The morning I met Noon
In the remote, large swathes of endless dense evergreen forests of Jaintia Hills which straddle the north-eastern part of Meghalaya community based hunting is an enterprise which caters to the cash requirements of local people. People hunt for their own consumption as well as to sell to wildlife traffickers and local traders, a practice that has endangered many mammal, bird and reptile species in the region.
One morning, during our wildlife survey in the Narpuh Reserved Forest in the Jaintia Hills, we encountered five huntersall of whom unhesitatingly emerged towards our makeshift camp from the dense foliage, mistaking us for just another hunting party. All of them but one, whom I named ‘Noon’ in my notes, were friendly and listened patiently to our advice on the ill effects of hunting.
Noon was the last to arrive, just as we were having our second quota of morning rice. He refused the rice that we offered him as he came and sat beside me. By this time he had guessed that we weren’t fellow- hunters. To break the ice, I asked his name. His reply was a terse question- “tum log kon hai?” (who are you guys?), followed by his reply to his own question: Forest? By this time he had cocked his gun and now held it with a finger on the trigger. There was palpable tension in the air now.Wedge-tailed green pigeons, great barbets and sultan tits called repetitiously in the background.
Before I could reply, he demanded to know what we were doing in ‘their’ jungle? In his words, “God created these forests for us to survive, because the yield from jhum (swidden farming) is no longer adequate.”
My reply roughly translated to “if hunting isn’t controlled, very soon these forests will be like your inadequate jhums. Moreover, as Narpuhhas now, been declared as a Sanctuary, anti-poaching patrolling and research will increase the monitoring of these forests, which might curb hunting.” My reply was triggered by field evidence that numerous wild species traded for their parts have either completely disappeared such as tigersand gaur or survives in dangerously low numbers such as leopard and Chinese pangolin.
By now one could cut the tension with a knife, as he started his monologue, “who gave you the rights? This is our forest. We have been using this area for a very long time. Before me, my father and my grandfather used to come. And after me my sons, and their sons will come too. We are poor people. I have never seen you guys here during the last thirty years that I have been coming to these jungles. And now you suddenly come and set up rules? No, the repercussions won’t be pleasant.” All the while, he was holding the live gun, in a way that he could fire in seconds if required or provoked. Rather than combat his arguments further, and in an attempt to lighten the mood, I merely asked him: From where have you come? His reply suggested that he was still being combative: “From very far”. “Ok”, I asked, “from Assam or Meghalaya?” He said “Assam. From a village which is thirty kms away. I spend weeks and days in these forests. You will never survive here.”
Suddenly he seemed to ease a little bit. May be it was the memory of his village. Or maybe our apparent vulnerability due to our team’s pathetic jungle surviving skills. He un- cocked his gun, slung it across his shoulder and walked up to a place near the stream where there was bare soil. He started digging up the soil to take out a betel nut, where either he or someone else might have been storing the nuts since a long time. This practice allows a sure supply of ready-to-eat fermented nuts. After he washed and cut the nuts, we offered him the leaves and he was gracious enough to share his nuts with us. Chewing nuts is a good way to stop a conversation and say good bye in Assam and Meghalaya. Everyone leaves happy and a little high. So I too took that opportunity and went about meeting the sampling targets of the reminder of the day.
Noon’s comments betrayed an overtly simple biblical outlook about forests and wildlife being created by God for the exclusive use of humans. And based on my countless hours of conversations with people who hunt in this region, Noon perfectly articulates how most of them feel about the forests and wildlife around them. The endangerment of species, while supported by field data, is not something that is of concern to locals. They live from hand-to-mouth, in a particularly undeveloped and poor region of north-eastern India.It is time to think more holistically about how the challenge to wildlife from local hunting practices can be countered.In this regard, along with the Forest Department, awareness meetings in the villages with highest hunting pressures were organised to discuss the illegal nature and ill-effects of hunting on wildlife and forests. Discussions are also on about how they can benefit from government schemes which aims to promote forest-friendly ecotourism and agro-forestry in the region.
