By Rajeev Bhattacharyya
Many rare and endangered species of wildlife are being hunted regularly in Arunachal Pradesh with hardly any effort by the government to check the illicit practice. An investigation revealed that the leopard, black bear, flying squirrel, masked palm civet, marbled cat, barking and musk deer are the most commonly hunted animals. Among these species, the black bear has been categorized as ‘vulnerable’ and musk deer as endangered in IUCN’s Red Data Book. Hunting is rampant in all the border districts from West Kameng to Tirap but more prevalent in Upper Siang, Upper Subansiri, Dibang Valley and Anjaw.
In Arunachal Pradesh, hunting is a widespread cultural practice like in many other hill regions of the Northeast. Some hunters said that the animals were hunted for food and money and sometimes for gifts during marriage. A study conducted some years ago by a group of anthropologists from the UK – Wildlife hunting by indigenous tribes: a case study from Arunachal Pradesh, North East India – found that a total of 33 species were hunted of which only 11 were reported by hunters during formal interviews.
This correspondent recently witnessed the hunting of a flying squirrel near a border village in the hill state. It was done after dark but the technique was lethally effective. The young hunter pointed the single barrel shot gun at a branch high up in the tree, pulled the trigger and within seconds the animal fell down dead with a bullet pierced through its neck. But how was it done?
‘We know the trees where squirrels build nest. We knew there was one up there since its eyes were glowing when my friend blazed the torch light. It went numb upon seeing the light and then I took aim and shot it,’ said the hunter. He then skinned the animal and cooked it for dinner.
There is a widespread belief that spiritual power lies in the animal skulls and display of hunted wild animals in homes signifies prosperity and protection from evil spirits. Some hunters this correspondent spoke to said there was a huge demand for the black bear’s bile and the scent sac of the musk deer across the border in China for manufacture of traditional medicines. In most of these districts, the same community inhabits both sides of the porous Sino-Indian border which facilitates communication. The wildlife items are handed over to agents for cash at fixed locations on the border. Sometimes, hunters often cross over to the other side since the presence of the Indian and Chinese armies is thin.
A former activist of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union who did not wish to be named claimed, ‘Hunting has been part of the culture of almost all the tribes in our state since centuries. There was a perfect balance earlier which is now gone. Due to poverty and unemployment, hunters are lured to sell wildlife items to traders both in the towns in our state and across the border in China. And there are people in high places who are sometimes found to be involved’.
Another crucial factor that has given a boost to hunting in the state is the easy availability of firearms and ammunition. A hunter with bows and arrows is difficult to spot in the hills. Citizens are given license of shotguns and every license holder can purchase hundred cartridges every month while it is only four cartridges in insurgency ridden states like Assam.
About 82% of the state is covered with forests, of which the forest department protects only 27%. People have customary rights over community forests which form 38% of the state. But awareness about wildlife laws is extremely low. Some villagers this correspondent spoke to were willing to give up hunting if they were provided with some job so that they can earn money.
An official of the environment and forest department under the state government blamed lack of funds for creating awareness and adequate employment avenues for the locals. ‘Our resources are meager but optimum utilization of funds has been made to check the phenomenon. The practice cannot be brought to an end in a brief span’.
The state department has been collaborating with NGOs like Traffic India and WWF-India since the past several years for creating awareness among the local populace. The last workshop that was held at Itanagar in May 2012 discussed ways and means to devise strategies to check hunting and conserve wildlife in the hill state.
But such programmes are being regularly organised without much effect on the ground. Monitoring is lax and development funds are being siphoned off through a mechanism that has struck strong roots. The condition of some border villages offers an apt illustration of the misgovernance in Arunachal Pradesh which is similar to the situation in some other Northeastern states like Assam.
(Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Lens and the Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast and Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men)