Updated: Jul 4, 2021
Read the tremendous effort invested by the local community and conservation agencies in protecting Amur falcons that were earlier killed in hundreds of thousands in northeast India. The story titled Amur Falcon: Connecting Conservation Dots Across Equator, written by Dr. Naveen Pandey, was originally published by Pacific Flyways, USA (Volume 55, Issue 8, February 2021)
Lungliamang Pamei and his fellow Naga farmers have been mesmerizingly staring at thousands of Amur falcons as they look down the cliff. They are numerous - uncountable for the villagers - yet; they are making efforts to spot Chiulon and Irang, the satellite-tagged falcons. Filled with pride and joy, they are assured that the two falcons have returned to their village in Tamenglong, a hill district in the north-eastern state of Manipur in India, after traveling 29,000 km since being tagged last year. They have vowed to protect them at all costs.
Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) is a sexually dichromatic, transcontinental, trans-equatorial long-distance flocking migratory bird. It drew sensational national and international conservation attention when mass harvesting at a migratory stopover site in northeast India was reported in 2012. A study by Conservation India estimated that more than 120,000 birds were annually hunted in Nagaland, another state in northeast India. BirdLife International (2014) estimated the global population of Amur falcons to be around 10,00,000. So, nearly one-tenth of the population was being hunted.
Following massive uproar through regional, national, and international media, the local community, political leadership, and the state forest department joined hands with conservationists and researchers to protect Amur falcons in Nagaland. It is one of the most successful conservation stories around the world today. At the time of the inception of the project, the socio-cultural link with the bird was missing. Many agencies like Conservation International, Bombay Natural History Society, Nagaland Forest Department, and local organizations identified key people within the community who could act as change agents. Emotionally challenging crisis narrative, community engagement, livelihood projects, and sustained efforts of external agencies brought about massive change leading to a complete halt of poaching in Nagaland since 2013. Pangti, a village in Nagaland, surfaced on the global conservation map as a pilgrimage for advanced birdwatchers, and Nagaland fondly earned a moniker, Falcon capital of the world.
Three Amur falcons (named Naga, Wokha, and Pangti based on the names of the tribe, district, and village, respectively), loaded with a 5 gm ARGOS satellite in 2013 in Nagaland, displayed the fantastic abilities of the falcons to fly long distances and use monsoon tailwinds. The project was jointly sponsored and supported by the Wildlife Institute of India, Nagaland Forest Department, MME/BirdLife Hungary and the Coordinating Unit of the CMS Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey (Raptors MoU). The satellite-tagged birds revealed their flight route to encompass other states in northeast India (Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and Mizoram) before flying over Bangladesh, Sundarbans and south India. The birds carried on to fly over the Arabian Sea and then to South Africa (over Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana). Their return journey from wintering ground in South Africa to the northern breeding grounds in Mongolia (around 14,500 km) proved to be equally dramatic and adventurous. Meyburg and his colleagues informed that their impeccable timing to return to their breeding sites makes it possible for them to use the nests of Magpie Pica pica, earning themselves a title of obligatory nest cleptoparasite (a nest-stealing species). They also reported eight ocean crossings by a satellite-tagged bird between 2010-14.
The success story of Nagaland has gained roots, and the neighboring states (especially Manipur) have started to work harder to protect the avian visitors within their administrative boundaries. Tamenglong district in Manipur set an example by banning all interferences with Amur falcons during their stay in October and November. Tamenglong district was the first in Manipur to ban hunting, catching, killing, and selling Amur falcons. The District Magistrate's order read, "hunting, killing, or destruction of any wildlife including the migratory Amur Falcon, locally called Akhuaipuina in any way for food or possession or otherwise is a punishable offense under Section 50 and 51 of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972". Last year, as the Falcons had started flocking in, the district administration of Tamenglong had got all airguns deposited in the 36 villages to the village authorities for the two months of roosting time in October and November.
The neighboring Ukhrul district in Manipur timely responded with a total ban on catching and killing there. The falcons reached from Tamenglong to Ukhul via Tabudi village of Senapati district. Amur falcons are called Langthik in the Tangkhul dialect of the Ukhrul district.
The movement of Amur falcons between roosting sites in northeast India during their two-month-long stay has been observed between Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Assam as they lack roost-fidelity. A study in South Africa reported a similar movement style between various roosting sites in the non-breeding stay, primarily guided by the distribution of insects. So, the protection and conservation of Amur falcons between swarming episodes call for coordinated synergy between adjoining administrative units.
Rainforest Club, a local conservationist group, has galvanized community support for Amur falcon protection by organizing Amur Falcon Festival since 2015 jointly with the Manipur Forest Department. The Corbett Foundation, a conservation NGO, has established a network of youths to strengthen the falcon conservation efforts in Tamenglong further. The Manipur Forest Department has mostly adopted awareness literature and posters designed by The Corbett Foundation to reach out to the students and villagers not to harm the birds and promote ecotourism as experienced in Nagaland.