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From Slaughter to Spectacle

…education inspires locals to love Amur Falcon

Five years ago, hundreds of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons were being slaughtered annually in northeast India. Today, they are celebrated.

Amur Falcon
Eco-clubs give locals a new appreciation of the Amur Falcon ©Thangam Velusamy / Shutterstock

Amur Falcons Falco amurensis are incredible long-distance migrants. During their travels from their breeding grounds in north-east Asia, hundreds of thousands of them cross the Indian Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean to their wintering grounds in southern Africa. However, in November 2012, an estimated 100,000 falcons didn’t make it past Nagaland, a state in north-east India. They were trapped, slaughtered or taken to local markets alive and sold as fresh food.

The shocking news spread quickly across the world thanks to a video put together by the campaigning organisation Conservation India. The video showed how local hunters were using huge nylon nets across the Amur Falcon’s forest roosting sites, capturing them indiscriminately in enormous quantities. The appalling scale of the killing prompted the Bombay Natural History Society (BirdLife in India) to contact the Indian Minister for Environment and Forests and the Chief Minister of Nagaland.

Amur Falcon in net
Amur Falcons are trapped in nets like these no more ©Conservation India

Simultaneously, BirdLife set up an emergency fund to help BNHS coordinate a series of actions in order to halt the massacre. Many BirdLife Partners such as BirdLife South Africa and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) also lent their voice to the campaign and received international support. The then-Minister for the Environment Jayanthi Natarajan personally intervened, which led to the destruction of nets and to the release of some of the captive falcons that were still alive.

The tragedy was stopped that year, but BNHS needed to put steps in place to ensure that future crises would be prevented. Supported by the emergency appeal, BNHS coordinated a widespread programme of action, working with Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. Field teams were established to monitor Amur Falcons at their roosting sites and to directly intervene to prevent the atrocities from happening ever again. Locals were employed to patrol the Doyang Reservoir, one of the largest roosting sites for the Amurs. The Government’s Forest Department also joined the patrolling team, who acted as conservation ambassadors within the local community.

The falcons were trapped, slaughtered or taken to local markets alive and sold as fresh food

After a process of consultation, BNHS decided to focus on natural history education as a means of advocacy. Several eco-clubs were set up, using a unique model. Local adults from Doyang, Pangti, Asha and Sungro villages were trained and employed as teachers, and young students between the ages of eight and 17 years were given free environmental education. The aim was to teach children about the wonders of bird migration and the importance of keeping certain wild bird populations intact. To this day, BNHS also runs eco-clubs independently in Jalukie, Lilien, Bongkolong and Ahthibung villages in Nagaland, resulting in more than 500 students being tutored.

BNHS is also supporting natural history outreach and advocacy in Manipur through the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN). The Amur Falcon dance festivals held in that state are the first of their kind. As a result, Tamenglong in Manipur, which sees a very large congregation of birds every year, has also passed a resolution to stop hunting Amur Falcons through their village council.

Spactacle
Scenes from a dance festival held to raise awareness of the Amur Falcon’s plight ©Neha Sinha

Tackling the underlying causes of illegal killing in communities is no easy feat. Yet the following year, Amur Falcons were granted safe passage through north-east India, thanks to the joint action of locals, government and NGOs. As attitudes changed in the space of a single year, not a single Amur Falcon was trapped during and since the 2013 winter migration. The hundreds of thousands of Amur Falcons that visited the Doyang Reservoir that year were finally able to do so in peace.

We have not told the locals what to do. Through education and skill development they decided to give up hunting.

We have come a very long way from working in a state which has no conservation history to trying to advocate for wildlife in a sensitive manner, without hurting local sentiment”, says Neha Sinha, Advocacy and Policy Officer, BNHS, and Principle Investigator of the Amur Falcon Project. “One of the reasons we decided to impart natural history education is because education itself is empowering. We have not told the locals what to do. We have shown them Amur Falcon migration maps, falcon biology and stories, and inspired an absolute dedication to the community’s education and skill development, and they decided to give up hunting. For this, we have the community to thank.

Not a single Amur Falcon was trapped during the 2013 winter migration

Pangti, the largest hunting village in the area, recently declared a total ban on airguns – a very significant development as it was a common hunting method. Furthermore, the village council put a seasonal ban on all wild bird hunting, fulfilling another one of BNHS’ project goals in the area.

Locals have been exemplary in giving up their hunting practices. Today the Doyang Reservoir is recognised as a stopover for up to a million Amur Falcons every year, a spectacle that all locals, from government officials to former hunters, can all enjoy together.

Alex Dale

31st January 2018