City-Dwelling Anthropologist and Naturalist Seeks Arunachal’s Wildlife

By Hema Vijay,Womens Feature Service

As she trekked to Taflagam, the last village on the Indo-China border in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in February 2006, anthropologist Ambika Aiyadurai was in for a shock. This is a terrain probably never visited by a city dweller so far.

Accompanied by her guide and interpreter, Lobinso, a young man from the indigenous Mishmi tribe, she passed by rows of curious, 1.5 metre-tall bamboo huts on stilts (to keep flood waters as well as wild animals out), before climbing up a carved wooden log – that served as steps – leading into one of the homes. The reason for her visit: A local religious ceremony. She recalls, “It took a while for my eyes to get adjusted to the darkness inside the hut. A strong smell of rice beer, meat and opium hung in the air. The walls behind the men had rows of tar-black objects.” A villager casually explained to her that they were animal heads.

On display on the walls of the bamboo hut were rows of skulls of serow, barking deer, black bear and takin. The skulls in the other rooms were mostly of cows and ‘mithun’ (semi-domesticated cattle found in the Northeast). Apparently such displays are normal in Mishmi homes since the tribe has a long hunting tradition.

Aiyadurai explains, “Such displays can be found in every Mishmi hut. Meat eating is virtually mandatory here, and two ‘mithuns’, eight cows, four pigs, and 24 chickens were sacrificed for this particular puja that I was a guest at – a puja that was being held to ensure that the hut owner Arindo’s father’s soul reached the heavens.” Incidentally, tribal healers advocate animal sacrifices for getting rid of illnesses, too. “Most people, including the educated ones here, do not realise the environmental impact of their hunting, as hunting is part of their daily lives,” says the anthropologist, who has been studying the social lives of tribals in the Northeast.

Earlier her research paper on ‘Wildlife Hunting by Miju Mishmi’ for the University College of London had evoked academic acclaim. “This kind of research is just what we need. Understanding the reasons and realities behind our tribals’ instinct for hunting alone can create sustainable campaigns against hunting,” remarks R. Venkatraman, Founder Member, Madras Naturalists Society.

Perhaps equally remarkable is the fact that this woman, born and bred in a city, decided to head for the wilds rather than sit inside an air-conditioned lab to pursue her career. “I have always been keen on nature,” she says simply.

For the last several years, Aiyadurai – who now splits her time between her hometown Trichy in Tamil Nadu, her brother’s home in Gujarat, the wilds of the Northeast, and wherever else her research leads her to – makes time for her research work whenever she can.

As an anthropologist Aiyadurai also studies man-animal conflicts. She was therefore invited to Arunachal Pradesh to observe the attacks on the local cattle by wild dogs. Going into the area, she was at first appalled at the wildlife trophies she found displayed. Every house she visited in the area seemed to have the skins of wild animals. Another startling observation: While cardamom plantations are common in the cultivated niches of these areas, what is really rampant is opium cultivation.

“I wanted to find out why people hunt here. The answer is quite simple – it is not that they don’t have alternate means. These regions have a culture of hunting. For them, hunting is not an economic activity. They are nature worshippers. Their animistic philosophy makes them believe in forest spirits, and their belief is that to appease these spirits, they must hunt. And a lavish spread of meat is mandatory at weddings,” explains Aiyadurai.

On her way to Taflagam, Aiyadurai had halted at Chipru, a small village, where she noticed a man roasting a wild bird with a bamboo fork to make a quick snack for his young daughter. Besides this, people generally – whether they are young doctors posted in the Northeast or local MLAs – all have a penchant for jungle meat, according to Aiyadurai. The children too have good hunting skills. Even as they play, they often down birds with pebbles using their catapults, and then roast them for a snack. “Weddings without servings of wild meat are unthinkable for the Mishmi tribe, and brothers, uncles and relatives join the groom’s hunting party weeks in advance to ensure that there is no shortage of wild meat,” she reveals.

Aiyadurai also discovered that each of these tribes have their own hunting agenda. “Some use animal body parts to make mats and bags, others incorporate it in their attire. For instance, the Nyshi men in east Kameng district wear the casque of the great hornbill to symbolise manhood, while the Mishmi men in Lohit district wear black furry bags made from the black bear skin.”

Clearly, hunting has been ingrained in this tribe’s traditions down the years and such practices would be very difficult to change. “While once people could sustainably hunt bush meat, now it has reached unprecedented levels. From the hoolock gibbons to the musk deer, the role and value of wildlife in local culture has assumed new dimensions,” Aiyadurai observes, and points out how villagers are often surprised to know that there is a Wildlife Protection Act in existence.

Everywhere in the world, whether in the Americas, Africa or Asia, tribals have always coexisted with nature, even while surviving on hunting. Living in the wilds, they converse with the elements, know how to read the signs of change and understand both the lurking dangers and the healing power that is inherent in nature. Their entire universe is limited to the boundaries of the forest. Tribals in Northeast India are no different. But now, with forests shrinking and the need for conservation becoming more urgent, the extraordinary hunting ethos of some of these tribes is emerging as a challenge for the country and its environment. “The tussle is between livelihood, traditional practices and agriculture,” observes Aiyadurai.

While it is true that rampant hunting has to be controlled in an era where the world stands in danger of losing innumerable animal species, Aiyadurai believes that we first need to comprehend these local cultures. “It is good to have an understanding of the need for hunting in these communities before setting out to address the issue. Mere enforcement won’t work. The only fallout of that would be raising the level of the already existing animosity between these tribals and forest officials.” For that matter, enforcement hasn’t worked well even in other parts of India.

What may work is to get people to understand that if they continue unsustainable hunting their forests will soon be bereft of wildlife. According to Aiyadurai, tribal knowledge of wildlife must be harnessed and converted into livelihoods that can benefit both the people and the wildlife.

“Remember, there is something called social justice. So this process has to be in partnership with the tribals rather than by excluding them and taking them out of their ecosystem,” says Aiyadurai.

While modern societies have to conserve their environment, they also need to be aware of the conservation of communities that exist out of the mainstream. At the end of the day, people matter too.