Amur Falcon: The most successful conservation story in the world from India's Northeast
Known as the world’s longest travelling migratory birds, raptor Amur falcons have arrived in Nagaland, the falcon capital of the world, and in Manipur and Assam, after travelling for almost 29,000 kilometres from their summer breeding grounds in southeast Russia and northeast China.
As per the Tamenglong Forest Division, the first batch of the migratory birds, locally known as ‘Akhuaipuina’, were spotted by locals on October 9.
Last year, five Amur Falcons were fitted with satellite radio transmitters by the state forest department in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, to study and monitor the route of the migratory birds. They were named Chiulon, Puching, Phalong, Irang and Barak after places and rivers in Tamenglong.
Irang, the satellite radio-tagged Amur falcon, arrived in Manipur’s Tamenglong district on October 25, having travelled 29,000 kilometres from its breeding ground in China. Chiulon followed Irang.
Meanwhile in Nagaland, the authorities geared up to host the Amurs. Limawabang Jamir, Deputy Commissioner of Mokokchung district in Nagaland, warned of strict punitive action and jail time for those found hunting, trapping, killing or selling Amur Falcons, protected by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
In Tamenlong, Manipur, locals and forest officials of Puching and surrounding villages started patrolling the roosting sites after locals spotted the first batch of the migratory birds on October 9.
The team also patrolled along Irang River to welcome and safeguard the Amur falcons.
Each year, the world’s longest travelling migratory birds arrive in the northeast region, mostly in Assam, Manipur and parts of Nagaland in the fall before returning to their wintering grounds in South Africa.
Dr Suresh Kumar, Wildlife Institute of India (WII)
In 2012, reports of around 1 lakh Amur falcons being hunted in Nagaland's Wokha district shook the world. It prompted the government and wildlife conservationists to launch a desperate bid to save them.
The effort worked, as Amur Falcons today symbolise a success story, unique to itself. From being killed in thousands to being seen as the flagship species of conservation in a single year.
Dr Suresh Kumar, a biologist of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), who led the conservation project, says, "Without doubt it is one of the biggest conservation success stories in the world".
The father of Indian ornithology, Salim Ali was among the first to note the hunting of Amur Falcons in Northeast.
In 2012, nearly 15,000 birds were being hunted down every day in the Pangti village in Wokha district of Nagaland. The numbers even went up to 1 lakh within days.
This was commercial-scale hunting, as locals saw this as an alternative form of income. They started using wide nets across bamboo forests where the birds were roosting.
Before 2012, the hunting was on a much smaller scale, mostly for consumption by the locals. The birds would be transported in thousands to far off towns and cities, to be sold for Rs 25-30 each in markets, with the hunter earning about Rs 30,000-50,000 in a season.
One of the first persons to document this slaughter in Nagaland was Bano Haralu, veteran journalist and managing Trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust.
In October 2012, Haralu led a small group of ornithologists to the Doyang reservoir. The team included her colleague Rokohebi Kuotsu, Shashank Dalvi, research associate at Bengaluru's Centre for Wildlife Studies, and Ramki Sreenivasan of Conservation India.
"All the photographs that we took of the killing fields was a day's work. We spoke to hunters, who told us that about 70 teams go in to kill and trap the birds during the 10-day peak season. Since each hunting party would get about 200 birds, we estimated that about 14,000 falcons were being killed each day," says Haralu.
The pictures were shocking and the media coverage led to government action.
"We started the 'Friends of the Amur Falcon' campaign. Community outreach became our most important pillar. Support from the then Chief Minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio, helped our cause. Once the community was onboard, we started Amur Falcon eco clubs to act as community conservation groups," says Haralu.
Within a year, the community had stopped the killing and turned conservationist. "This is one of the most successful conservation programmes in the world," says Haralu.
The news of these mass killings of the Amur Falcon reached the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS) under the United Nations, who then wrote to the Indian Government. India is a signatory to the CMS and was, therefore, compelled to take up the responsibility.
“We were taken by surprise. The Environment Ministry asked for the matter to be investigated, and then the Wildlife Institute was informed,” Dr Kumar says.
The first plan was to launch a tagging program.
“One way to begin was, to start a tagging programme, to document their migratory paths. It was also important to document where else these birds are roosting in the Northeast region, to establish if there is hunting taking place in other regions too. We started a collaborative project with a sub-group of the CMS - the 'Raptors MOU', which focuses on the conservation of all birds of prey. So, the Indian Ministry and in collaboration with the Nagaland State Forest Department in 2013 initiated the first tagging program,” Dr Kumar says.
