Cultures often take new forms and manifest in different ways. However practices and customs linked to culture take a long time to change. Often they are resistant and slow to change.
Take the case of Pahi (name changed). Although he belongs to a small tribe of about 300 people scattered in 15 villages next to the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh in North East India, his story encapsulates the reality of hunting in many states in this region.
When we met him in Anjaw district in 2006, Pahi showed us a compact disc and some brochures published by the Wildlife Protection Society of India in which the Dalai Lama appeals to Buddhists to stop hunting wildlife. Under the influence of the Dalai Lama’s plea, Pahi was determined to give up hunting that year. But a year later, he narrated to us the story of a leopard skin he sold to a member of the defence services. The price was not cash but 15 cases, or 180 bottles, of alcohol.
In this frontier area, illegal trade in leopard and tiger skins from India to Tibet is common knowledge.
The role of wild meat
While wildlife hunting in North East India is linked to culture, it continues to express itself in new ways with the commercialisation of wild meat, emerging local markets for wild meat and wildlife products and changing cultural norms.
Change is seen in places near and far away from the border.
“We are Animists first and then Buddhists,” said a member of a tribe that was hunting bear gall bladders in Arunachal Pradesh in 2015. The gall bladders, which are used in traditional Asian medicine, would later be sold in Assam.
Set against this backdrop, is the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, which executed a generic writ against hunting of scheduled wildlife – those animals listed under this Act. Hunting of scheduled animals is generally prohibited unless special permission is obtained from the Chief Wildlife Warden (only for special circumstances) and/or if the animal species is classified as vermin. In some cases there is very little awareness that this Act exists. In most cases, enforcement of the letter and spirit of this Act is not practically possible as several members of resident communities find hunting to be culturally acceptable.
The story of hunting in the North East is much more complex than the simple act of killing a leopard or other wild animals for cash or barter.
Upon spending time in villages in the North East, we realised that wild meat has multiple significance. It is offered as a bride price during weddings and regarded as a status symbol. In central Arunachal Pradesh, during wedding ceremonies men gift orange bellied squirrels (Dremomys lokriah) to the bride’s family.
Wildlife products or meat are even gifted to visiting officials to gain goodwill and to establish or affirm relationships of patronage. Sometimes visiting government officers are presented with animal skins that are used as decorative items at their homes.
Many such conversations about hunting in the North East have remained undocumented. One possible reason for this could be the limited interactions between people of mainland India and the North East, and the restricted entry into many of these states.
However access is becoming easier and things are changing.
For one, key border areas are being connected by roads. However, this often opens up access to hunting routes too. In many cases, forest officers have expressed their reservations about opening roads and highways within the protected areas they manage. But often, taking biodiversity concerns on board in any national policy evaluation runs the risk of creating an anti-national road. In several instances, traders from outside these states set up shops and often deal with wildlife products.
New ways of capital is also being created from wildlife products. Often non-resident settlers, external market forces and personal or professional favours for government officers create this demand.
For example, in the Mishmi hills in Arunachal Pradesh, in 2008, a doctor bartered a jar of the malted milk drink Horlicks that was bought at a subsidised rate from the Army canteen in exchange for an otter skin. On visiting the doctor in 2012, we found that the skin was displayed as a wall hanging in the drawing room.
Hunting is thus not a simple practice of the exchange of gifts but has social underpinnings that are intimately interrelated with cultural and socio-political processes.
There are numerous other reasons why people hunt in many states in the North East. This includes hunting to protect their crops from being raided by wildlife, or to secure additional income.
Hunting is also done as a leisure activity. Although some view poverty as an important driving force behind hunting, the wildlife trade continues because of affluent consumers, locally and for the international market.
For instance, interviewees in one study site in Arunachal Pradesh reported that otter hunting is a relatively recent phenomenon in their area. Hunters acquire serrated metal leg-hold traps that are laid near the river banks from men in neighbouring Myanmar. Hence global factors can reduce the small-scale efficacy of the prohibitive laws related to hunting.
No easy answers
In the North East, a clearer image will emerge when we seek to understand whether hunting is a way of life, a livelihood issue, a socio-cultural dimension of living, part of a trade network, or all these put together in varying degrees of complexity.
So hunting by a small tribe living in remote villages in the Himalayas can no longer be described simply as indigenous hunting for subsistence. The interaction between middlemen and resident hunters for trade and business is also part of a larger socio-economic fabric.
As for the leopard skin, Pahi did not barter the alcohol for more skins. He arranged a lottery for the liquor, instead, earning Rs 36,000. His story and that of hunting in North East India is caught between the complexities of markets, traditions, conservation ethos and the law. There is no right and wrong and certainly no easy answers.
Ambika Aiyadurai is an anthropologist at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Nandini Velho is an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University. This is part of a chapter in the soon to be published book Conservation from the margins.