A sad encounter with migratory Amur Falcons in Nagaland

“I had the opportunity to travel from October to November this year, to Nagaland – one of the seven-sister states in North East India. The other states are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura. They form part of the East Himalayan region, which extends from Sikkim eastwards and embraces the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal. The location of the region is strategically important as it has international borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. The area is characterised by rich bio-diversity, heavy precipitation and high seismic activity. It is endowed with forest wealth and is ideally suited to produce a whole range of plantation crops, spices, fruits and vegetables and flowers and herbs. The rich natural beauty, serenity and exotic flora and fauna of the area are invaluable resources for the development of eco-tourism.

“Unfortunately, this story is about the indiscriminate killing of the Red-legged or Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis). It is one of the most elegant, beautiful, dignified-looking birds I have ever seen. According to Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, the Amur Falcon is a passage migrant in North and North East India, appearing once a year from mid-October to mid-December, presumably on autumn passage to East and South Africa.

“The size is comparable to a pigeon. The male is slate-grey above, ash grey below but for rusty red-vent thighs and under-tail coverts (left, top); distinct orbital area, cere and legs. Females are entirely different: slaty grey barred with black; hindneck with whitish nuchal collar. Pale rusty white below, spotted with black on upper breast, bars on lower breast and flanks. I thought they were two different species of falcon. [The juvenile is as shown in left, bottom.]

“They are often recorded in immense numbers in flocks often milling around at sunset before roosting on trees. Salim Ali writes, “they are said to be eaten in Cachar and East Africa”. I found out first-hand that they are also eaten in Nagaland.

“I saw them flying in circles high above in the sky, and strung on high electrical cables in the Doyang Dam area in the Wokha district. The Doyang Hydroelectric project produces a significant amount of power to the central districts of Nagaland.

“The two specimens that I photographed were captive, awaiting their fate, kept in a traditional “machang” or viewing pavilion next to the village pastor’s house. I asked the local hosts about these birds, and was told that there were seasonal migratory birds. They would come by the tens of thousands every year, for a few months, and then disappear. However, during these months, the local people would catch them with nets after observing their flight paths. Some people I spoke to said that other people would give them live birds by the hundreds as gifts for food. One family said they tried letting the birds go free, but they would return to their cages for food. To avoid them being caught again, this family transported the birds to a remote area to be freed. In another home, I saw the distinctive white and black streaked feathers strewn on the ground near where food is prepared in the compound.

[Above left is a juvenile Amur Falcon all tied up to be subsequently eaten, same as with the squirrels on the right.]

“There is no shortage of food in Nagaland – they are farmers by tradition, growing padi, potatoes, yam, fruit and vegetables on the hilly slopes, and rearing domesticated animals for meat. It seems that the tribal tradition of capturing wildlife for food remains an active past-time among some segments of the population up till today. I fear for the survival of the Amur Falcon and other wildlife, if they are still being hunted down indiscriminately for sport and recreation. I have spoken to Naga people who are my friends about conservation and wildlife protection. I pleaded with the youngster who had captured the two birds in these photos, to let them go. He politely gave me his word that he would do so. However, I fear that not enough is being done to change the traditional forms of “enjoying” wildlife in these parts. There is one unmistakable observation in Nagaland – in the rural parts that I visited: the absence of any bird life. The flowering plants and trees are there, the forest edge is usually not far away, yet early mornings and evenings are not filled with birdsong and colors. When I do see them, I fear for their safety and freedom.”

Joyce S Y Tan
23rd November 2009

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