By then the Nagaland State Forest Department along with NGOs, both national and regional, had already started the awareness work.
“It was a great initiative. People are usually busy in field work the entire day and return home late. So, the effort of visiting each household and spreading awareness was a big task" says Dr Kumar.
Many people took a pledge to refrain from hunting the Amur Falcons when they returned in 2013.
“This was an important step before initiating our project, because, we did not want to use tagging by placing transmitters on the birds since, at the same time, there were people hunting them. When I arrived in 2013 with my team, the locals were supportive. The same people who were hunting them in 2012, had now taken a pledge not to hunt.”
In 2013, 30 Amur Falcons were caught from the roost site in Pangti. Of these, three of them were tagged with transmitters.
The first bird was a male named Naga (representing Nagaland). The second was named Wokha (representing the district), and third was named Pangti (representing the village)
Naga was released by Lokeshwar Rao, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Nagaland. Wokha was released by Dr Kumar and his CMS colleague, while Pangti was released by the village locals. Before releasing Pangti, as is custom, the villagers offered a prayer wishing the bird a safe return next year.
"We wanted the community to be able to monitor the movement of the birds who had been radio-tagged. So we listed these three birds on a website hosted by the European Union, where their movement could be tracked. This website is open to the public and so, I could teach the children from the Pangti village to follow Amur Falcons' movements which was a fascinating experience for them" says Dr Kumar.
The scientists had decided to involve the community because unlike in protected wildlife sanctuaries, here, they were working on community land and wanted the locals to know about the uniqueness of these birds.
The birds were released on November 7 and November 11, 2013. Naga flew non-stop for 5600 kms which took over five days. It first flew over Bangladesh and then into the Bay of Bengal along the coast of Odisha. Then, it flew to Northern Andhra Pradesh turning westwards towards Karnataka. Finally, it flew into Maharashtra towards the Arabia Sea, heading straight to Somalia in Africa.
"The locals were fascinated with this information because it was then that they realised how unique these birds were. This information was shared far and wide. The media told stories of about these incredible migratory paths that the birds took. soon, awareness of these birds began to spread and people began looking at these birds in a completely different light" says Dr Kumar.
In March 2014, Wokha stopped transmitting signals right before entering Africa. Naga and Pangti returned. However, interestingly, both of them did not stop in Nagaland or the rest of the Northeast. They flew straight into Myanmar, and then to Beijing. They then flew about 500-600 km north of Beijing, very close to the China–Mongolia border where they stopped in June.
They spent three months at their breeding site and returned to Nagaland in November 2014. “The people of Pangti believed that the birds had returned as an answer to their prayers. They were emotionally connected to these two birds, now more than ever. For the next two years, these birds kept coming back. Pangti's path could be tracked till 2015 and Naga's, till November 2016” said Dr Kumar.
The return of the birds made Pangti village famous. This inspired the neighbouring villages, who also joined the conservation efforts. Between 2013 and 2019, conservation efforts peaked, with many locals joining in the efforts. The challenge now is to sustain it.
Dr Kumar proudly says, “Amur Falcon is the most talked-about bird in India and has become flagship species for conservation in the region.”
In 2016, five more birds were tagged in the Longleng region of Nagaland, and they were named Longlen, Hakije,Phom, Eninum and Intanki.
Later, in 2018, two birds were tagged in the Tamenglong district of Manipur for the first time. They were named Tamenglong and Manipur.
Last year in 2019, five more birds were tagged in Manipur, and they were named Chiulon, Puching, Phalong, Irang and Barak after places and rivers in Tamenglong.
According to Dr Kumar, the other potential sites for the project are in the Dima Hasao district of Assam and some eastern parts of Meghalaya.
The conservation efforts succeeded thanks to the efforts put in by the government, NGOs and the locals.
In 2015, there was extensive hunting for Amur falcons in Tamenglong. But with the team and forest officials' efforts, things have changed.
The Rainforest Club of Tamenglong is among the many community organisations that have been working hard to protect the Amur Falcons. The club works closely along with the state forest department and the Wildlife India Institute (WII), Dehradun, towards protecting, safeguarding and promoting awareness of Amur falcons.
"Our first major effort was the conservation of Amur falcons. In all, about 50,000 falcons have reached the roosting site this year. We are expecting more to arrive as the peak season starts in November," says Rainforest Club Director Mordecai Panmei.