Unsteadily, we inch our way along the narrow trail on the edge of the mountain, peering cautiously over the edge in search of the elusive spot-breasted parrotbill (Paradoxornis guttaticollis). The parrotbills were spotted along this grassy hillside in Nagaland’s Zunheboto district just a couple of weeks ago by Angulie Meyase, Nagaland’s leading bird guide. So throwing caution to the wind we thread down this treacherous, twisting necklace. An unending expanse of clouds beneath us gives us the illusion we are above the sea. Luckily for us, a thick mat of undergrowth cloaks the sheer drop beneath our feet. But the early morning chill soon transforms into a golden, sun bright day. And we shed our hopes of seeing the birds along with our many layers of warm clothing.
The day before, though, some of us were lucky enough to spot a flock of grey-headed parrotbills (Paradoxornis gularis) for the better part of an hour. We watch them swoop and turn through forest groves on the other side of the valley near Sukhai village. I am accompanying the second set of ecotourists to visit the community-conserved areas of the Tizu Valley Biodiversity and Livelihood Network, where TERI with Titli Trust, the Nagaland Forest Department, many volunteers and the funding support of GEF-Satoyama via Conservation International-Japan has initiated a community-conservation and ecotourism programme. We are still finding our feet with the tourism venture, and each batch of intrepid explorers that accompany us are as much our friends, guides and mentors as they are ecotourists in a wondrous, remote land. On this trip, Sunita Reginold and Varsha Gulalia take over the local kitchen and prepare spicy chole, Ajay Maira, gives us invaluable tips based on his two decade experience of running rafting ventures, Gillian Wright writes on her experience as an ‘experimental ecotourist’ while Akash Gulalia guides people on butterflies.
In just a couple of years, the local communities of three villages, Sukhai, Ghukhuyi and Kivikhu in the heart of Nagaland have banded together to protect their river and forests from hunting and fishing. But the path has not always been easy. I remember when we first brought our future funders from Conservation International-Japan to meet the local communities; the first question the village people asked was whether we were bringing in government grants and schemes! And when we told them we were planning on providing training on documentation of their Amimi, as butterflies are called in the local Sema language, and on birds, they could not quite believe their ears! We still occasionally have to convince them that they are protecting their wildlife, not for us, but for their children. And they still don’t understand why we prefer to stay in their flower bedecked, trellised, bamboo and wood houses, rather than in pucca, concrete ones. But they are increasingly used to our eccentricities and happy to welcome us to into their homes and hearths.
Luckily for us, we were whole-heartedly supported in our efforts by Ivan Zhimomi of Sukhai village who ensures that this conservation initiative spreads to surrounding villages. And it is now the communities who drive the process, with us pitching in as technical consultants to the Tizu Valley Network. But these are not the only community-conserved areas in Nagaland; as many as one-third of Nagaland’s villages have created community-conserved areas (CCAs) and impose various regulations on hunting and felling in these CCAs. Some of the more well-known examples include Sendenyu and Khonoma, as well as the spectacular conservation success of Pangti village in Wokha district that has completely stopped the slaughter of the migratory Amur falcons. However, in a land where hunting is rampant and widespread, where the timber mafia has taken root and where wildlife is hard to see, our villages in Zunheboto are relatively unique in that they have banned all hunting and fishing, not only in their community-conserved areas but in the entire forested landscape, at great cost to themselves.
It is another bright day near Sukhai and we wander in search of butterflies and birds. Mixed hunting parties of Golden Babblers (Stachyridopsis chrysaea), Rufous-faced warblers (Abroscopus albogularis albogularis) and Grey-hooded warblers (Seicercus xanthoschistos jerdoni) reveal themselves in patches of dazzling sunlight. I am transfixed by the sight of a Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo (Surniculus lugubris) that I had earlier easily dismissed as an Ashy Drongo.
Further down, local butterfly expert Tshetsholo Naro (Alo) quietly snaps a picture of a Malay tree shrew (Tupaia belangeri) in the middle of the road. Though the birds are still reticent, there is birdsong around us, with frequent calls of the Streak-breasted (Pomatorhinus ruficollis) and Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babblers (Pomatorhinus mcclelland). Moments of drama result when a Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides) gets entangled in a spider’s web and is then rescued by Ivito, a local guide from Sukhai village. The last two years of hunting bans appears to be leading to the revival of wildlife in the area. Our surveys have recorded 222 species of birds and more than 200 species of butterflies and moths. Mammals are reappearing in our forests including some unidentified squirrel and bat species. And we now see live snakes including the Mandarin Trinket and Green Rat Snake (Gonyosoma oxycephalum).
Later in the day we languidly dip our feet into the crystal clear waters of the Tizu river and watch mud puddling butterflies. We are distracted by two people with batteries who appear on the horizon. But they belong to a neighbouring village that is not part of the Tizu Network, and are free to fish in their own waters. For ages, Bokato Muru of Kivikhu village has urged us to hold meetings and work with the communities of the neighbouring Phek district. But much as we would like to, our project ends in December this year with no additional funding in sight. But there is much cause for hope.
That night, as we take a torch light stroll in a nearby forest, Mona Khanna suddenly points to a black blob that slowly parses itself into a rare Hodgson’s Frogmouth. Despite the many hurdles, I believe that the enthusiasm of the local communities and the support of people in search of adventure will help this initiative to spread across the landscape. The people of the Tizu network are already working independently-organising a Chengu festival to educate their young people, roping in local bird and butterfly guides to enthuse their youth. The local administration supports their endeavours and the three villages now each plan to ‘adopt’ another village. The initiative is slowly becoming self- sustaining. And I hope that the Nagaland government eventually recognises the value of the many community-conserved areas in the State with a policy to sustain them.