- Tamenglong, a hill district in Manipur, in the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, finds itself on the global map for its conservation work with the Amur falcons.
- The district faces several conservation challenges, including unsustainable hunting of wildlife but is trying to carve out a niche for itself by taking slow and steady steps in conservation of species outside protected areas.
- The establishment of Azuram village community reserve forest has paved the way for other villages, that harbour specific species such as the serow, to come up as model villages in wildlife conservation.
- A clutch of non-governmental organisations have been at the forefront of conservation despite challenges of connectivity, funds, and human resources. Tradition and religion are playing an important role in awareness generation.
In February this year, an attempt to kill a critically endangered Chinese pangolin in Tamenglong district of Manipur in northeast India, left the animal injured. The injured pangolin was rescued from the area through combined efforts of the forest department and Rainforest Club of Tamenglong, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to wildlife conservation. Its wounds were treated and dressed at the Tamenglong Animals Home run by the Tamenglong based couple Daniel Macwan and Galina Newme. When it recovered from its injury (due to a rope tied around it), the pangolin was released at the Azuram Village Community Reserve Forest, which has come up on a patch of land donated by villagers.
The trade of pangolins is illegal but they are one of the most widely trafficked animals. Manipur and other states in northeast India have become a hub for pangolin trafficking from other parts of India to China via Myanmar.
Not very long ago, the incident might have ended differently. The district is notorious for widespread hunting of wild animals and birds and the open selling of both dead and live animals. In the last few years, a distinct change in the attitude of the people of Tamenglong towards wildlife has been noticed with conservation becoming the new buzzword in the district. The open market selling animals has stopped; but sporadic hunting for bushmeat still goes on in the district, although it has certainly gone down. The district hosts migrating Amur falcons in the winter and its sanctuary to the falcons has put the region on the global map.
Bordering Assam and Nagaland, Tamenglong in Manipur is one of the most neglected and backward districts of the state owing to a geographical disadvantage, communication bottleneck and decades-long insurgency. Much of the district is devoid of road connectivity and there is limited bus service. As of today, the entire district has only a single ATM located at Tamenglong District Head Quarters, making it very difficult for people living in the far-flung areas of the district to access cash.
Amid these challenges, a group of dedicated nature-loving people is working hard to change the impression of Tamenglong by protecting its forests and distinct wildlife.
Tamenglong- a biodiversity hotspot
With almost 90 percent of the district under forest cover, Tamenglong has the highest area under forest in Manipur. Since it is a part of Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, the dense forests of Tamenglong are home to a wide variety of wildlife.
Kharibam Hitler Singh, District Forest Officer (DFO), Tamenglong Forest Division told Mongabay-India: “Animals like hoolock gibbon, hornbill, serows, sambar, barking deer, wild boars are found commonly in Tamenglong. Apart from that, clouded leopard, bear, Chinese pangolin and slow loris are also seen.”
There is some mystique regarding the presence of tigers in the district. From time to time, there are reports of tigers being spotted in some village, the presence of the big cats have not been confirmed so far. In last year’s tiger census too, Manipur has been regarded as a ‘tiger-absent’ state. Singh said in 2005, a villager from Phalong (Bhalok) village shot down a mature tiger with a gun. In the subsequent years, pug marks of tigers have been found and cattle lifting has also been reported from some villages.
“Last year during the tiger census, we did one pilot survey in the district. However, we couldn’t find any pug mark and nothing came up in the camera traps. But there is a possibility of Tamenglong having tigers with its dense forest cover and high prey base. Also, tigers are known to travel long distances and there are possibilities of the big cats coming from Assam and reaching Tamenglong via Nagaland,” Singh said.
Amur falcons – from killings to conservation
After Pangti in Wokha district of Nagaland, Tamenglong has become a success story regarding the conservation of Amur falcons, the world’s longest travelling raptors. The birds started arriving in Nagaland and Manipur in October. Suresh Kumar, a wildlife biologist working in Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun carried out successful geo-tagging of these birds to track their movements.
