Arunachal’s empty forests and hunting practices

Dear Editor,
During my recent travels through various parts of Arunachal, I have made one very disturbing observation, which I would like to bring to the attention of the public, as well as the government that represents it.
It concerns the hunting practice in the state. I observed how many areas around villages are completely void of any life beyond insects. No birds chirping, no squirrels running around trees, no calls of barking deer in the forest. Just the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves and the monotonous sound of cicadas and grasshoppers. In many places, I also observed people carrying guns, and not just army and police, but also villagers and civil servants. I saw bunches of birds, rats and squirrels hanging by the roadside and prepared skins of red pandas, civet cats, wild goats and barking deer hanging on verandas, all for sale. I also observed houses hanging full of horns and jaws, not just of mithuns and relatively common species such as barking deer and wild boar, but also of vulnerable, threatened or endangered species, such as the takin, the tiger, the clouded leopard and the serow.
In my conversations with people that hunt, I have heard them use two arguments to justify it, and I would like to rebuke both arguments as being invalid. The first is ‘It is our Arunachali tribal customary practice and tradition to hunt, and restricting hunting is destroying our unique culture’. The second is ‘The jungle is so big and there are so many animals, a little hunting from our side will never harm them’.
Regarding the Arunachali tribal practice: yes, in the past, hunting was an integral part of the livelihoods of the tribal people. Hunting was an important source of nutrition for people who barely reared livestock and had little, if any, access to markets. Hunting was done with traps and snares and bows and poisoned arrows. The hunter had to perform rituals including fasting before setting out on the hunt, and giving a feast when returning successfully. This rate of success was small due to the traditional means of hunting, and the number of people who hunted in a certain area was limited. The hunter knew what to kill – leaving females and young largely alone, thus securing sustainability.
Then came the Indian government, that introduced agricultural practices and livestock keeping, opened roads and created access to the markets in Assam. This also introduced schools and government jobs, electricity, mobile network, broiler chickens, eggs and fresh fish, a wide variety of fresh and packaged foods, and so many other things, but did not really implement any legislation and control. Hunting was no longer needed for sustenance, but it continued to be practiced. And the hunting practice itself changed. Guns, either locally made or bought, and in some cases even imported semi-automatic rifles, have largely replaced traps, snares, and bow and arrow. Rituals and feasts are no longer performed, the forest spirits are no longer appeased, old beliefs and taboos on when to hunt and what to hunt are conveniently ignored. Although illegal, meat continues to be sold in nearby towns. Often, many more animals are killed than can possibly be eaten, or even transported to the place of residence. In many cases, animals are not even consumed, but just left to rot. Hunting has become a sport, a time-pass, a show-off of manliness for villagers and civil servants alike. But how courageous and brave are you, when you shoot tiny birds with a gun, or hunt animals when they are most vulnerable? For example, at the onset of winter, when the first snow falls, the takin descends from the summer grazing grounds at higher altitudes to the lower lying forests. They gather in large numbers at warm water wells, to boost their mineral requirement at saltlicks. Hunters know this, and groups of 20-30 hunters with semi-automatic rifles have been known to mow down entire herds of takin, indiscriminately of male, pregnant cow or calf, taking only some meat and the largest horns, and leaving the carcasses in the forest to rot. This has nothing to do with indigenous culture and tradition anymore. In fact, although even the western world had its share of such practices (just think about the fate of the bison in North America, or the slaughter of sea turtles and whales in the oceans), in much of our contemporary world, slaughtering wildlife in this way is considered barbaric.
There is another point to be made in the case of the culture argument. In traditional Arunachali culture, people wore loincloths, grass skirts and bell belts, and gathered food in the forest. They lived in unlit bamboo-wood-palm leaf houses, cooked on fire, and practiced animism. Now, more and more people wear gale, skirts or pant and shirt, practice agriculture, live in Assam-type houses, cook on gas, have electricity and tv, and mobile phones in their homes, and practice Christianity. If all these elements of culture can change in a single lifetime, without people jumping up and down saying that all of this is destroying the traditional culture of the indigenous people, then why is it used in the case of hunting? The most basic thing about culture is that it changes. It is never static, but adapts itself to evolving times and preferences.
The second argument I often hear in Arunachal is that ‘The jungle is so big, and full of animals, our hunting does not make a difference’. Almost immediately, the same hunters that make that statement continue to say ‘In the past, we could find animals close to our village without much problem. But at present, we have to walk further and further into the mountains, into the deeper jungle where there is no water source, oh, going on a hunting trip is really a tough thing to do nowadays’.