A 6 years old carrying 5 ltrs; early morning, everyday and yet another trip waits for her. She might not know what she is missing at the school today. They said everything will be sorted with salt water; tears, sweat or ocean. Well, they should have visited the low hills of Himalayas to see non smiling faces of little girls and sweat marks on their forehead just to get a bucket full of drinking water every day. The early morning of any hamlet in Devprayag starts with children lining up in water queue either at a Hand-pump, Stand-post or at spring which could be 500 meters downhill. When you cover that distance with 15 ltrs of water can every day from such tender ages, you don’t need gym trainer to develop your muscles in your teen-age, but you may need a teacher who will have to help you cope with whatever you have missed out in those early classes, while trying to hunt water.
Picture courtesy : Prateek Sengupta
‘One swallow does not the summer make’. This famous line attributed to Aristotle evokes the gregarious barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), a familiar species in the countryside. In the Indian subcontinent, the barn swallow is a partially migratory species that breeds in the Himalayas in the summer, also crossing over to northern climes of Asia. In the difficult winter months, it makes the subcontinent its home. Recognised by its streamlined slender build, shiny dark-blue back, prominent white belly and a deep forked tail, it makes its mud nest under bridges, under the eaves of old buildings and even in the verandahs of occupied houses. It is a largely aerial species, mostly seen when it is expertly catching insects on the wing, as it flies low above fields, villages and ponds. In Kumaon, this bird is loved by the local shopkeepers and eatery-owners who allow these birds to nest and roost inside their shops. The shopkeepers do not mind the noisy squabbling of the chicks as they are fed and finally fledge and even keep their shop shutters ajar to allow the bird to fly in and out. Perhaps the bird provides the service of controlling agricultural pests which has been recognised by the people. The barn swallow provides an example of the traditional people-nature interactions in Kumaon that are responsible for much biodiversity even in the midst of human settlements.
- Dr. Ghazala Sahabuddin
Picture courtesy : Rajkamal Goswami.
Natural ecosystems are critical for human well being. This much is well understood. Benefits to humans from nature are collectively termed as ecosystem services. These include a range of goods and services, from wild fruits and medicines to biodiversity, natural beauty and aesthetics. The most important ecosystem services though are those that we barely perceive – the formation of soil for example, or reduction of pollutants from air or water passing through a forest, or the recycling of nutrients. My thoughts about that which is unseen come from a recent report I read. An expert opinion on rejuvenating Sukhatal. Sukha-tal (or dry lake) is a small ephemeral lake just upstream of Naini tal, the lake that gives Nainital town its name. CEDAR has invested considerable efforts in raising awareness about Sukhatal which appears to be the main source of subsurface recharge to lake Nainital. The soils in the lake bed of Sukhatal are highly permeable, and below the lake are several faults and fractures. Rainwater fills Sukhatal but then rapidly seeps through the permeable soils into the aquifer below. The combinations of rocks and fractures below Sukhatal allow water from this aquifer to gradually seep into Naini lake – or Naini tal. This subterranean seepage of water in the rainless months keeps Nainital full and maintains its beauty for tourists. Sukhatal’s own beauty is unremarkable. Once it is dry, a few weeks after the last rains of monsoon, it becomes a bare piece of land – a wasted flat space ripe for encroachment – some of which has occurred. It was this neglect that CEDAR focussed on through its work these past few years. However, a recent plan commissioned by the administration brings a new threat. The plan calls for the rejuvenation of Sukhatal. This rejuvenation will be through beautification. Walkways and tourist attractions are to be built around the lake and a geo-synthetic clay liner will prevent water from seeping through the lake bed. This may make Sukhatal more attractive to tourists, but what will it do to the town of Nainital? Nainital depends on its lake not just for tourism - but its very existence. All water supply to the town directly or indirectly emanates from Naini lake. Removing the most important source of sub-surface recharge can immeasurably damage Naini lake and the economy of the town. It is imperative to understand this linkage between these two lakes. Changing Sukhatal will change Nainital. Enhancing Sukhatal’s beauty is all very well, but making the lake bed impermeable will destroy the soul of Sukhatal. And this can then strip away the beauty of Nainital and reveal the ugliness that lies just below the surface. Beauty is only skin deep wrote Sir Thomas Overbury some four hundred years ago. A proverb that has come to mean that a pleasing appearance is not a guide to ones character or inherent quality. The superficiality of beauty can be extended beyond humans - to nature and natural environments as well. Sukhatals importance lies in the ecosystem function it provides to Nainital. Let not that be damaged in the name of beuatification.
Picture courtesy: Rajesh Thadani.