Amur falcon

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As in 2023

Prabin Kalita, Nov 26, 2023: The Times of India

Eleven years ago, a little-known migratory bird made news. Conservationists reported that thousands of Amur falcons had been trapped in nets and slaughtered in Nagaland. It wasn’t the first time these birds had been killed for food, but the scale of slaughter was alarming.

The matter reached the environment minister of the day, Jayanthi Natarajan. The Centre took it seriously and started the Amur Falcon Conservation Project next year. And now, 10 years on, its results are evident. The Amur falcon is a cherished guest in those same pockets of the North-East where it was once mercilessly hunted.

Champion Aviators

Amur falcons (Falco amurensis) are special birds. Among raptors (eagle family), they hold the record for the longest sea-crossing, even though they are about the size of a pigeon. Every year, they fly from their breeding grounds in eastern Siberia and northern China to their winter homes in southern Africa, and back. That means crossing the Arabian Sea twice and covering more than 22,000km altogether.

October is when the birds make a pit stop in the North-East, and the Naga hills and adjoining ranges spread across Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Meghalaya become their largest and most spectacular roosting sites. By far the largest number of Amur falcons descend upon Nagaland, and stay on till November-end to ‘refuel’ before flying 6,000km nonstop to Somalia over six days.

Hunters Become Prey

Amur falcons come to the North East because it has abundant prey, especially termites, which emerge in large numbers after the monsoon. The birds have been known in Nagaland “since the time of our forefathers,” says P Thungchumo Shidio, president of Amur Falcon Roosting Area Union (AFRAU) in Pangti, a Nagaland village that was once notorious for hunting them.

The birds are called ‘eninum’ in Shidio’s Lotha language, and ‘akhoipuina’ or ‘kahoipuina’ in the Rongmei dialect of Manipur’s Tamenglong district. “As kids, we saw these birds pursuing flying termites in the evening. They were first found roosting at Tzuna Eryu in Pangti, in 2001, and then their numbers increased manifold year after year,” Shidio says.

However, the villagers and the out side world knew little about Amur falcons until October 2012 when images of their massacre by people in Pangti, Asha and Sungro villages located on the fringes of the Doyang reservoir in Wokha, Nagaland, emerged. Hunting of the birds was also reported from their roosting sites in Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam.
“The villagers lacked awareness about the conservation of wildlife and started hunting them for sale from 2006. They caught them with fishing nets stretched between trees,” Shidio recalls.

Decade Of Efforts

After Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a wildlife research organisation, brought the issue to the Centre’s notice, the Amur Falcon Conservation Project was launched in 2013. Its aim was to create mass awareness and change the attitude of the local Naga people towards hunting.

Under the project, satellite tracking of the birds was started, both as a conservation tool and for understanding their migratory routes, roosting sites in Nagaland, Manipur and elsewhere, and also documenting their prey.

The conservation initiative soon became a massive community programme driven by the village councils of Pangti and Sungro villages, churches and NGOs like Wildlife Trust of India. Nagaland was declared a ‘zero hunting’ region for Amur falcons and it was not long before the conservation success drew global attention, earning Pangti the title of ‘Falcon Capital of the World’.

“Landowners, village councils and churches in Pangti became involved in conservation, and the killing of Amur falcons was prohibited in 2013. Then, AFRAU was formed in 2014 and it is the main protector of the birds now,” says Shidio, adding, “Today, our slogan is, ‘We love Amur falcons’.”

Bird Numbers Rise

The success of the project can be gauged from the increase in Amur falcon arrivals. Nagaland wildlife warden Tokaho Kinimi told TOI: “There is no census so far but from the increase in the number of roosting sites we can say that they have come in greater numbers this time.” In neighbouring Manipur, the first census of Amur falcons done with drones, GPS devices and telephoto cameras at a roosting site in Tamenglong district’s Chiuluan village recorded more than 1.4 lakh birds. The state has banned hunting, catching, killing and selling of the birds, and villagers must surrender their air guns during the roosting period.

“The hunting of Amur falcons is the story of the past. The engagement of local communities in falcon conservation has yielded positive results,” director general of forests Chandra Prakash Goyal said during celebrations marking 10 years of the project on November 3.

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