africa. The unique non-stop journey of 3,000km across the Indian Ocean typically takes place in late November and December, aided by the prevailing easterly winds”, adds the paper.
The journey takes about four to five days. Bernd Meyburg, one of the leading experts on satellite tracking of raptors, has established that they fly 2,500-3,100km over the sea non-stop in two or three days.
In Nagaland, though, the bird is largely known as a source of food—and money.
Tajolo Lotha, 52, a resident of Pangti village, claims that people earned Rs.25,000-35,000 last year from hunting falcons. His neighbour Zimomo Lotha, 35, puts the sum even higher, between Rs.30,000-40,000. There are around 50-60 hunters in the village, Lotha adds, and they sold at least 1,000 birds a day between them. Both Lothas are themselves hunters.
The hunting of Amur Falcons provided a windfall gain to the otherwise marginalized Lothas of Pangti, Sungro and Ashaa.
This year, thanks to the effort of the Nagaland government, NWBCT, and a few other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and another independent initiative of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), the massacre has been stopped, although several issues remain unresolved.
Money is one.
Seeking a safe passage
Earlier this year, the NWBCT, supported by the Nagaland government, Wildlife Conservation Society, Birdlife International, Bombay Natural History Society, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation, and Conservation India launched a wildlife education training programme, ‘Friends of the Amur Falcon—Under the Canopy’.
“The state government is committed to end the unfortunate killings of the migratory Amur falcons and fully support the efforts of NWBCT and other NGOs to educate the people about these migratory birds and to give them a safe passage through Nagaland,” according to a statement from chief minister Neiphiu Rio.
“The Amur falcons are beautiful migratory birds, which visit Nagaland every year in thousands, in their long migratory journey from Siberia en route to South Africa covering 22,000km in a year. It is our duty to protect these wonderful birds while they are passing through Nagaland and treat them as our honoured and esteemed guests, in true Naga tradition of hospitality,” said Rio.
Rio also threatened to shut off grants to villages that are involved in hunting the falcons.
“Various grants and assistance to villages that indulge in rampant killing and massacre of Amur falcons will be reviewed by the government and if required the sanctions to such villages will be curtailed,” he said.
The government has also backed information campaigns with messages such as “Protect Amur Falcons to save our global image”, “We carry the message of Globalization—let us not harm our visiting guests”, with ground patrols and checks on local markets.
The church, which has a big say in Naga social life, is conducting special service on Sundays to spread the conservation message.
This particular message, “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the kite, the falcon, of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat”, from the Book of Leviticus 11:13-19 has been put out by the church to change people’s sensibilities.
And, in an effort to address the monetary aspect, in 2013, New Delhi-based WTI and its local partner, NGO Natural Nagas, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the heads of the councils of three villages—Pangti, Sungro and Ashaa.
WTI did not share the MoU, citing it as an “internal document”, but sent excerpts which read, “The village council heads from these three villages have passed a resolution against hunting and trade of Amur falcons in Wokha, with an Rs.5,000 fine imposed on those caught doing so. An Amur Falcon Protection Squad has been set up, comprising groups of youth, many of whom are former hunters. This was an effort to involve local youth in conservation as well as to provide alternative livelihood as it had emerged that many of them were unemployed which had compelled them into hunting. Community support was provided in the form of a poultry farm to 30 families in Wokha who were part of the hunter groups and land owners. This was done not only to provide them an alternative source of income but also a legal source of protein (meat)”.
Villagers allege that they were not taken into confidence and only the chairman and his coterie has benefited from the MoU. Contrary to claims made by the chairman, people said no meeting was called by the village council to discuss the MoU. When asked about the content of the MoU, the chairman of Pangti village, Ronchamo Shitri, said he doesn’t have a copy and he hasn’t even seen a final version of the document.
Now questions are being raised by villagers on the criteria used to select beneficiaries.
WTI has a separate MoU with the state’s forest department, “which includes assisting them in conservation initiatives in the state—Amur falcon conservation is one of them”.
Unlike elsewhere in the country, the forests here belong to the community and this intrusion by the forest department and an NGO without involving the community has touched a raw nerve, hurting Naga pride.
“Our work began with numerous interactions and meetings with the residents of Pangti, Ashaa and Sungro to make them aware of the need of such an initiative to save Amur falcons, which eventually culminated in the MoU that was signed with the village council heads,” said Dilip Deori, assistant manager, WTI, who helps with the coordination of the Rapid Action Project.
“The work is being done on the basis of the need for conservation of the falcons which is the priority in our agreement. Subsequent work—the kind of aid and beneficiaries—have been jointly decided and implemented with the village councils, who represent the people of these villages and know them and their need best, in consultation with the forest department authorities,” he said
Between the two initiatives, Amur falcons are flying free. But the situation in the three Lotha villages, Pangti, Sungro and Ashaa, the epicentre of last year’s massacre, remains tense.
There is an undercurrent of discontent among a majority of people who made a living out of hunting falcons.
There’s talk of compensation from the government as the birds are roosting on their land.
Santsuo Shitri, chairman of Ashaa village, claims that his village is the main roosting place for the falcons. Though the village donated land to North Eastern Electric Power Corp. Ltd for the Doyang hydro-electric project, it has no power supply, he says. It will be difficult to control hunting without benefits for individuals and villages, he adds. There are simply no jobs for the village youth, Shirti says.
Every household in the state has a gun because of the low licence fee; for sophisticated weapons it is only Rs.10 and renewal Rs.5, for breech-loading guns it is Rs.6 and renewal Rs.3, for muzzle-loading rifle and air guns it is Rs.4 and renewal Rs.2.
Zanthungo Shitio, president of the fishermen’s union at Doyang, has a long list of demands which include boats, fishing nets, life jackets and first aid kits.
The forest department is in the process of formulating a plan to improve the livelihoods of affected communities that focuses on eco-tourism, self-help groups, and means of ensuring a sustainable livelihood.
The immediate challenge, according to NBWCT and Conservation India, is to remain engaged with the local population and see off the last of the migrants this year. The two have set up conservation education centres for this purpose (there are five centres, 70 students, and 20 instructors).
By next year, if all goes well, the livelihood plan of the state government would have kicked in.
And the Amurs can avoid the fate of the central population, now declared extinct, of the Siberian crane that hasn’t been seen in India for almost a decade , largely on account of hunting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, along the migratory route to India.