[Interview] Researcher Amit Kumar Bal on studying carnivores in the thick of Mizoram forests

Amit Kumar Bal setting camera traps

Banner image: Amit Kumar Bal setting camera traps. Photo by Amit Kumar Pal.

  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, researcher Amit Kumar Bal shares his experience about staying in Murlen village in Mizoram, to study small carnivores.
  • Bal has set up 18 camera traps in eight locations inside the Murlen National Park, close to the Indo-Myanmar border, to monitor the animals at all times.
  • The young researcher talks about his conservation awareness initiatives, the experience of encountering a venomous primate, learning Mizo with a dictionary to communicate with local residents, recording a new non-venomous snake species in the landscape and more.

On a September morning in 2019, the 240 residents of the small and picturesque Murlen village in the Champhai district in Mizoram, were in for a surprise. Amit Kumar Bal, a 26-year-old researcher had landed in their village, from faraway Cuttack in Odisha. Murlen lies on the fringes of the Murlen National Park (MNP). The people of Murlen enjoy uncomplicated lives, with limited interference from outside. Many from the village had not even visited the state capital Aizawl, 245 kilometres away. Even seeing somebody from outside the state was not a regular occurrence.

“The residents of Murlen were very happy to see me and welcomed me wholeheartedly. However, when they learnt that I was going to stay in their village for the next few years, they were a bit taken aback. They told me that I would find it difficult to stay on for long in the absence of urban amenities,” reminisces Bal. Three years later, Bal has become an inseparable part of Murlen. Bal visited Murlen to study small carnivores, but now, he is also spreading awareness about conservation.

MNP, located very close to the Chin Hills of Myanmar, covers an area of approximately 200 square kilometres. The forest here is so thick and dense that it is compared with the Amazon as only one percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate the forest even on a sunny day. Owing to the thickness of the forest, a patch of MNP has even got a unique name – “the land of no return”. MNP falls in the Champhai district but is administered from the office of the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Khawzawl district.

The forest in Murlen is so thick that sunlight seldom enters the forest. Photo by Amit Kumar Bal.
The forest in Murlen is so thick that sunlight seldom enters the forest. Photo by Amit Kumar Bal.

The life-changing three years

Bal has had an eventful three years in Murlen so far, where, apart from his research and awareness programmes, he has also participated in agriculture with the native residents. It is a three-hour drive from Champhai town to Murlen  and travelling three kilometres further, takes one to the main gate of MNP. Vapar, Tualpui, Rabung, North Khawbung and Ngur are other fringe villages around MNP.

To study the carnivores in MNP, Bal has set 10 camera traps in 18 locations inside the forest. “I can’t frequent the forest during the monsoons because the forest becomes inaccessible during the time. There are also snakes and leeches. So, the camera traps help me to keep track of the animals. During my visits inside the forest, I have come across a variety of animals like clouded leopard, yellow-throated marten, crab-eating mongoose, Assamese macaque, barking deer, wild boars and more,” he says with enthusiasm.

Communicating with the local residents was initially an issue for Bal as they mostly spoke Mizo. However, to overcome the problem, he learnt Mizo in six months with the help of a dictionary.

Bal also tried his hand at farming and grew rice and ginger during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which he was in the village for more than a year.

A marbled cat in Murlen National Park.
A marbled cat in Murlen National Park. Amit Kumar Bal also spotted animals such as clouded leopard, yellow throated marten, crab eating mongoose, Assamese macaque, barking deer, and wild boars. Photo by Amit Kumar Bal.

Describing life in Murlen, Bal says, “The people here are very simple people. Most of them practice agriculture, while a few drive taxis. There are two schools in Murlen – one primary and one middle school. There are some shops where groceries like dal, eggs and butter are sold. But to avail other facilities such as a pharmacy or an ATM, one has to go to Champhai town. I also go to Champhai once in two months to get my necessary work done. If I order something online it gets delivered to a contact of mine in Champhai, from whom I collect the item later.”

