Sendenyu (Nagaland): Bhut Jolokia, the world’s hottest chilli, has found an unlikely fan in the sambar, the largest deer in the Indian subcontinent. But the animal’s fondness for the red hot chilli hasn’t gone down well with farmers in Sendenyu village, located 45km from the Nagaland state capital Kohima.

Why the sambar, which has made a comeback in the region thanks to local conservation efforts, loves the fiery chilli, whose name translates as Ghost Pepper, is a mystery.

It takes painstaking work, spread over half the year, to cultivate the Naga chilli, also known as Raja Mircha (king chilli), which is so hot that it is used to fence farmland against marauding elephants and is an ingredient in pepper bombs used to disperse mobs.

The chilli that is some 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce needs to be grown in just the right temperature and soil moisture.

Conservation efforts by the village council of Sendenyu have led to a dramatic resurgence of biodiversity in the area—epitomized by the return of the sambar.

Sendenyu’s efforts haven’t drawn publicity like Khonoma’s conservation story (The battlelines of Khonoma, 21 November), where villagers nurtured a community forest, although their tale is somewhat similar and has the support of Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio.

In September, Nagaland hosted the third Sustainable Mountain Summit on three key environmental issues—water, agriculture and forests—in the mountain states of India. But not many at the summit knew about this little village on the periphery of Kohima that is inhabited by the Rengmas, an indigenous tribe.

It’s not as if it’s unknown. In a bygone era, Sendenyu, along with neighbouring Phenshunyu, became famous for its hostility towards the Indian Army after hoisting the first Naga national flag in 1956 in support of the state’s quest for independence.

In the 1990s, the gaon burahs (village elders) voiced concern at the depletion of wildlife because of excessive hunting. The forests, which once used to reverberate with the sounds of animals and birds, had suddenly gone silent. According to the elders, the community forest once hosted a large population of hornbills, elephants, tigers, wild dogs, black bears, barking deer and a substantial population of sambar.

This experiment went on for six years but failed to revive the wildlife population in large numbers. In a desperate attempt to save the last of the sambar deer from being hunted, the village council declared a part of its community land as the Sendenyu Village Wildlife Protected Area.

In 2001, a contiguous area of about 12 sq. km of village land was demarcated and named the Sendenyu Village Community Biodiversity and Wildlife Conservation Area. A law was passed—the Sendenyu Village Council Wildlife Protection Act, 2001—banning hunting, trapping, fishing, collection of forest produce, cultivation and plantation in any form.

In 2005, the village council extended the area under protection, and announced a fine for hunting. A big billboard at the village gates today proclaims there’s a “ 20,000 penalty for hunting and likely imprisonment".

The conservation initiative has had its share of problems over the years. “The sambar doesn’t know which area is safe and which is not, so when an animal moved inadvertently out of the protected area it got shot by hunters," says Gwasinlo Thong, chairman, Sendenyu Village Wildlife Community (SVWC).

Some people broke the law and were fined, and even the church, a powerful institution in Nagaland, had to pay a fine for serving wild meat in a village festival.

“People’s reluctance to do away with traditional culture remains an issue," says Thong. “Though a decade has passed, still there is a constant need to remind people that their livelihood depends on conservation."

Today, to create awareness on ecological and environmental protection, SVWC organizes excursions, film shows and workshops. From time to time, Thong visits the village school and church to talk about conservation, citing biblical references.

Apart from hunting, as the population grows, there is pressure on forest land for agriculture. “Another challenge for SVWC is to make people aware of the harmful effects of jhum (slash and burn) cultivation and encouraging them to adopt wet terrace cultivation and horticultural farming to reduce pressure," Thong says.

The decade-long conservation initiative has paid rich dividends. A new species of legless amphibian, a caecilian called Ichthyophis Sendenyu, was discovered in Sendenyu in 2009 by a team of scientists that included Rachunliu G. Kamei, S.D. Biju, David J. Gower and Mark Wilkinson from Delhi University and Natural History Museum, London.

That became the third most popular National Geographic scientific discoveries, out of global 10 in 2012, ranking higher than the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the so-called god particle, which was ranked 7th.

“The local people’s effort in protecting biodiversity is commendable," says Biju. “We hope to describe some more new amphibian species to science, especially frogs and caecilians in this region."

While the hunting ban largely benefited the sambar, it has thrown open a new challenge for SVWC, that of managing the human-wildlife conflict.

Frequent crop-raiding by deer—and the sambar’s fondness for the Bhut Jolokia—is making farmers restless. They want to hunt again, while the village council is hard-pressed for funds to compensate for the losses that keep piling up.

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