As you read this, one of nature’s greatest spectacles is unfolding in the breathtakingly beautiful North-Eastern state of Nagaland. Thousands of Amur falcons, small birds of prey, are congregating at the Doyang reservoir in Wokha district, having flown thousands of kilometres from Siberia. This is their annual stop at the reservoir; they rest and roost there before flying off to their final destination—South Africa. In total, ornithologists believe, these falcons clock almost 22,000km of flying time in a year.

Every year, then, the Doyang reservoir witnesses the single largest congregation of Amur falcons anywhere in the world.

But it wasn’t always so.

It was in October 2012 that Bano Haralu, now 52, a managing trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, led a small group of conservationists, including colleague Rokohebi Kuotsu, Shashank Dalvi, a research associate at Bengaluru’s Centre for Wildlife Studies, and Ramki Sreenivasan of Conservation India, to the Doyang reservoir to check whether large-scale hunting was taking place in the area. “I first heard about the Amur falcons while visiting the Doyang reservoir during a bird survey trip in the last week of March 2010. But it was finally in October 2012 that Rokohebi and I were able to organize a trip with Ramki and Shashank to the killing fields," says Haralu.

What they witnessed that balmy October day shook them to the core. Falcons had been slaughtered en masse, for food and for sale in markets across the state. Nagaland was and still is infamous for hunting, but this was something even the conservationists had not bargained for.

She recalls that day. “Everywhere we looked we saw dead falcons—villagers hawking the birds on the roadside. Some were carrying stacks of birds on their shoulders to sell them elsewhere. The homes we visited had heaps of dead falcons. Then there were live ones kept under mosquito nets for the markets. Live birds fetch a better price than dead ones," she explains on phone.

Till 2012, it is estimated, 10-15% of the Amur falcon population was being hunted each season in Nagaland.

Conservationists consider Amur falcons a “keystone" species whose role is very different from that of other birds of prey. These birds are insectivorous and it is estimated that in South Africa alone, they consume 2.5 billion termites every year. So their role in agriculture and ecology is crucial. Any significant reduction in their numbers, it is feared, may have substantial consequences for South African agriculture, as well as the ecology in their breeding and non-breeding grounds.

India is a signatory to the Convention of Migratory Species and must ensure safe passage for all migratory birds. So, without wasting time, Haralu petitioned Neiphiu Rio, then chief minister of Nagaland, and urged him to visit the area.

Haralu’s perseverance paid off.

“Bano was convinced that the killings were completely unacceptable (even by Nagaland standards), and she persuaded a wide range of stakeholders—from ministers and senior bureaucrats to key people in the local community who were engaged in hunting. She spoke to other important opinion leaders in the Church and community elders to help spread the message. In a short period, Bano was able to make the people of Nagaland adopt the Amur falcon as a source of ‘pride’ for the state," says Sreenivasan, a wildlife photographer and co-founder of Conservation India, a Web portal dedicated to wildlife.

In a remarkable turn of events, no killings were reported from Nagaland in the October-November 2013 migratory season.

Haralu’s conservation journey began in 2009, when she quit her career in television journalism after working with Doordarshan and NDTV for over two decades. “In 20 years of television reporting from the North-East, I had the privilege of sharing the stories of its myriad communities. Even while reporting on the bloody insurgencies, the sweeping demographic changes, the neglect in development of infrastructure, the annual scourge of the Brahmaputra floods over the plains of Assam, the numerous incidents of rhino poaching, mowing down of baby elephants by speeding trains…the beauty of the land always haunted me," she says. “For several years, I had been thinking how I could marry my two loves—journalism and environment."

The opportunity came when the forest department approved the Nagaland Wildlife Conservation Project. Haralu got involved in a biodiversity survey and a book project simultaneously. In 2010, she coordinated a guidebook on the birds of Nagaland for the tourism department.

In the last six years, Haralu has spearheaded several conservation initiatives in the state—from bird surveys to mapping biodiversity hot spots and conservation threats. She also works with the government to coordinate a statewide conservation education programme.

The Save the Amur Falcon programme provided an opening to interact with the community. Interestingly, Haralu’s dialogue with the hunters helped scientists study the falcons’ migratory path. “In November 2013, scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India and the United Nations Environment Programme, accompanied by state forest department officials, were camped in the Doyang reservoir to satellite-tag the Amur falcons. One evening, I got a call from a worried hunter from Pangti village. He and his hunter friends were surreptitiously watching the scientists, who were trying their best to capture these falcons using fine-quality mist nets without any success. The hunter said the scientists were wrong in their method and if they were to catch these birds they must use the local way," says Haralu.

So Haralu arranged for a meeting and the hunters successfully netted over 30 birds for the scientists. Eventually, three birds were ringed with satellite tags and released on 7 November 2013. They were named Pangti, Naga and Wokha after three villages around the Doyang reservoir.

The satellite tags have provided valuable information about the Amur falcons, including the distance travelled, the route and number of days taken. Naga and Pangti have completed a second cycle of migration, covering a distance of around 44,000km in two years. Wokha lost its tag in the first year. This year, says Lokeswara Rao Madiraju, principal chief conservator of forests, Nagaland, Naga and Pangti reached Doyang on 29 October.

“We have heard of (other) initiatives to protect the Amur falcon. The community in Yongyimsen village in Longleng district, the drive in Niuland under Dimapur district and in faraway Tamenglong in Manipur, which has organized the Amur Falcon Dance Festival. A change has definitely set in; how wide or focused that change is, is not clear but, as Bob Dylan said, the answer is blowing in the wind," says Haralu.

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