Exaggerated reports of ‘empty forest syndrome’ are common from parts of Northeast India. However, Indigenous residents of a village on the foothills of Mt. Saramati have been working collaboratively with national organisations to research and protect wildlife in their community forest. Their surveys have found a host of rare and endangered wildlife in the forests in their own backyard.

A clouded leopard boldly sniffs the camera, a mother bear scoffs at her grown cub, packs of dhole study the ground, and adult stumped-tailed macaques groom each other as their toddlers play about. These are but a few glimpses into the hidden lives of the residents of the community forests of Thanamir Village in Kiphire district of Nagaland.

For the past several years, some Thanamir residents have teamed up with a Delhi-based NGO, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), to use automatic cameras to study the lives of wild animals in their community forests. These ‘camera traps’ have captured thousands of pictures showing the rich wildlife that inhabit Thanamir’s forests.

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Many of these animals are globally endangered. Like much of Nagaland, residents of Thanamir Village own, use and manage their community forest. Lying in the shadow of Mount Saramati (3,842 m), Nagaland’s highest peak, this region is the ancestral homeland of the Yimkhiung Naga. For several years, local youth and leaders have taken a keen interest in the protection of their forest and wildlife.

The village council and student union have instituted various resolutions to curb over-hunting of wildlife and protect the forest. The research being conducted is aimed at strengthening these management systems through an evidence based approach. “For the past two years, our team in Thanamir village has been collaborating with WPSI to conduct research activities. Using camera trap surveys we are trying to document wildlife in our forest.

Also Read: Watch: Leopard cub returns to the wild after receiving treatment at Wildlife SOS

“We want to know how many different types of animals live here and what their populations are like. We were surprised by the abundance of wildlife and thrilled to see that our forest is home to rich biodiversity,” say Jona Yimchunger and Rethsucham Yimchunger, Thanamir locals and members of the project team.

Their surveys have documented over 23 animal species including the Indian muntjac,
stump-tailed macaque, Asiatic wild dog, Asiatic back bear, and the elusive clouded
leopard. Besides these, Nagaland’s State bird, the Blyth’s Tragopan was also
photographed. “We are thrilled with the results and with the collaboration and friendship we have received from the people of Thanamir,” says Belinda Wright, Executive Director of WPSI.

“Since the training, we have documented over 220 bird species in our forest. We have been practicing for months with the help of outside experts and now feel confident to
independently conduct bird surveys on our own. We want to study birds as they migrate through the seasons. We have also started sharing our findings on global birding platforms like eBird,” says Rethsuthong Yimchunger, a skilled and
enthusiastic birder.

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The project will also integrate socio-ecological data, which will be used by the local council and student union to codevelop plans that prioritize both wildlife populations and community well-being. WPSI Researcher and project lead, Ramya Nair, says “We want to understand the intricate relationships people have with nature and approach them sensitively and respectfully”.

Community forests in Nagaland, and across Northeast India, are often dismissed by
scientists as ‘empty forests’. But research is showing that this narrative couldn’t be farther from the truth. Across Nagaland, local communities are mobilising themselves to protect their forests, and the wildlife is now bouncing back in previously denuded and overhunted forests. There are currently over 400 community conserved areas across Nagaland – the highest of any state in the country. These efforts must be acknowledged, supported and appreciated.

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