The morning I met Noon
In the remote, large swathes of endless dense evergreen forests of Jaintia Hills which straddle the north-eastern part of Meghalaya community based hunting is an enterprise which caters to the cash requirements of local people. People hunt for their own consumption as well as to sell to wildlife traffickers and local traders, a practice that has endangered many mammal, bird and reptile species in the region.
One morning, during our wildlife survey in the Narpuh Reserved Forest in the Jaintia Hills, we encountered five huntersall of whom unhesitatingly emerged towards our makeshift camp from the dense foliage, mistaking us for just another hunting party. All of them but one, whom I named ‘Noon’ in my notes, were friendly and listened patiently to our advice on the ill effects of hunting.
Noon was the last to arrive, just as we were having our second quota of morning rice. He refused the rice that we offered him as he came and sat beside me. By this time he had guessed that we weren’t fellow-hunters. To break the ice, I asked his name. His reply was a terse question-“tum log kon hai?” (who are you guys?), followed by his reply to his own question: Forest? By this time he had cocked his gun and now held it with a finger on the trigger. There was palpable tension in the air now.Wedge-tailed green pigeons, great barbets and sultan tits called repetitiously in the background.
Before I could reply, he demanded to know what we were doing in ‘their’ jungle? In his words, “God created these forests for us to survive, because the yield from jhum (swidden farming) is no longer adequate.”
My reply roughly translated to “if hunting isn’t controlled, very soon these forests will be like your inadequate jhums. Moreover, as Narpuhhas now, been declared as a Sanctuary, anti-poaching patrolling and research will increase the monitoring of these forests, which might curb hunting.” My reply was triggered by field evidence that numerous wild species traded for their parts have either completely disappeared such as tigersand gaur or survives in dangerously low numbers such as leopard and Chinese pangolin.
By now one could cut the tension with a knife, as he started his monologue, “who gave you the rights? This is our forest. We have been using this area for a very long time. Before me, my father and my grandfather used to come. And after me my sons, and their sons will come too. We are poor people. I have never seen you guys here during the last thirty years that I have been coming to these jungles. And now you suddenly come and set up rules? No, the repercussions won’t be pleasant.” All the while, he was holding the live gun, in a way that he could fire in seconds if required or provoked. Rather than combat his arguments further, and in an attempt to lighten the mood, I merely asked him: From where have you come? His reply suggested that he was still being combative: “From very far”. “Ok”, I asked, “from Assam or Meghalaya?” He said “Assam. From a village which is thirty kms away. I spend weeks and days in these forests. You will never survive here.”
Suddenly he seemed to ease a little bit. May be it was the memory of his village. Or maybe our apparent vulnerability due to our team’s pathetic jungle surviving skills. He un-cocked his gun, slung it across his shoulder and walked up to a place near the stream where there was bare soil. He started digging up the soil to take out a betel nut, where either he or someone else might have been storing the nuts since a long time. This practice allows a sure supply of ready-to-eat fermented nuts. After he washed and cut the nuts, we offered him the leaves and he was gracious enough to share his nuts with us. Chewing nuts is a good way to stop a conversation and say good bye in Assam and Meghalaya. Everyone leaves happy and a little high. So I too took that opportunity and went about meeting the sampling targets of the reminder of the day.
Noon’s comments betrayed an overtly simple biblical outlook about forests and wildlife being created by God for the exclusive use of humans. And based on my countless hours of conversations with people who hunt in this region, Noon perfectly articulates how most of them feel about the forests and wildlife around them. The endangerment of species, while supported by field data, is not something that is of concern to locals. They live from hand-to-mouth, in a particularly undeveloped and poor region of north-eastern India.It is time to think more holistically about how the challenge to wildlife from local hunting practices can be countered.In this regard, along with the Forest Department, awareness meetings in the villages with highest hunting pressures were organised to discuss the illegal nature and ill-effects of hunting on wildlife and forests. Discussions are also on about how they can benefit from government schemes which aims to promote forest-friendly ecotourism and agro-forestry in the region.