Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri
Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri

From Eaglenest, a story of conservation

Members of the Bugun community have joined forest officials in protecting land in Arunachal Pradesh

Panda! Panda!" exclaimed Arjun Tsering Phinya, a 26- year-old member of the Bugun community, pointing excitedly to the hill slope near the trail. Tall fir trees, dead after a forest fire, were interspersed with short bamboo patches. On top of one such tree, a red panda looked at us—five patrolling guards of the community reserve, and me. It scurried away soon.
“Aap to bohot lucky ho. Itni aasani se nahi dikhta ye. Maine khud dusri baar dekha isko (you are very lucky to have seen it. It’s not an easy animal to spot. I myself have seen it only once before)," one of the guards, Leki Dorjee, said in Arunachali Hindi.

I was in the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve (SBVCR), a 17 sq. km area in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district. It is adjacent to the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, and second only to the Andes in terms of bird diversity. Eaglenest and the community reserve are famous retreats for birdwatchers, who are drawn to it by the presence of 500-odd bird species, including the Bugun Liocichla, a bird that was discovered in 2006 in the community reserve by a group of researchers led by Ramana Athreya. It is not found anywhere else in the world.

Eaglenest and the surrounding community-owned forests are also famous for their diversity in reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and moths, plants and other life forms, with new species being discovered frequently.

This story, however, is about the people who live around the reserve, the ones who have made this place possible. The Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve is managed jointly by locals and the forest department. If a community or an individual volunteers to conserve wildlife and its habitat, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, allows the state government to declare any private or community land that is not part of a national park, sanctuary or conservation reserve as a community reserve, to protect fauna, flora and traditional conservation values and practices.

For the first time, the reserve saw locals from the Bugun community forming part of the patrolling team.
For the first time, the reserve saw locals from the Bugun community forming part of the patrolling team.

In this case, the land belongs to the Bugun tribe. These forests saw large-scale timber operations before the Supreme Court ban in 1996, collection of medicinal plants, wildlife hunting, and, more recently, conversion to create and lease agricultural lands. In addition, there was, and continues to be, significant army presence in the area. One can still see old army structures and other evidence of the army’s presence along the famed Foothill-Chaku-Tenga road that cuts through the sanctuary.

paradigm shift

The discovery of the Bugun Liocichla in 2006 triggered the process of change. People started visiting the sanctuary in large numbers and locals began to realize how important the forests were. With the tourists came new avenues of income, as locals found work as guides and drivers. Simultaneously, the forest department and researchers started a comprehensive conservation outreach programme for schoolchildren from neighbouring areas.

There has been a paradigm shift in the way residents see their own lands and its wildlife. More importantly, this was formalized through the notification of the community reserve in 2016, to try and secure the future of the Bugun tribe and the Bugun Liocichla.

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

This is the year the Singchung Bugun Community Reserve was notified, after the locals and the forest department reached an agreement. The reserve’s boundaries have been mapped and rationalized by the forest department, researchers and local people. The governing body of the reserve consists of Bugun representatives of Singchung village, which owns the forest of the community reserve, and the forest department. And for the first time, the reserve saw locals from the Bugun community patrolling.

A lot of effort has gone into understanding the cultural context of conservation. So, different clans from the Bugun community are represented in the patrolling squad and management committee of SBVCR.

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

I had the chance to accompany the patrolling squad as we mapped their potential routes through various parts of the reserve. Even though we passed through some of the most beautiful forests I have ever walked—from dense cloud forests to rhododendron and bamboo patches to ridge lines of sedge—the terrain is treacherous and you need dedication to be able to walk these paths on a regular basis. Yet they do it with a smile on their faces, subsisting on sel roti (Nepali doughnut) and timbur (a type of Sichuan pepper).

Change for the better

The patrolling route information is being integrated into a management plan that will be sent to the state government. There have also been efforts to try and build bridges between science and society. A questionnaire-based socio-economic survey aimed at understanding residents’ issues was conducted to try and understand areas of use, power and interest groups, and the challenges that the community reserve could face so that this information could be integrated into the management plan.

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

I also attended a consultation meeting, in my capacity as a volunteer for a bird research project at Eaglenest under Umesh Srinivasan (a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University), for students from the Singchung Higher Secondary school. It was heartening to see the interest. Most were aware of the conservation initiatives and were eager to help with research, conservation and outreach initiatives.

A lot has changed in Eaglenest and the surrounding community forests. With the right kind of support from government and civil society, the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve can become a model for conservation, with communities taking the lead in protecting what is theirs.

Towards the end of my stay in Eaglenest, I came face to face with a marbled cat, an elusive species of wild cat. What surprised me was how calm it was in spite of our presence—it gave us enough time to observe and photograph it from close quarters. The calmness and lack of fear showed how safe it felt in this wilderness protected by a dedicated set of people. It gave me hope that all is going well here.

Eaglenest and the surrounding community-owned forests are famous for their diversity in birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and moths, plants and other life forms, with
new species being discovered frequently

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