The Naga village of Khonoma made history in the 1800s when its inhabitants, known to be fierce warriors and hunters, put up a strong resistance against colonial invasion over five decades. In 1998, Khonoma, home to the Angami tribe, made history once again – this time by asking its residents to put down their weapons forever to protect the rich biodiversity of the village.

Today, Khonoma, about 20 kilometres from Nagaland’s capital, Kohima, proudly wears the tag of being a “green village” that has banned hunting or trade of timber in their forests.

A bird’s-eye view of the rich paddy fields of Khonoma, Nagaland's first green village.
A traditional house in Khonoma

This is a remarkable transition in a state where animals are not just killed for sustenance but as a centuries-old tradition. For Nagas, hunting has been a way of life, an embodiment of skill and courage and a sacred practice that has traversed through generations.

The Angamis are among the major tribes in Nagaland and were traditionally warriors and hunters. It is this that helped them put up such a formidable front against British invaders, whose weapons and military tactics were far more advanced. From the 1830s, they put up a stiff resistance against the foreign force, until a peace treaty was signed in 1880.

This fierceness and impeccable skill could be seen in the hunting skills of residents as well. The animal hunters of Khonoma were masterful at aping the wild calls of animals and adept at using all kinds of weapons, be it an air gun or the traditional crossbow. Ambushes were meticulously planned against animals of varying speeds and stealth capabilities – including wild boars, monkeys and deer. Their kill also included countless Blyth’s tragopan, the state bird of Nagaland that now faces extinction.

The skulls of animals once hunted are hung outside homes.
The Horns of the commonly reared Bison that roams freely. It is sacrificed for its meat only for special feasts and occasions.

Seeds of change

So what could prompt such zealous hunters to lay down their arms?

In mid 1990s, T Solo, an IFS officer and Khonoma resident, started a conversation around the importance of conserving its wildlife and environment at meetings of the village council. The council, comprising respected village elders, functions as Khonoma's apex decision-making body for matters of local importance. What struck a chord with council members was the realisation that if the hunting and tree-felling continued at this rate, future generations would not be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the wildlife and vegetation of Khonoma.

In 1995, Tsilie Sakhrie, a former contractor with the Forest Department, joined the village council and took the conversation initiated by Solo forward and started pushing for a ban on hunting and timber trade.

Even as the elders in the village council jumped on the opportunity for change, the Khonoma Youth Organisation, another community-led initiative, also joined the cause. Together, they made it their mission to protect the village’s natural resources – an effort that initially met with a fair amount of scepticism and dismissal.

A nearly 7 ft muzzle-loading gun, the barrel of which is said to be taken from the Japanese during the second world war.

Asking an entire village to give up an integral aspect of their identity seemed almost severe, and was a herculean task to say the least. But over the years and through extensive discussions in the village council meetings and morungs (youth dormitories), more people came around to the cause.

In 1998, the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary was founded over 20 sq km. Initially, hunting was banned only within the confines of the sanctuary. But by 2002, a strict ban was imposed on animal hunting and timber trading throughout the village, making Khonoma the first green village of Nagaland.

A community hall decorated with skulls of Deers and Bisons
One of the oldest hunters of Khonoma with his granddaughters outside their home.

Khonoma thus created history by letting go of a part of it and the village today serves as a remarkable example of wildlife and environment conservation through a community-led initiative.

Tsilie Sakhrie, a prominent figure behind the creation of the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary, in his quaint bamboo kitchen.

All photographs by Tanushree Singh

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been edited and corrected to reflect the collective effort in making Khonoma a green village.