Speaking about how the project became a success in Tamenglong, which earlier had a history of hunting these birds, Kumar told Mongabay-India, “After successfully tagging the birds in Nagaland, we were looking to replicate the same in Manipur. The forest department of Manipur approached the WII and I helped them develop a project to tag the birds. In November 2018, we tagged two birds and named them ‘Manipur’ and ‘Tamenglong.’ Unfortunately, ‘Manipur’ was gunned down in a village called Puching. This incident raised a lot of hue and cry in Manipur. Animal activists in Manipur took out candlelight march condemning the killing. So, on the positive side, it helped to create awareness. The other bird we had tagged, stayed back in Africa.”
In 2019, Kumar returned to Tamenglong and tagged five more birds. Two have successfully returned to the same roosting site in Puching from where they were tagged. “This, for me, is a historic occasion. When the Puching killing happened, the locals were embarrassed and apologetic about it. Now seeing these birds return to their village, they have understood the importance of the occasion and are now extremely proud of the birds. They now want to protect and conserve the bird,” he said.
Recently, an order was passed from the office of Armstrong Pame, Deputy Commissioner of Tamenglong enforcing a complete ban on hunting, killing, catching and selling the Akhuaipuina (local name for Amur falcons). Another order has been issued instructing the village authorities to seize all the guns in their village from September to December. Welcoming this initiative, Kumar said, “In Tamenglong villages, most households have guns. Hunting has been a way of life for them and it can’t be changed overnight. However, it is fantastic for a start to have a closed period of a few months when hunting is stopped. This shows that there is a level of awareness.”
Tradition and religion play a big part in bringing that awareness. Nehemiah Panmei, honorary wildlife warden of Tamenglong recalled that around a decade ago, more than a lakh (100,000) Amur falcon used to be killed in Tamenglong per season. However, traditionally they were considered lucky and their forefathers refrained from killing them. “They believed that whenever these birds come in large numbers, the harvest will be good. So, we are trying to reinforce that belief. Also, the majority of people here are Christians, we are taking the help of the Church. I have requested the pastors to preach these ideals because lessons from the Church have a bigger impact on people. We also tell people how Akhuaipuinas provide important eco-system service by foraging on colonies of termites which otherwise would have affected the forests,” said Panmei.
Azuram paves the way for model community reserves for wildlife conservation
Though there are three proposed wildlife sanctuaries in Tamenglong, Zeliad, Buning and Jiri-Mikiri, none of them is currently functional. In this scenario, most of the forests and wildlife came under community-owned land; so it was important to convince the villagers to set aside some land for conservation.
“There is a land acquisition challenge in the proposed areas. They are not fully notified because the settlement of rights and claims couldn’t be done as the amount of compensation couldn’t be agreed upon and many villagers didn’t want the sanctuary and didn’t want to part with their land,” said DFO Singh.
Nehemiah Panmei said he was trying to convince the people to set aside some land for wildlife conservation invoking the protection of animals in the name of God. Panmei started his initiative at Azuram, a picturesque village around 26 km from Tamenglong town. He hails from this village. His efforts bore fruit after a couple of years of persistence when the village decided to set aside half of the village land as a community reserve forest. This was nearly three square miles. Panmei informed that there are around 150 households in the village whose primary occupation is agriculture.
However, in recent years, many people have left the village and settled in the town. “Killing of animals has completely stopped in our village. The villagers don’t even cut trees. Today, Azuram community forest holds a plethora of species like monkeys, barking deers, serows, pangolins, wild boars, tortoises along with a variety of birds,” Panmei said. Panmei wishes the place to be a tourist attraction someday though the dismal road condition in the area means that it is unlikely to happen soon.
The forest department welcomes the initiative of community reserve forests because in such cases, the villagers themselves become the custodian of wildlife in their area. DFO Singh said, “Till now Azuram is the only model community reserve forest in Tamenglong. Azuram is a notified community reserve under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. We are trying to develop a few other villages on similar lines,” said Singh.
