Source: The Hindu
At 17, Alemba defied cultural norms to join the Nagaland Forest Department
Alemba Yimchunger on vigil at the watch tower. | Photo Credit: Pranav Capila
It’s 1.30 in the morning and the forest is bitter cold and quiet. I can hear the trip-hammer of my pulse and the labour of my breath, but nothing else. Even the crickets have fallen silent.
I realise the man I was walking with has disappeared. ‘Alemba?’ I bleat nervously. Out of nowhere, a knee-high mass of fur and tusks flashes past me, grunting as it dives into the undergrowth. I stand frozen, trembling. A distant pinprick of light slowly morphs into the torch-wielding figure of Alemba Yimchunger. “Wild boar!” he grins. “You can’t wander off the trail like that, you must stay close to me.”
I am in Nagaland’s Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary, located in a remote area on the Indo-Burma border. The forest here is pristine — oak and Khasi pine, hollock and nahor, kachnar, cane, bamboo and over a dozen species of orchids and ferns. The rare Sumatran rhino was once found here and so were tigers. Today you still have threatened species like clouded leopards, hoolock gibbons, stump-tailed macaques and the exquisitely plumed Blyth’s tragopan.
Keeping pace with Alemba is not easy. He has traversed Fakim’s steep gorges and narrow valleys since he was a boy. In his younger days he hunted here, in the tradition of the Yimchunger tribe of Fakim village. “I killed wild boars, deer, a couple of black bears too,” he says. But that was before the area became a wildlife sanctuary in 1983.
At 17, Alemba defied cultural norms to join the Nagaland Forest Department as a camp guide. He has now been there 32 years. He has hauled stone pillars to demarcate sanctuary boundaries, set up camera traps to record wildlife, guided expeditions to document and restore biodiversity. And he now leads the new anti-poaching squad. Alemba is something of a conservation legend: he played a vital part in changing local attitudes towards the protection of forests. In particular, he encouraged his people to give up hunting.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, says Alemba. “Everything was fair game at one time and it seemed like the forests were being slowly emptied of wildlife. Many said that hunting was part of our culture. I told them our forefathers hunted wild animals for survival. That’s not what you are doing now.”
“Slowly, people became more aware and the younger generation became better educated about the need to preserve biodiversity. Now, the village council is against hunting, whether in the sanctuary or on community lands.”
The yellow-throated marten that’s found in the sanctuary. | Photo Credit: Lansothung Lotha
Alemba hasn’t been the sole driver of change here. Limthure and Tsuseki Yimchunger, both young project leaders with the Sanctuary Nature Foundation’s Mud on Boots project, founded Bhutan Glory Eco Club, named after an endemic butterfly. “We stress on the importance of conservation for a more sustainable future and encourage nature photography with the slogan ‘shoot with camera not with gun’,” says Limthure, who recently became a forest guard. The club has conducted reforestation drives on community lands and is now exploring sustainable livelihoods (horticulture, animal husbandry) to reduce dependence on shifting cultivation, which leads to widespread biodiversity loss.
Firewood and LEDs
Fakim village sits on a hill below the sanctuary. About 70 wooden houses with tin roofs are warmed with firewood from community forests. The famous Yimchunger war dance won villagers an invitation to the prestigious Hornbill Festival a few years ago. Most residents are subsistence farmers, cultivating rice, maize, sugarcane and vegetables. LED lighting and a recently installed cellphone tower, not yet operational, are the only obvious indicators of modernity.
Hanruthong Yimchunger, village council chairman, tells me they have resolved to set aside 384 ha of community land for the ‘Fakim Village Tragopan Conservation Reserve’, adjacent to the sanctuary. Neither agriculture nor logging will be allowed on this land, nor, of course, hunting. In a State where over 88% of forest land belongs to tribal communities, and hunting and shifting cultivation are major barriers to conservation, this is a big decision.
In March this year, Alemba received a grant from Sanctuary Nature Foundation and in November, Balipara Foundation declared him a ‘Forest Rangers and Guards of The Eastern Himalayas Awardee’. Yet, he remains a camp guide, earning less than ₹5,000 a month.
But Alemba, says Lansothung Lotha, a range officer with the Nagaland Forest Department, will always be known for showing the way in Fakim. “What is most encouraging is the awareness that has permeated the community. I think conservation cannot be imposed on anyone; it is has to grow from within. A sustained process has borne fruit in Fakim.”
The author is a New Delhi-based writer on wildlife conservation.