'When the saplings are this tall'

Head of a hornbill
Talking with hunters in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh.


I recently accompanied Rohit Naniwadekar and Monali Mhaskar from the Nature Conservation Foundation on a survey for Rufous-Necked Hornbills in Upper Siang, Arunachal Pradesh.

They wanted to assess the status of the Hornbills’ population and the feasibility of a Conservation Program in the area, so we were out to walk trails in the forest and to interview experienced hunters from the village. 

Towards the end of my time with them - having walked nearly 40 km of forest paths - we’d gotten but a single momentary glimpse of one individual Hornbill. It had called from the bare branches of a tree sticking out above the canopy. While its loud KOKK… KOKK… still resonated in our ears, it flew up a side valley and out of sight.

Sombre evening

Even without preliminary analysis, we could tell that the numbers in Siang were far less than the density estimate: one bird for every two square kilometres for community forests in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh – to say nothing of the seven birds per square kilometres for protected areas like Namdapha Tiger Reserve.

Our extremely poor encounter rate was validated by the locals as well. Every time Rohit introduced us and stated the purpose of our visit, he’d be cut short by the locals saying that we wouldn’t find Hornbills near the villages: “You’ll have to sleep a night in the forest [...] They used to be found closer, but not anymore.”

Then in one of the villages we saw the head of a young female Hornbill (pictured above), killed a day and a half’s walk away from the village. It still carried the smell of rotting meat.

It was a sombre evening at the end of a tiring day and we sat talking to the village Gamburas (Headmen) while the head dried in the smoke over the kitchen fire. It was surprising how little, for a hunting community, they seemed to know about the Hornbill’s ecology.

“They’re seasonal visitors”, we were sometimes told. But Rohit was convinced, given how good the forest is, that at some point there must’ve been sizable resident populations migrating locally, and our interviews confirmed this. The older men remembered times when the birds were more common and could be seen closer to the villages.

Collective action

Rohit asked them politely, with all due courtesy: “Given their dwindling numbers, do you ever talk amongst yourselves about whether your kids will ever see them in the wild? That your children might have to go to a zoo in Assam to see the state bird of Arunachal Pradesh?” 

What makes tragedies so poignant is that they’re theoretically preventable, and yet overwhelmingly inevitable. Individually, we know what needs to be done, and yet the momentum of collective action seems too great for any one person to be able to stop it.

“Yes, I guess we must do something”, they said. For over the last few generations they’ve seen Malayan Giant squirrels disappearing with the coming of air guns; porcupines, with the arrival of flashlights.

We spoke to to Anirban Datta-Roy of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, who worked in Siang valley studying the hunting and farming practices here. We discovered that there are indeed precedents of successful action against hunting.

Take fishing, for instance. When blasting and rampant use of nets led to dwindling of the catch at the annual fishing ceremony - during which the whole village go out to fish together - a number of villages banned their use, restricting fishing to angling and the use of traditional traps.

Traditional knowledge

And there is the example of Karko village. One of the largest villages in the valley, with nearly 180 households, they have officially banned hunting through the year – imposing a fine even on the carrying of a gun. They have a good catch during the week of the annual village hunt at the beginning of winter.

Hunting has been the way of life for the Adis of Siang valley for as long as they can remember, though traditionally they hunted using traps and with bows and arrows. Their love for the forest clearly shows through.

More than one young man told us: “Once we go into the forest, we just don’t feel like coming back. It is so beautiful in there.” And nothing I had ever seen can match their love for meat. How else can you explain a wholehearted relish of dishes of smoked meat boiled with just salt?

But what of the traditional knowledge that went with this love for the hunt? As encounters with the birds became rarer, it seemed that the birds had slowly lost their dignity in the minds of the hunters, their lore forgotten, their identity reduced to the amount of meat described by hands held apart in a circle, thumb to thumb, fore fingers touching.

Finally an old man, his face wrinkled with age, who had never himself seen a Hornbill nest, told us about the stories that his father had told him when he was a child about the birds' elaborate courtship. The male woos the females with gifts of fruits, cajoling her to incarcerate herself into their nesting hole.

Once she squeezes in, the female begins to close the mouth of the hole with her faeces - made sticky from eating figs - leaving only a small slit. Soon she lays two eggs and the male then continues to feed her and the two chicks, bringing them hundreds of fruits every day, and the occasional treat of a poached fledgling, a hunted lizard or a squirrel that he’s managed to capture. 

Labours of love

The old man said: “They keep their nest hole very clean, defecating out of the slit and throwing out any seeds that they regurgitate. There thus rises a dense growth of sapling under the nest tree.

"When the saplings are this tall” - he said, holding his hand palm down by his knee - “they’d know that the chicks were fully grown.” Yes, nodded Rohit, all this is well documented and studied at length for the Great and the Wreathed Hornbill in other places in Arunachal Pradesh, the Western Ghats, as well as in Thailand.

In about four months, the chicks are ready to leave the nest – four months, during which the male continues to forage for the family. Then, their labour of love finally done, the female will emerge from the nest and slowly over the next day or so, the parents will together coax the chicks to leave the nest. 

But the old man had more to say. “When the saplings are this tall, then the hunter would climb up and get two, sometimes three, fully grown birds.” 

No animal can withstand that kind of hunting, where every young one as well as any breeding female is taken.

Younger generations

Hornbills are unusually vulnerable to hunting. Individuals in captivity have been known to survive to the age of 40, and they don’t start breeding until the age of three or four. Add to that the high mortality rates for Hornbill chicks, with only one of the two surviving the first year and picture becomes even more dismal.  

We were often told: “But these mountains have a world full of forests on them, and we hunt only on our own trails.” One could try to believe that there were indeed safe havens hidden amongst the folds of the tortuous ridges, in which the birds could live without fear, nest at peace.

But as we travelled down the valley, we soon realized that every section of every slope has its owner, every mountain has been spoken for, every ridge, walked.

Another question were were often asked was: “So are you here to ask us to stop hunting”. Rohit would honestly reply: “Not at all. That is your way of life; these are your forests; who are we outsiders to tell you how to live your life? We’re here to merely gather information that you will have access to, to make informed decisions about how to keep your forests well stocked.”

We had heard about people who hunted despite the village council’s ban in Karko. An official order to stop hunting, implemented by outsiders, is never going to work here. It is for the people themselves, nudged along by the more thoughtful ones amongst them, and the well-read and widely travelled younger generation, to tackle the question of collective action. 

Living sustainably 

It is proof of thoughtful policies - and a matter of much pride for the Adi community - that they have access to one of the largest expanses of contiguous forest in the country.

For once in history, the owners of the forest also have all the resources of the modern world at their disposal to come up with an answer to certain fundamental questions about what it means to live sustainably and in harmony with nature. 

The answer that they come up with will be a crucial one, for it will also implicitly tell us what the extinction of a species means to a community, and what it means to protect the essence of one’s traditional way of life. For what would it mean to be a hunter when there’s nothing left to hunt?

This Author 

Sartaj Ghuman is a freelance biologist, writer and artist based in India. 

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