Twenty years ago, residents of Khonoma, Nagaland, did something that no one else in the country had ever done before. They declared a chunk of their forest as a conservation reserve — the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary. Until then, only the government had identified forests worthy of protection. In the same manner as the administration protects such jungles, the village managed its chunk of protected wilderness.
Hunting is a cultural practice in some communities of the Northeast, making this endeavour even more remarkable. For centuries, people have killed animals and birds not only for the pot, but also for medicinal concoctions, rituals, ornaments, sale, and recreation. When there’s no work in the fields, the bored go hunting. Much of the region’s forests belong to communities who don’t have the same job opportunities as the rest of the country. Although Indian wildlife laws prohibit killing wild animals, the majority aren’t aware of it. Families display rows of animal skulls in their homes, and other animal parts decorate their traditional attire. The dense evergreen forests are shorn of wildlife, bemoan many wildlife activists.
The Angami tribal residents of Khonoma, 20 kilometres from Kohima, decided to buck the trend. Tsilie Sakhri, a contractor, and a few other villagers learned about conservation from a forest department officer and awareness programmes conducted by the Northeast cell of the Centre for Environment Education. Sakhri proposed setting aside a part of the village’s forests as a sanctuary back in the ’80s. Although some of the elders supported him, the idea didn’t fly. After all, the settlement had more than 1,000 guns, according to one publication. The turning point came when the villagers killed 300 pheasant-like Blyth’s tragopans in 1993.
All isn’t well with these resplendent birds. Hydroelectric projects and logging along the foothills of the eastern Himalaya and the border areas between India and Myanmar destroyed their habitat.
When Sakhri became a member of the village council, he pushed anew the proposal to create a sanctuary, and again found little support. This time he persisted, advocating the idea to other residents of the village. Despite the odds, he succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination.
In 1998, the village set aside the forest as a sanctuary and created a trust headed by Sakhri to manage it. The protected wilderness is 20 square kilometres in area on a map, but it could be as much as 70 square kilometres including valleys and slopes, home to clouded leopards, goat-like serow, black bears, as well as the tragopans. The Khonoma Youth Organisation implemented the decisions taken by the trust and council. Its members patrolled the sanctuary and caught anyone violating the rules. Fines ranged between ₹300 and ₹3,000. But more than monetary punishment, the family’s loss of face was a more effective deterrent. The community extended the ban on hunting to the village, protecting a total area of about 125 square kilometres.
The restriction applied not only to hunting but also logging and commercial harvest of any forest produce. For domestic use, villagers could gather medicinal plants and leaf litter for mulch.
Several organisations such as Kalpavriksh, and EQUATIONS that promotes equitable tourism, advised the trust. Guwahati-based Aaranyak conducted surveys of flora and fauna. By some estimates, tragopan numbers shot up to more than 1,000. Khonoma received the epithet of a ‘green village’ and accolades in the media. But this success was met with staunch resistance.
Villagers complained of herbivores eating their crops, and they demanded hunting be allowed. Young men who saw other communities enjoy their hunting forays wanted the same pleasure. The pressure from within the village on the trust and council increased.
More than 10 years after the sanctuary’s establishment, the trust allowed hunting for a month. Everyone else feared the worst. Wildlife didn’t stand a chance against modern firearms. In an earlier, more traditional time, village elders would have laid down the law — what to hunt, where, and by whom. Now animals and birds that had become used to protection for more than a decade would bear the brunt of a free-for-all.
Working in collaboration with the North East Network and funding from Dusty Foot Productions, a Delhi-based film production company, Payal Molur conducted programs for educators in Nagaland. One of the project’s objectives was to teach children the wonders of nature — if they saw a bird, they were more likely to reach for a pair of binoculars than a catapult. This outreach was successful in several villages, where children implored their parents not to hunt. However, Molur felt the program didn’t have much effect in Khonoma. The organisers of the program weren't Angami, and the villagers received the message with little enthusiasm.
The prognosis for the sanctuary didn’t look optimistic, but the trust and village council handled the situation deftly.
“A complete ban wouldn’t have worked in this hunting community,” says Rokohebi Kuotsu, a resident who campaigns for conservation. After lifting the ban, the trust reduced the season with each successive year which allowed people to get used to the idea. The majority supports the ban, but a few remain opposed.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the remarkable effort of a community that fought its tradition and culture to set up the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary.
The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin