The first time we saw wild meat in the market was in December 2006. Hundreds of birds—hornbills, kingfishers, barbets and more—were bunched together and being sold for Rs 500 –800 per cluster. A little further on, we saw dead civet cats and red-bellied squirrels lying spread-eagle amid hundreds of bright leafy vegetables. These were being offered for less than Rs 1,000. The women managing these shops told us that while selling vegetables earned them about Rs 2,500 per month, wild meat got them Rs 15,000, six times as much.
Most of what was hunted was for local consumption. Meat, fur, bones—everything was bought by local consumers, sometimes as food and sometimes as decoration. We once ran into a boy who had just returned after hunting a monkey. The reason for the kill was simple: he had a wedding to go to and needed fur to make a new cover for his dau (dagger). It was a matter of prestige.
We had been regular visitors to the Northeast, particularly Arunachal, since 2002. Initially, it was for a film about the Himalayan Black Bear Rehabilitation Project conducted by the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India. It was a documentary about the rescue and rehab of bears orphaned by hunters. While researching the project, we got occasional glimpses of hunting practices in the Northeast. The question that bothered us was this: even if these bear cubs were rehabilitated in the wild, wouldn’t they become the targets of hunters again? We wanted to explore the issue at a deeper level. Finally, in December 2006, we decided to embark on an odyssey to gauge the extent of hunting’s impact on the Northeast’s wildlife. We wanted to trace how all this wonderful wildlife in the region’s rich forests ended up in meat markets. That was the genesis of our documentary, Wild Meat Trail.
It soon became evident to us that some patches of jungle had turned silent; that was how rapidly birds and animals were disappearing. Hunters we interviewed told us that while areas around villages would once pulse with wildlife, they now had to walk miles to even glimpse an animal. One interaction with three generations of hunters was especially interesting. The eldest could identify animals from the books we showed him. The youngest, in his teens, could make beautiful bird sounds but drew a blank when it came to animals in the area. He couldn’t identify most of what we showed him. It was an important indicator of dwindling wildlife.
Over the next four months, we found ourselves in remote towns, charming villages and virgin locales. The best way to travel was to take shared taxis that could accommodate around ten people and unimaginable volumes of luggage. Many ask if being two lone women travellers scared us, given the reports of militancy in some parts. No, it didn’t. In fact, we have never felt as secure as we did in the Northeast. We often had to travel long distances with our camping gear and equipment. Walks and treks would lead us through slippery forest floors, muggy swamps, uphill climbs and foaming rivers. On many days, we would walk around, doing nothing, just taking in everything around us. The region began to unravel its mysteries to us. We were finally getting to its heart.
It was a crisp winter day in January when we arrived at an Apatani village in Ziro for their Morung festival. A curious mix of people greeted us—elders steeped in the past and city-educated youth full of urban aspirations. The sense of community strung them all together. No matter how far away they were based, these youth made it a point to be back in their village for the festival. Apatanis are fascinating as a tribe; even today, they are known for their agricultural practices, performed without animals or machinery. There is no available written record of their folklore and traditions; most of their history has been passed along the generations orally. There’s a tradition of wearing nose plugs, especially among the tribe’s older women. The legend behind it was that Apatani women were considered the most beautiful in Arunachal and were regularly abducted by other tribes’ men. By stuffing their noses with plugs, they sought to make themselves unattractive to raiders. The youngsters of the community have now banned this practice, deeming it cruel and unnecessary.
During the Morung festival, the host village opens its doors to all friends and relatives. Women can be seen drying meat and brewing the local rice beer. Every clan has a priest to preside over the ceremonies; but we were told that this practice is slowly dying out as the younger generation isn’t interested in priesthood. The opinion of the hunters we had previously interviewed was echoed by the Apatanis we spoke to: the wild was becoming a quiet, deserted place. They, too, had to scour and search for animals.
Like the Apatanis, the Nyishi tribesmen of Rachi village treated us like family and not strange city girls swamping them with questions. Staying at a Nyishi house is an experience in itself. The houses are built on stilts, largely made of bamboo, and are located at some distance from each other. The dimensions of the house depend on the size of the family. Now, Nyishis happen to be polygamous. So, the more the number of wives, the longer the house. Each unit has a hearth, which is pretty much the house’s lifeline. This is where most daily activities takes place—cooking, drying meat, exchanging gossip, singing and sleeping. The hut we stayed in was about 60 feet long because it had four hearths in it!
As the days passed, we grew close to the family we were living with. Maybe that’s why they gave us a rare glimpse of their lives as hunters. The village had banned hunting, but the traps and trails were still there. It was fascinating to venture into their woods. We saw a Nyishi hunter clamber onto a 30-ft tall tree. He moved lithely from branch to branch, finally extricating a dead red-bellied squirrel from a hand-made trap. The forest engulfed us again as we moved on. A while later, another hunter began to mimic the sounds of a barking deer fawn in distress, in the hope of attracting the mother. It wasn’t easy trekking with them; it took us eight hours to get to the campsite. They knew every turn of the forest, and were at ease with every leaf, thorn, creeper and fruit that stirred within.
We realised that hunting was something every young man in the village grew up with. It was built into his psyche; it was a part of tradition. Most importantly, these people turned to hunting because there was nothing else to do in the villages. There were very few jobs, no sources of income, and hunting was no longer seen only as a sport of leisure but as a route to quick money.
Our stay at Nyishi village brought us in contact with Tarang, an unassuming boy with a smile that lit up his eyes. He held the distinction of being the first graduate in that village and was working with the forest department. Tarang was responsible for a radical change in his village. In January 2007, during a village council meeting, he suggested that the villagers impose a hunting ban on themselves. He had done this after months of discussions with senior officers. Chuku Loma, Deputy Wildlife Warden at the time and a Nyishi himself, had wanted to spread awareness about forest conservation in remote areas. But he understood that the veins of tradition ran deep in the tribes. At that village council meeting, he, Tarang and other forest officials told the gathering about the urgency of conservation. Opposition ironically came from Tarang’s own father, who had a reputation as the village’s best hunter. He couldn’t understand why an old man like him was being asked to abstain from a tradition that had been practised by his forefathers. Others thought that if people from neighbouring villages could hunt, why shouldn’t they? But there were also men who realised the truth in Tarang’s words. And because the suggestion had come from people like Tarang and Loma who shared their heritage, it made it easier for them to accept it. Today, it has been five years since the ban was put in place, and the community hasn’t gone back on its word.
The most heart-warming aspect about tribes in the Northeast was their sense of community. At a village council, if the gaon budhas or village headmen decided on something, it held real weight. There were healthy debates and discussions; but once a decision was taken, all would abide by it. Rachi is a good example. We reached the village a month after the initial meeting with Loma and Tarang had taken place. Their efforts had borne fruit and a council was being convened to formalise plans for the Rachi Conservation Society.
Today, there are many other examples of community action. In Nagaland’s Chizami village, hunting has been banned in sections of the community forest. Khonoma too has religiously upheld this ban for several years. Some hunters are trying to put their knowledge of the wild to fresh use by training to be guides. Others in Khonoma are setting up eco-tourism cottages and also supporting research groups. There have been instances of ex-poachers turning into conservationists and guides.
As for us, we continue to work in the Northeast through education programmes and video documentation projects. We are pleased that these small patches of forest are now in good hands. Sure, there is so much more that can be done, but a beginning has been made. If all goes well, maybe the forests will sing again.
As told to Avantika Bhuyan. The Wild Meat Trail won the Wildscreen Panda Award last year