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A treasure trove: field notes from the forests of Arunachal Pradesh

How local field assistants helped researchers, conservationists and forest officers map the rich biodiversity of this State in the northeast with its tiger reserves, river systems, migratory birds, varied flora and fauna and complex ecosystems

Field assistants, a central part of any field research project, provide unique insights into local context, culture and community. If it’s a remote place, their contributions become even more valuable as they are the first link between researchers and the landscapes under study. But after they file their inputs with researchers, their stories are often forgotten. To address this lacuna, Ambika Aiyadurai, an anthropologist who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, and Mamata Pandya, an independent writer and editor, have edited a new book, More Than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation, which presents a collection of stories of field assistants who have worked in Arunachal Pradesh, written by wildlife biologists and forest officers.

Exploring the wildlife

Aisho Sharma Adhikarimayum, a research biologist, pays tribute to his field assistant Jonti Mikhu in ‘Jonti Bhaiya: My Family Away From Home’ who helped him gather notes — and myths — from the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, which was his place of study in 2015. Mikhu filled in the gaps in the researcher’s understanding about the geopolitics of the valley, as well as about the wildlife and the local people. A keen environmentalist, Mikhu helped rescue three tiger cubs, besides assisting Adhikarimayum in a rapid survey of tigers, co-predators and their prey in the sanctuary. During the three-year period he was there, Adhikarimayum, who is from Manipur, recorded 11 tigers, including two cubs. As the sanctuary lies in the Indo-Chinese transition zone, the flora and fauna of this region is highly endemic and significant. There are over 130 species of birds, and various types of snakes. Some endangered species are the Mishmi takin (the takin is the national animal of Bhutan), the Asiatic black bear, Musk deer and the Blyth’s tragopan. According to Idu Mishmi mythology, tigers and the Idu Mishmi people are brothers; because of this belief, tigers are never hunted unless they becomes dangerous to life and property.

The Kman Mishmis

Ambika Aiyadurai writes about Ajeimai Yun who helped her in her research on wildlife and wildlife hunting practices among the Kman Mishmi people of Arunachal Pradesh. At the outset, Aiyadurai was intimidated by the long hanging bridges at Anjaw district’s villages which both “fascinated and petrified” her, remembering tips like ‘never look down’ or ‘you have to be an acrobat to cross these bridges’. The 25-year-old Ajeimai soon took over her education. She told her about the Kman Mishmi, one of the 26 indigenous tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, and their ways of living, and taught her the local names of animals and birds so that people would trust her and open up to her. The stories, about taboos, hunting rituals, rites for the dead, enriched her research, writes Aiyadurai. This essay ends on a sad note, for Ajeimai passed away a month after the fieldwork was completed of malaria and jaundice.

Conservationist Anirban Datta-Roy writes about his field assistant, Aggerbhai, and how his first-hand experience and knowledge of hunting and trapping and his “bank” of stories helped him study the landscape of Upper Siang, one of the northern districts of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a rugged border with China from where the Tsangpo river enters India as Siang. There are extensive tracts of primary forests —the density of population is very low — and the region is rich in biodiversity. Datta-Roy’s surveys recorded at least 25 species of mammals like the clouded leopard, wild dog, the Asiatic black bear and the small clawed otter, and more than 240 species of birds. For the Adi people, hunting is not a simplistic search for meat, but a “part of a larger livelihood strategy that is strongly influenced by social, economic and cultural needs.”

The book is interspersed with notes of animals and humans and their way of life. For instance, the researchers explain the type of cultivation undertaken in the region. Swidden agriculture, also known as shifting cultivation or jhum cultivation, refers to the technique of rotational farming in which land is cleared for cultivation (normally by fire) and then left to regenerate for a few years. Subsistence crops like rice, millets and vegetables are grown, and Swidden cultivation intricately binds the forest communities to their cultural identity. The Adi people celebrate at least 13 festivals related to shifting cultivation.

Studying the Kamlang Tiger Reserve

For Cheshta Singh, who has been in the Forest Service since 2016, a dream came true when she was posted to the Kamlang Tiger Reserve and Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Kamlang is contiguous to the Namdhapa Tiger Reserve, which is better known than Kamlang. She leant on the local Mishmi communities, “who know the forest so much better than us,” to gather information on Kamlang. A challenge she faced was when a leopard strayed into the village and the people wanted to kill the animal. Singh managed to convince the villagers to drive the leopard back to the forest and thankfully that worked. As a forest officer, she has often had to think on her feet on how to keep both the people and the animal safe.

Apart from being home to all four big cats (tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard), the Kamlang Tiger Reserve has several species of hornbills. Rufous-necked hornbills are common and Wreathed hornbills visit in the winters. The Glaw Lake, considered sacred by the Mishmis, is a good place to spot migratory birds from Siberia, writes Singh.

Janaki Mohanachandran’s essay on “conversation stewards” mentions the contribution of her field assistants, Lam Dondu, Ngoimu, Pemba, Dechin and Tashi who helped her find out more about the beautiful Jemeithang valley, which is about four hours from Tawang, and home to the Monpa tribe, Buddhists who depend on livestock herding for a living. Forest officer Tana Tapi, who belongs to the Nyishi community of Arunachal Pradesh, writes a detailed essay on the challenges of conservation at the Pakke Tiger Reserve, a unique wildlife habitat, bound by natural barriers.

With profiles of all the major valleys, its tiger reserves, conservation efforts and the hurdles, river systems and so forth this volume is a treasure trove of information on Arunachal Pradesh, enriched by the inputs of field assistants who know the terrain better than most.

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