The Wisdom of the Ancients Resonates Till Date

This week, India celebrates the 67th year of National Wildlife from 2nd to 8th October with an aim to protect and preserve the flora and fauna of India. The theme for this year is Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet.

For centuries, humans and wildlife have shared spaces and resources and have lived in sync with each other. In the Indian ethos, animals have been given utmost significance and have been worshipped by many communities. Animals are regarded as deities (Narasimha and Ganesha) or they are associated with a deity, for instance (Garuda (eagle), buffalo, crow). Cultures across the world like the Native Americans, Egyptians, Japanese and Greeks have also worshipped animals from time immemorial.

Owing to this reason, till date, many communities who co-live with wildlife. There are instances of violent encounters between the two beings but this is only one of the many facets of the ongoing encounters. According to Meera Oommen, Founder, Dakshin Foundation, conflicts arise between the local communities and wildlife for two reasons. Firstly, it is due to the negative interactions between the two, and secondly, it is due to differences that arise between the various communities that live by the wild, for reasons such as aspirations for land.

But this focus on violent encounters masks the positive interactions and peaceful coexistence between the man and the wild for over several millennia. Experts have observed that for many communities, being in conflict with the wild is an integral part of reverence and kinship. These communities consider an attack on them as punishment or retribution by the animals for the misdeeds conducted by humans. It must be borne in mind that coexistence does not preclude elements of conflict. Between accommodative strategies and negative interactions, there are engagements between the two to ensure continued existence of wildlife populations.

The Kondh communities of Orissa believe that a man-eating tiger is a ‘were tiger’, which means that the soul of a man has entered a tiger by divine forces to carry out malicious acts. There are other beliefs among the community that say the Earth goddess, enraged by the lack of human sacrifices, carries it out herself. Tiger worship is still carried out in regions of Central and Northwestern India. Communities like Garos, Rabhas, Bodos, Mikirs, Karbis, Tiwas and Khasis, and many Naga communities have folklore traditions on tigers and leopards. The Mishmi community of Arunachal Pradesh claim strong kinship with tigers and refrain from killing them.

Many indigenous tribes celebrate festivals that symbolise the importance of conservation of wildlife beyond the global concerns of international conventions, including the belief that nature (wildlife) is to be worshipped and not to be mindlessly exploited. The festivals and associated arts, folk songs, dance and culture thus becomes a source of enthusiasm and information which links them directly with the practice of wildlife conservation, glorifying harmonious man-animal relationship practices; a boost to ecotourism.

The annual festival of Waghbaras celebrates the village deity Waghoba, revolving around the tiger or leopard, Wagh. Another wildlife extravaganza is the Hornbill Festival that is conducted over a period of 10 days, celebrating the age-old traditions of the 16 tribes of Nagaland (Ao, Angami, Chang, Konyak, Lotha, Sumi, Chakhesang, Khiamniungam, Kachari, Phom, Rengma, Sangtam, Yimchungrü, Kuki, Zeliang and Pochury) through art, dance, music and food.

Organised by the State Government of Nagaland, it is the oldest festival of its kind among all the states of Northeast India, having started in the year 2000. Visitors enter through the 16 gates, with each gate adorned with special motifs that represent all the distinct tribes of Nagaland, a mosaic of multi-ethnic state. This is a tourism promotion strategy wherein the festival acts as a window to encourage visitors to explore other districts of Nagaland (source).

The traditional headgear of the Naga warrier is decorated with the hornbill’s feather. A photographer’s delight, the festival attracts both Indian and International travellers in large numbers.

The hornbill is revered by the Naga tribe since ages. As per a local folklore legend, once a Naga youth, unable to bear his step-mother’s ill-treatment, turned into a Hornbill and flew out of the village promising to visit once every year. At one such flight, he saw two of his beloved married and settled. As a token of love, he presented them with a feather each from his body; bidding a final goodbye to the land. Since then, people use the hornbill’s feathers in their headgears and dance elegantly celebrating the tradition with their community (source). Thus, the bird is central to the Naga tradition and is worshipped as a symbol of courage and beauty.

