On the 6th of May 2013, Rajneesh Suvarna, Jitendra Bhatia, Suja Rangaswamy and myself were on the way back from Pungro in Eastern Nagaland to Kohima. We had been in Nagaland for 6 days and had noticed that guns were common and hunting accepted as a way of life. The few local Nagas we met were surprised that we had come all the way for watching birds, and indeed were skeptical that we would have seen any. Our birding experience too had been less than ideal in the state. We had seen quite a few specialities only found south of the Brahmaputra, but the birds were extremely skittish, kept their distance, and would disappear before our binoculars could reach our eyes. This wasn’t surprising given the widespread hunting taking place, especially further away from Kohima.
Given this context, we were surprised to see a flock of birds circling low over Kikruma village, just after we crossed Pfutsero, 45 km before Kohima, at around 2.30pm. As we stopped the car and rushed out, a wave of excitement passed through us as we realized that these were Amur Falcons, presumably on their return migration back to their breeding grounds in Central Asia. We clicked away on our cameras, and a quick count showed up 16 birds. They appeared to be swooping and hunting dragonflies, and we could observe them feeding in mid-air.
A small crowd of ~ 10-12 year old kids soon gathered around us, just out of school for the day. Seeing our obvious interest in birds, one of the kids proudly revealed a female Grey Bushchat he was holding, and whose legs he had already broken. Another friend of his held out a perfect blue egg in his palm, belonging to the Bushchat. We tried to tell them to release the bird, but the kids understood no Hindi or English, so any attempt at communication was futile. We turned our attention back to the falcons, when Suja noticed a man on the adjacent hill, taking aim at the Amurs with his rifle. Our exultation at the Amurs sighting quickly turned to horror and rage, and we started screaming across the hill, asking him not to shoot.
The commotion may have spooked the falcons, as they quickly disappeared, while our hunter noticed us frantically gesticulating and screaming, lowered his rifle, and posed for our cameras, grinning. Clearly, the hunter and the kids seemed to be bemused at our behaviour, and the thought that it might be wrong (illegal, really) to hunt birds – resident or otherwise – had not even crossed their minds. We made a few phone calls to friends who could advise us on the next course of action, and were told that the best (and least) we could do was to write about the incident.
On the rest of the journey we vented our frustrations, and discussed what in our opinions were possible solutions to end the killing. We hoped that with younger people getting educated outside the state, some amount of environmental awareness might set in. However with a hunting culture so deeply entrenched, any kind of education/awareness initiatives would take time to bear fruit, and we fear that by then the double whammy of wanton hunting by an exploding population coupled with habitat destruction due to the practice of jhoom (slash-and-burn) cultivation would sound the death knell for several unique species, unless immediately redressed through some kind of state intervention.
PS: This note was published by Conservation India.