I wonder why it is so difficult to add up one and one and realise that it is their own hunting that makes their hunting trips so tough?
Some species with commercially valuable products, such as musk deer, otter, pangolin and hornbill, have become so rare that hunters themselves think they may no longer be there. When confronted with this, they often state ‘These jungles are ours, everything that lives in it is ours, and we ourselves have the right to finish it if we want to’. That is a very selfish thing to state. When will people realise that in this modern age, all people of planet earth are interconnected, and all that lives on earth is valuable to all these people? Doesn’t the beauty of earth, including the wildlife, belong to every human being? I can understand that people want to use natural resources if their survival depends on it. But to exterminate a species, or even kill an animal, just because it is there, is selfish.
Another point in this respect is that biologists and ecologists hardly have any idea what the jungles of Arunachal harbour. Scientists, and the politicians that depend on their judgements, simply have no idea how many species live here, how many individuals of each species are there, how many individuals are needed to maintain a healthy population, and how hunting affects these populations. Are all the takins the same? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature seems to think Arunachal has at least two subspecies of takin. Are all the gorals (wild goats) the same? Even hunters agree that some individuals have a reddish-brown fur, others a golden-yellow fur, and some a greyish-black fur. These might well be three different sub-species. Species may become extinct even without anyone knowing they ever existed. Arunachal has long been closed off to science, but as developments are rapidly evolving in the state, and change is fast and inevitable, opportunities for research need to be opened, including to foreigners, and in all fields of science.
What can be done? Legislation prohibiting hunting and sale of hunting produce is already in place, both at the national, the state, and the local level. Nonetheless, as seems to be the case with most laws in Arunachal, implementation and enforcement is largely absent. If even elected people’s representatives at the highest level of state law-making have been known to go on hunting trips with semi-automatic weapons, shooting entire herds of takins, what can we expect of the common people?
If the army stationed in remote locations just lets hunters with automatic rifles pass, what are they there for to check and control? If members of the security forces are the ones buying meat from hunters or even going on hunting trips themselves, what example does that pose? It seems that communities who want to protect their wildlife seem to fail to do so especially because the bad example is set by the influential people in society, which in these modern days are no longer the village elders and religious leaders, but rather the politicians, student leaders and civil servants. Also, smaller, less powerful communities appear toothless in the face of their more powerful neighbouring communities. An often-heard argument is ‘If we don’t hunt and kill the animals on our lands, others will’. Wildlife is a prototypical open-access common resource in Arunachal, making it notoriously difficult for local communities to protect.
Hence, the only solutions seem to be a rigorous implementation of the existing wildlife protection laws, declaration of strict nature reserves in relatively untouched areas, an appealing campaign of environmental education, and especially, a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, without any exception, punishing all those that violate the laws irrespective of their role, position and background. This entails good cooperation between forest guards, local police, SIB, local leaders and the judiciary to detect, nab, and punish violators, immediate publicly shaming their actions to make the chance of them buying their way out of punishment less likely. If men can be made to enjoy sports, like archery, football, volleyball, Muay Thai boxing or wrestling, they can show their bravery and courage in sports, rather than in hunting.
I tend to believe the whole development of the concept of ‘sport’ was meant as a replacement of warfare and hunting as displays of manhood, I also believe there is a lot of talent in the state, even to participate in national and international events, if there would just be an infrastructure provided and encouragement offered by the government.
Only certain forms of traditional hunting, such as yearly communal hunts, could be condoned, albeit only with traditional means, and with access restricted to people of the communities that used to perform it, just in the name of ‘preserving culture’. And certain communities that still continue to depend on the forest, such as the Puroik, and communities that live in remote areas where access to roads and markets and agriculture and livestock development may take some time to reach, could be allowed to practice hunting for sustenance. But the present situation, where civil servants, educators, lawmakers, police and others hunt for fun should be stopped.
Looking at the current scenario in the state, this all may seem a distant dream. Unfortunately, by the time this dream comes true, the forests may be truly empty. Perhaps, in the future, the only place where we can find species like clouded leopard, takin, red panda, pangolin, musk deer and black bear may be nearby Bhutan, where the government, in cooperation with the local people, is able to halt hunting, and wildlife teems.
Tim Bodt,