Seijosa/ East Kameng (Arunachal Pradesh): This writer is looking at a podum, the traditional headdress worn by all men of the Nyishi, Arunchal Pradesh’s largest tribe. It’s a cane helmet festooned with the feathers of the great Indian hornbill and topped with the beak and casque (the horny growth where the bird’s forehead meets the beak) of the bird. Only, the specimen I hold in my hands was likely bought in a market and fashioned from wood and fibreglass. The lack of anything taken from a previously living entity makes it difficult to visualize the helmet on the head of a Nyishi man; the tribe is known for its expertise in hunting and fighting. And the podum made from wood and fibreglass is also a symbol of the tribe’s reformed ways, one that sees it in a new role.

“The Nyishis have the formidable reputation of a hunter-warrior tribe. It is hard to believe that the same tribe has turned protectors of the forest and animals. This is a new beginning," says tribesman Atum Welly, health and family welfare minister, Arunachal Pradesh.

Birding trail: The Great Indian Hornbill resting on a tree branch in a forest . Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan/Conservation India

We hear the bird’s characteristic “kok" call before we see it high up in the canopy. The Great Indian Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is a large bird, growing up to 4 ft in length and with a wingspan of around 5 ft. It has a bright yellow beak and a brighter yellow-and-black casque. In flight, the bird’s heavy wings produce a characteristic flapping noise that can be heard even from a distance.

And Tayem has hunted his share of them, for beak and casque (pure ivory, in the great Indian hornbill’s case) and for meat, just as he has hunted other species in the forest that has been the home of the Nyishi for centuries—tigers, leopards, bears, deer, antelopes, hornbills, and wild boars. He has hunted by day, and by night, using small flashlights, and aiming for the eyes reflecting the light. Unless the eyes are red, which means an elephant. “Elephants are unpredictable and a charge at night is sure to be a fatal one. Sometimes an owl or a nightjar also beguiled us with the red eye," says Tayem, now in his 30s.

The jungles around us are home to four species of hornbills—the great Indian hornbill, the wreathed hornbill, the oriental pied hornbill and the rare and endangered rufous-necked hornbill. The Nyishis almost hunted the great Indian Hornbill into extinction, and those that they didn’t kill, they hurt nevertheless by felling trees for homes that needed constant rebuilding in weather that causes everything to decay.

A Nyishi man wearing the traditional headdress. Photo: Ananda Banerjee

“Every member in a Nyishi family hunted. The gaon buras (village headmen) hunted with guns. I befriended them and gradually urged them to surrender their weapons; 67 guns and 14 steel traps were deposited in my office one day," says Tapi. The forest department also provides the Nyishi with tin sheets and pillars, reducing their dependence on timber for construction.

Much like the Bugun, the Nyishi, represented by the Ghora-Aabhe Committee, a council of 14 village headmen, have set up traditional Nyishi jungle camps for visitors in an effort to generate revenue from their conservation efforts that could go towards funding community initiatives. “We encourage the Nyishi community to preserve their tradition and natural heritage. The local people are engaged for long-term sustainability, conservation and protection of wildlife," says Asit Biswas, co-founder of Help-Tourism, an eco-tourism consultancy specialising in the northeast.

That wasn’t enough, though.

According to conservation scientist Aparajita Dutta, hornbills had abandoned nests located in the reserve forests outside the Pakke Tiger Reserve, largely because of human disturbance. And the few undisturbed nesting areas saw tremendous competition among the four species of hornbills. Simply encouraging the Nyishi to practise their brand of eco-tourism wasn’t going to get the job done, not when there was around 1000 sq. km of forest to be covered. Last year, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a wildlife conservation and research NGO, the Ghora-Aabhe Committee, and the forest department formed an alliance to start the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program. For 5,000 a year, or $125, people can adopt nests. The money goes towards funding the Nyishi to watch the nests during nesting season.

Interested villagers were also asked to locate new nests during the breeding season (March-July). The person who spots a nest is awarded 1,000. This year, 28 new nesting sites have been identified.

Takam Nabum leads the conservation efforts as the chairman of the Ghora-Aabhe Committee.

He was instrumental in gathering everyone under one roof to join hands with the park authorities for wildlife protection. Apart from being actively involved in awareness campaigns around the villages, the Ghora-Aabhe has adopted stringent rules and regulations to protect the environment, and imposes penalties on offenders. For instance, hunting of protected species such as the tiger attracts a fine of 50,000, in addition to the prescribed penalty imposed by the Wildlife Protection Act.

Next: The Monpas of Thembange

ananda.b@livemint.com

Also Read | The Bugun Liocichla

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