As many children here give up studies after a point, Bal is also encouraging them to study further and creating an awareness among the parents. 

Read more: Champhai district in Mizoram is now a hotspot for wildlife trafficking in India

Creating conservation awareness 

Bal, whose research is being funded by the Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES), organised a few workshops in the area to spread awareness about the animals found here. “I asked the kids to draw any animal they have seen. All of them were doing this exercise for the first time, however, they enjoyed it. They now want more such workshops to happen,” he says.

Samson Thanruma, who was the DFO of Khawzawl until June 2022 praises Bal’s efforts in Murlen.“Hunting is an issue in Murlen and Amit has worked with the forest department to create awareness about the impacts of hunting. Also, through his writing and photographs, people from outside are learning about Murlen. In fact, he photographed the rare carnivorous mammal, spotted linsang, inside MNP, which in my opinion is one of the best photographs of the animal taken in India.”

Children holding a placard about wildlife awareness in Mizoram's Murlen village.
Bal organised workshops in the villages to raise awareness about the animals found in the region. Photo by Amit Kumar Bal.

Regular patrolling is an issue in MNP as the forest department is understaffed. Bal says, “Because of staff crunch, patrolling is not regular inside MNP. However, during winter, it becomes better. I remember once the forest department recovered some snares which were not kept by local residents. The people hunt sometimes, mainly for meat, using shotguns like the 12 bore. They don’t use snares.”

Thanruma, admits that there is a staff crunch in the department. “However, our staff is very dedicated, and we are trying our best with whatever resources we have at our disposal. Hunting by locals is an issue but it has subsided by a large extent in recent years,” he says.

Bal’s research work from Murlen

In January this year, Bal and some Murlen residents encountered the only venomous primate, slow loris inside MNP. The group faced a critical situation when a 54-year-old farmer was bitten by the primate, when he tried to capture the loris with his bare hands.

“About 15 minutes after being bitten, the farmer began to experience severe stomach pain, which was followed by chest pain, difficulty in breathing, nausea, headache and temporary loss of vision. His face swelled up and he started feeling cold. As the nearest hospital in Champhai was 50 kilometres away, we decided to provide him 500 milligrams (mg) of Paracetamol and 250 mg of Avil with warm water. After three hours of rest, the farmer felt better and was able to walk back to the village. By the next day, he had completely recovered from the symptoms of the slow loris’ venom and didn’t need any further medication. Cases of slow loris bite are extremely rare,” said Bal.

Based on this incident, Bal along with Anthony J. Giordano and Sushanto Gouda, wrote a paper Effects of a Bengal Slow Loris Nycticebus bengalensis (Primate: Lorisidae) bite: a case study from Murlen National Park, Mizoram, India.

Amit Kumar Bal outside Murlen National Park. Bal photographed many rare carnivores in this park. He has also set up cameras to monitor the animals. Photo by Amit Kumar Bal.
Amit Kumar Bal outside Murlen National Park. Bal photographed many rare carnivores in this park. He has also set up cameras to monitor the animals. Photo from Amit Kumar Bal.

Bal, along with his co-researchers H. Lalremsanga, Lal Biakzuala and Gernot Vogel, also recorded a new species of non-venomous snake, scientifically known as Herpetoreas murlen, after the place where it was found. Their paper Molecular phylogenetic analyses of lesser-known colubrid snakes reveal a new species of Herpetoras and new insights into the systematic of Gongylosoma scriptum and its allies from northeastern India was published in Salamandra, a German journal of Herpetology.

Bal dreads the day when he will have to eventually leave Mizoram. “However, that day is not coming soon. After finishing my study in Murlen, I have plans to do my research on the entire Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot region in the state of Mizoram. I have indeed fallen in love with Mizoram,” he says, fondly.

Read more: [Commentary] Community collaboration in field research: Notes from Meghalaya


Banner image: Amit Kumar Bal setting camera traps. Photo from Amit Kumar Bal.

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