Scene from a lookout in the eco-camp. Photo Arati Rao
I had reached the border of Arunchal Pradesh - the north-eastern-most state in India on Day 1.
Crossing the border yesterday was a breeze. I reached the eco-camp where I was staying, found my room and checked in. It was a basic but comfortable camp, run by a few members of the local tribe – the Nyishis. A couple of these folks belong to the Ghora Aabhe or the council of village headmen. They have come together with the help of a couple NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), put in their own money, donated some of their land and established this camp.
Pale for breakfast. Photo Arati Rao
It was dawn by 5AM and I sighed as I lugged myself out of bed. A very loud screeching cricket had kept me awake almost the whole night and had just fallen silent – in time for me to get dressed! I gulped down a sumptuous breakfast of “pale” (something like a calzone, stuffed with vegetables) and topped it off with chai (tea). My researcher friend drove up just as I was finishing and we set off for the villages.
Tajeng Tachang, a village elder, is a nest-watcher.
Just as we were driving out, we picked up Tajeng Tachang, a village elder – he was probably in his 60s and was the only guy in the area who still wore the traditional Nyishi headgear all the time. His nephew, Pahi Tachang was articulate and thoughtful. He spoke about the problems facing the communities at the edge of the forests – like elephants raiding the crops – and the lack of good teachers in their small schools. He also spoke about their customs and how things are changing – many for the better. The Nyishis speak their own language "Nyishi" but most of them understand and some speak Hindi too. If you look at the image on the left, you will see the elaborate Nyishi headgear: They wear cane hats and hair-knots. These are pierced by two brass pins and are considered protection as well as decoration.
Tajek Wage in full Nyishi war regalia doing a war dance
We spent almost three hours here and then went to the house of the headman Tajek Wage – another elder, 65, of the neighboring village. He was engrossed in his work and gruffly dismissed us at first. But when I started taking photos of him (with his permission), he suddenly sprung into action, told me, “Wait! I change and come,” in his broken English. After disappearing into the house for a few minutes, Tajek Wage reappeared in full Nyishi fighting regalia! Moreover, he began to dance a war dance. He was quite the entertainer.
hornbills flying home to roost in a tree. Photo Arati Rao
These village elders are part of a very important initiative started by my researcher friends – The Hornbill Nest Adoption Program. The Nyishis (and almost all the tribes in north-east India) used to hunt. Hornbill casques were prized for their headgear. But now, with the hornbills fast disappearing, the Nyishis have been persuaded and have begun to believe in the importance of protecting the bird and the other beings of the forest. They have given up hunting in the area I visited and are a major force in convincing Nyishis around Arunachal Pradesh to do likewise.
The village headmen from nine Nyishi villages will monitor nests that hornbills use during the nesting season (starts in January). Donors from around the world support this program by sponsoring an adopted nest. The money goes towards paying the salaries for the nest-watchers and for equipment needed to monitor the nests.
I had seen and heard so much that day. I spent the evening writing up my notes. The next couple days would be spent in the forest; visiting anti-poaching camps and watching the researchers go about their jobs. It would be interesting, for sure. Would I see a tiger, I wondered.