- The National Tiger Conservation Authority has proposed to notify the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve. If this materialises, it will be India’s first high altitude tiger reserve.
- However, this move affects the indigenous Idu Mishmi tribe, as they feel this will hinder their access to the forest.
- The presence of tigers in Dibang Valley was first confirmed in 2012, when two cubs were rescued from the Angrim Valley.
The plan to notify Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh as a tiger reserve has caused unrest among the indigenous Idu Mishmi tribe. The community feels that this will “hinder their access” to the forest. They now question their survival. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) approved the plan in April at its meeting. The plan to declare it as a tiger reserve have been in the offing for several years.
The Idu Mishmi is a sub-tribe of the Mishmi group in Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring Tibet. The other two groups include Digaru and Miju. The community is known for their expert craftsmanship and weaving, and they primarily live in Mishmi Hills, bordering Tibet.
Their ancestral homes are spread throughout the districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley. The tribe’s population is estimated to comprise over 12,000 people, according to the 2011 census, and their language is considered “endangered” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The Idu Mishmis have a strong connection with the region’s flora and fauna. They also believe that tigers are their “elder brothers” and have folklores around the relationship. Killing tigers, for the Idu Mishmis, is a taboo.
The plan for the tiger reserve
In a 2018 study published by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), it was found that there were 11 tigers in a limited surveyed area of 336 square kilometres, in Dibang Valley and its adjoining landscape in Arunachal Pradesh. The study said that tigers do not necessarily use only the protected areas; they use the community forests outside the protected area as well. “Arguably, the Dibang landscape harbors more tigers than designated tiger reserves in the state. (Pakke and Namdapha have nine and four tigers, respectively). The Dibang Valley District, if surveyed extensively and fully, may have a potentially high number of tiger individuals.” It also pointed out that since the Idu Mishmi tribe has a strong cultural bond with tigers, the hunting pressure on tigers is not anticipated. “Hence, considering the cultural significance and uniqueness of the tigers in the landscape, any proposal for the tiger reserve needs to be done with the consensus of the local communities,” the study read.
The Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary (DWLS), which is surrounded by international borders in the north, east and west has rich faunal diversity. Many endemic and rare species like Mishmi takin, red serow, gorals, clouded leopard etc. are found in this landscape.
Tana Tapi, the Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden of Arunachal Pradesh, told Mongabay-India that the tiger reserve will mean greater protection for the species in the area. The area is said to have more than 20 tigers, though the exact numbers are unconfirmed, and is very remote with a scant human population, he added. In 2007, there were only two staff in the forest department office in Anini. And while the local people of Dibang Valley are very conservation oriented, there is a need for more forest department officials for proper monitoring and protection, he said. This is especially important to limit illegal trade of animal parts, considering Arunachal Pradesh’s vulnerable location.
Objection from the Idu Mishmi community
Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS), the apex cultural body of the community, has strongly opposed the idea of a proposed tiger reserve in Dibang Valley. A press release from IMCLS said that the declaration of DWLS did not follow the due procedure as mentioned in the provisions of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Land Acquisition Act, 1984, thus making the declaration arbitrary and illegal.
Ebbo Mili, an advocate from the Idu Mishmi community says that as provisions of Wildlife Protection Act or Forest Rights Act (FRA), a meeting should have been conducted with the locals before declaring the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, which didn’t happen. “Aa Idu Mishmis are forest dwellers, FRA was applicable here and a meeting should have been arranged chaired by the Gram Panchayat. However, the DC (District Collector) wrote a letter saying that there were no claims or objections by the villagers despite them being given 8 months’ time. They arbitrarily declared it as Wildlife Sanctuary and didn’t entertain the claims and objections.”
The press release expresses the concerns of the local tribal people who claim that the area of the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary is not demarcated properly and presently it encompasses almost half of Dibang Valley district. This “problem of the DWLS is not even sorted and the government has imposed the idea of the Dibang Tiger Reserve (DTS). The IMCLS has written to NTCA that there will be no tiger reserve, unless the legal process of recognition, determination and settlement of the legal rights of the indigenous communities in notifying the DWLS are addressed.” The locals fear that if the tiger reserve is notified, it will occupy even more land than that is currently demarcated for the sanctuary, impacting the lives of those who live in the region.
Ista Pulu, President of IMCLS told Mongabay-India that the Dibang Valley district has a total area of 9,129 square kilometre and they are using half of it as a wildlife sanctuary. “Now, if a tiger reserve happens, they will use more land,” he said. “We always had a very strong relationship with the jungle and if that becomes restricted, our survival will become difficult.”
He also refuted recent reports of some poachers being caught with tiger skin and body parts in Dibang Valley, and claimed it was an attempt to malign the community. “There is no conclusive evidence of any Idu Mishmi involved in such acts.”
Pulu said that the community never kills any tigers. “We never kill any tigers because of cultural taboos, even when they prey on their livestock which the district administration is also aware of. In fact, if someone in a village kills a tiger, the entire village has to observe an elaborate ritual for five days.”
Roing-based conservationist and wildlife photographer Anoko Mega Miso, who also hails from the Idu Mishmi community, questioned the purpose of having a tiger reserve in Dibang. “Earlier, they turned Kamlang and Namdapha into tiger reserves, but now there are hardly any tigers found there. In fact, if a tiger reserve happens, then outside elements including poachers will enter the area, which in turn will jeopardise the safety of tigers.”
How tigers were found in Dibang Valley
Though the Idu Mishmis have always claimed that they have lived with tigers since a long time, concrete evidence of the big cat’s presence in the landscape was confirmed only in 2012.
Ipra Mekola, a 57-year-old conservationist, said that the forest officials did not initially believe them when they spoke about the presence of tigers in the landscape. “Since the 1990s, I have tried to collect evidence of their [tigers’] presence from their scat, pug marks, kills etc. Then it was finally in 2012, when we managed to get live specimens,” he added.
Jahan Ahmed, a veterinarian who worked with the WTI in 2012 spoke about getting the specimens from Angrim Valley, a village around 20-22 kilometres from Anini, the district headquarter of Dibang district. “In December 2012, we got a call from Anini that hens were being killed by some carnivore in a village,” he said. “Initially, we thought it would be a leopard or a leopard cat, as tigers do not generally prey on hens. After speaking to locals, we realised that there were three tiger cubs whose mother was killed. Local conservationist Ipra Mekola had accompanied us.”
He said that the cubs were located only after multiple searches were conducted over 20 days. They were found in an abandoned water tank near a village. While one of the cubs died, the two others were sent to Itanagar Zoo in 2013.
Banner image: Tiger captured on camera trap at Dibang Valley in 2017. Photo by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).