As my train, the Jan Shatabdi Express, was entering Dimapur, a co-passenger observed that it is rare to see any birds in Nagaland. He said that the Nagas shoot at anything that moves and thus even birds refrain from crossing the Naga border. For the record, there are 196 species of birds thriving in Nagaland. However, birds are not frequently spotted in and around the capital town of Kohima, which can be attributed to the reckless hunting spree going on since many decades.
In this scenario, the manner in which the people of Khonoma village have been protecting the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan makes for a tremendous success story. Blyth’s Tragopan is the State bird of Nagaland but due to rampant hunting, it was once almost on the verge of extinction. It was the good sense of some ecologically sensitive villagers, most notably Tsilie Sakhrie which led to the conservation of the bird.
The Bird That Can’t Fly
Named after Edward Blyth, English zoologist and curator of the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, this bird is said to have a surviving population of just 2500 in the wild. Blyth’s Tragopan is found in many different countries, including Bhutan, North Myanmar to Southeast Tibet, and also China. Apart from Khonoma, they are also found in other areas like the Japfu range, Dzuku Valley in Kohima District, Pfutsero, Meluri in Phek District, foothills of Saramati, Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary, Noklak in Tuensang District and Satoi range in Zunheboto District.
Like most pheasants, the male is brightly coloured. It is recognized by its red head, yellow face, and its spotted back called ocelli. A black band extends from the base of the bill to the crown coupled with another black band extending behind the eyes. Like the rest of the tragopans, males have two pale blue horns that become erect during mating. They consume everything from seeds, berries, fruits, and buds. Captive birds usually consume insects, worms, and even small frogs. While they are primarily vegetarians, most birds have a weakness for berries and fruit.
They prefer to live at an elevation of 2100 feet above sea level, which is higher than most birds. However, they can’t fly which makes them vulnerable to predators like tigers, panthers and wolves. Also the destruction of forests has resulted in a loss of habitat for these precious birds and contributed to their dwindling numbers.
The tragopan is being hunted for its flesh and beautiful plumage/ feathers. There is a lobby for the sale of the male tragopan for its plumage resulting in abrupt reduction in its population. A pair of tragopan is priced at Rs 15,000 to 20,000 in the black market.
End of the Hunting Era
In 1998, the Khonoma village council declared its intention to notify about 2000 ha (20 sq km) as the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). Concerned by the high number of birds being killed every year, Tsilie broached the subject. A number of villagers were opposed to the idea, since hunting was so much a part of their culture. However, over the next three years, through extensive discussions in the village, the majority came around. The sanctuary’s foundation stone was laid in December 1998; it was also decided to ban hunting in the entire village, not only the sanctuary area.
Reminiscing about those days, Tsilie who has is now an old man says, ‘Many people in Khonoma depend on hunting for their livelihood. Most people in Khonoma are expert hunters. So, it was very difficult to convince them to come on board. However, considering how drastically these birds were disappearing, conservation was the only logical thing to do. The hunters strongly protested but after many heated debates, they kind of saw the point of it all. After all, having lived so close to nature, they understood its fine balance’.
However, he insists that the Nagaland government should continue to work for the conservation of this precious natural resource. ‘We have to understand that once any species becomes extinct, they can’t be brought back’ he says. This invaluable lesson is what the people of Nagaland have learnt and is something worth emulating by the other NE states.
Written By: Nabarun Guha
This article first appeared in August 2016 Issue of Eclectic Northeast