Today, the Hornbill festival showcases the state’s unique culture and is promoting tourism, being the most popular festival in Northeast India. It features traditional arts, dances, folk songs, and indigenous games. All this takes place amid immaculate replicas of tribal huts (morungs), complete with wood carvings and hollow log drum instruments. The drums are beating in a haunting symphony at the end of the day. Morungs used to be community spaces where young boys became worthy Naga warriors by learning war techniques. Tourists are welcomed by the different tribes living here who are always ready to share insights about their local heritage, clothing, and present-day lifestyle. In the evening, the morungs become the stage where tribal performances and dances are celebrated (source). The festival's opening and closing ceremonies are another highlight, with spectacular shows from all the tribes in the amphitheater. (Source). Thus maintenance of morungs forms a significant part of Nagaland’s promotion of heritage, art and culture.

Before the pandemic, the festival emerged as a tourist hotspot showcasing India’s cultural vibrancy and heritage. The tourism department recorded more than two lakh visitors in the 2019 edition of the Hornbill Festival, including three thousand foreign tourists and more than fifty thousand domestic tourists (source). International tattoo artists wanting to promote indigenous designs and international bands like ABBA also graced the event.

After Nagaland, Tripura also began hosting the world-famous Hornbill Festival, to build up inter-tribal interaction, conserve the declining population of oriental pied hornbill, and boost tourism. The Hornbill festival revives, protects, and promotes the sustenance of rich local North Eastern traditions, bringing the local folklores to life.

In 2012, over 10,000 Amur Falcons locally called Akhoipuina (the world’s longest travelling birds that migrate to India) were massacred for their meat by poachers in Pangti village in Nagaland. Villagers, wildlife activists and the Nagaland government initiated a 3-day celebration to strengthen human-nature relationships. During the festival, numerous events are organised like bird-watching, nature treks, nature photography, and films and workshops on awareness about the Amur falcon migration and conservation. It attracts tourists and has led to an alternative source of revenue for the locals. The eco-tourism project has changed the status of Amur Falcons’ condition in Nagaland from that of being hunted to a symbol of hope and faith as they have become Birds of God that are believed to bring a good harvest in Nagaland. This is symbolic of how Nagaland has come a long way in terms of being conscious about conserving nature and wildlife.

With the villages near Amur falcon roosting sites lacking tourist infrastructure, WTI took up the mantle of constructing an eco-tourism guest house in the area to take care of tourists. This community project, incorporating elements of local architecture has been handed over to the local Pangti Village Council, to indulge the local communities in the task of wildlife conservation. The local people are to aid this initiative by displaying and providing information about the history of their cultures and the status of Amur Falcons to the visitors. The locals are also increasingly being trained as local guides and homestay hosts to boost international tourism.

Outdoor activities are also organised for tourists like boating, hiking, swimming and diving. Today, the world has recognized Pangti village in Nagaland as the world’s Amur Falcon capital. The conservation of Amur falcon is a great success story for India, as it has happened with peoples’ participation. (source)

Other festivals include the Myishi tribe’s Pakke Paga Hornbill Festival, the Kaziranga Elephant Festival in Assam, and the Velas Turtle Festival in Maharashtra. These festivals reiterate to us and the world, the reverence wildlife is given which has led to harmony in the jungle.

Most of these festivals attract a large crowd and this benefits the local communities. Most national parks have jungle lodges that appeal to many for a quick weekend getaway and to many wildlife enthusiasts.

CSP was in conversation with Jayanth Sharma, wildlife photographer, and CEO of Toehold photography, where he expressed to us the role of jungle lodges in maintaining the livelihoods of local communities living in and around the forests. He said “When one has to help conserve something, it is important for them to understand what they need to work with and enjoy it. This happens to be the first goal of any wildlife tourism initiative, and the resort plays a role by hosting enthusiasts and other tourists”.  

[caption id="attachment_12729" align="alignnone" width="708"] The role of a resort, mainly, is to employ. People around the fringes of the park, work as guides, safari drivers, housekeeping staff, gardening, and many more. A lodge or  a resort employs 25 – 50 people[/caption]

In the case of Kabini, there are 50 villages around, and the lifestyle, economic status of those living in the village and is owing to tourists and many foreign diplomats, who happen to be wildlife enthusiasts, who visit national parks and sanctuaries.

These communities continue to live in sync with the wild, thus maintaining harmony. Conservationists are always looking at interventions across landscapes to make better the lives of both man and wild. But is there really a need when you look at the many who continue to live with the wild with zero hassles? One should reflect on how fleeting these strategies we come up with in comparison to resilient communities like the Kondh or Waghobas.

 (Insights by Ms Tanya Chaudhary)