“We are trying to develop some villages, where wildlife is reported, as model villages (facilitating community reserve forest). Serows (known as sabeng locally) are an animal which was found widely once but is now sparsely sighted. So, we have planned to develop Lenglong village as a Model Serow Village. Hoolock gibbons are reported from Chingkao, Chingkhulong, and Nurathen villages. Something on similar lines is being planned there as well,” he added.
At Azuram, the forest department is introducing fruit-bearing trees and bee boxes and plans of starting the cultivation of cash crops in the other part of the village (the part which is not a community reserve).
Singh said while hunting of wild animals in Tamenglong has reduced in recent years, it has not stopped totally. “The forest department also faces a shortage of manpower which makes our job even more difficult. With less than 30 staff, we have to look after an area of 2000 sq km. So, the model community reserve forests will be more useful in this regard as the villagers will themselves take responsibility,” he said.
NGOs making a difference in wildlife conservation beyond protected areas
What has helped Tamenglong’s cause is the fact that enthusiastic youth have taken up wildlife conservation and are working hand in hand with the forest department. Rainforest Club of Tamenglong (RCT) is one such group. RCT was registered in 2014 though they have been doing conservation-related work much before that. The NGO was founded by Chambo Gonmei, the Chief Medical Officer of Tamenglong. Speaking about the idea behind the initiative, Mordecai Panmei, Director of the NGO says, “In Manipur, especially in a hill district like Tamenglong, there are so many issues ranging from poor connectivity to lack of basic human needs. We realised that there are many organisations for other issues that we face. But there was no single organisation or group who voiced their concern about hunting, deforestation, polluting of our rivers, excessive logging, etc. So some like-minded people came together and formed RCT to address these issues.”
There is also Tamenglong Animals Home (TAH), run by Tamenglong-based couple Daniel Macwan and Galina. Daniel adds; “We carry out awareness programmes by visiting villages. At TAH, we have set up a shelter home where we provide treatment to injured animals.” Daniel, who was earlier working as a disc jockey in Mumbai started TAH with his wife Galina three years ago.
Funds are an issue for the couple since they have to visit remote villages. “We don’t have a vehicle. So often it costs a bomb to hire a car while going to the villages. We tried crowdfunding for our initiative but those efforts were not successful. Another issue in Tamenglong is there are no veterinarian doctors here. So, when an animal is injured, we connect with a vet in Imphal over a video call. If the case is serious, the animal is taken to Imphal,” he said. Presently, their work is in a bit of limbo because of the pandemic. Once the situation eases up, Daniel has plans to conduct sensitisation programmes within schools as children are the ‘future.’
The road ahead
Despite all the good work being done, challenges still abound in the district. As Mordecai Panmei puts it, “There are many challenges while addressing conservation issues in a place where livelihood issues prevail. When people are living from hand to mouth, it is tough to tell them to stop collecting resources from the forest where their livelihood depends on forest products.
Panmei elaborates on the need to have more protected forests. “Our rescue and release work is so difficult because there is hardly any protected forest which means less habitat for the animals that we are releasing. I think regarding policy, there is room for improvement as well; there are only a few policies for the conservation of already existing forests whereas funds and policies are mostly for the plantation of trees or the saving of degraded forests. If we emphasise on protection of already existing virgin forests (no matter how small it might be), conservation work will have a much better impact on a large scale,” Panmei added.
Generating awareness where there is no connectivity is also very challenging. However, amid these challenges, DFO Hitler Singh sounds hopeful, “The success of the Amur falcon conservation programme has put our district on the global map. We are looking for permission from the ministry to organise a hornbill festival in Tamenglong. We are positively hopeful that change will come.”
Banner image: Awareness programme by Rainforest Club of Tamenglong on Amur falcons. Photo by Rainforest Club of Tamenglong.