The Apatani community of Arunachal Pradesh sees red over a wildlife research article that paints their hunting practices with stereotypical colours

The Apatani community members in Arunachal Pradesh have protested against an article published by researchers of the Wildlife Institute of India in the Current Science journal. The article ‘Losing threatened and rare wildlife to hunting in Ziro valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India’ written by four wildlife researchers indicated that the Apatani people hunt primarily for subsistence.

The study, based on a survey and semi-structured questionnaire of 85 households in six Apatani villages in the Ziro valley, led the researchers to claim that the predominately subsistence hunting of rare and threatened animals was leading to “pressure” on mammals in the region. Linking up this “pressure” to threat to the eco-system, the researchers concluded “faunal depletion in tropical forests will have myriad consequences and devastating effect on the ecosystem”.

The paper then went on to quote from dozens of other research papers on wildlife hunting in Madagascar, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Amazon to draw a set of rather prosaic statements on how wildlife hunting by communities threatened mammals and other wildlife leading to “mass extinctions” in some cases. It then offered the staid advice that most wildlife researchers have to offer: “Though hunting of wildlife is mostly done for subsistence in this region, access to the markets drives the hunters beyond their subsistence needs to additional income and this needs to be curtailed by enforcing strict protection to the wildlife.”

The researchers signed off with a rather banal conclusion that again is easily found in research papers: “Tackling wildlife hunting should be addressed from both the conservation and development perception, and will require an interdisciplinary approach cautiously incorporating social, economic, ecological and political components.”

On most occasions, the research would have just got filed in to credit points for the researchers at India’s premier wildlife and conservation research centre. But a vigilant community leadership of the Apatani with the help of some other researchers took notice of the study and its sweeping statements. They came out to challenge the researchers not only for their conclusions but also their methods.

The critique was scathing. Members of NgunuZiro, a community organisation of the Apatani people, pointed out various discrepancies in the survey methodology due to which they claimed misleading conclusions were made. They noted, “According to the authors, semi-structured questionnaire designed for Asiatic Wild Dog Project was used in the survey. Interestingly, the questionnaire is claimed to have been applied in six Apatani villages with the help of an auto-rickshaw driver whose name does not sound like an Apatani name.” The researchers had mentioned one Rubo Tahi, a driver and another Manas Hazarika as field assistants who helped collect data.

On the substance, the organisation had this to say: “The main conclusion of the survey is based on encounter rate of animal skins in the villages. This is not reliable indicator of present hunting practice as centuries old animal skins are preserved by the tribal people.” In a release the group sent to the journal as a rebuttal of the paper stated, “54.11 per cent hunting for subsistence is ridiculous as not a single Apatani depend on hunting for his livelihood today. Moreover, the survey lists sambar as one of the most frequently hunted animals at Ziro valley whereas the animal has never been documented in the area.”

The NgunuZiro head, Hibu Tatu, pointed to a research carried out earlier in the Ziro valley in collaboration with three reputable institutions — Future Generations Arunachal Pradesh, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment and Critical Ecosystem Protection Fund (CEPF) which had thrown up completely contrary results. Their study had shown that 47 per cent of hunting occurred for recreational purposes and this in fact led to a movement within the community to try and discourage hunting.

The strong rebuttal from the Apatani people of scientific research, that too, in the ‘language of rational science and statistics’ is still a rare phenomenon in the world. Communities in the northeast, wary of being captured repeatedly in research to fit traditional stereotypes, have begun to argue back. For the wildlife research community, the perception and sweeping judgment over tribal communities’ traditional practices, its impact on wildlife and forests is also well documented. But assertive communities are now able to engage with the language of the academia; careful about how they are portrayed, they have begun to question not only the methods, the findings but also the stereotypical prescriptions often dished out too often. The Apatani fight back is one good example of the communities that no more accept being treated as merely ‘objects’ of scientific studies.

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