For filmmaker Sesino Yhoshu, watching tens and thousands of Amur falcons, Falco amurensis, roost by the Doyang reservoir in a remote corner of Nagaland was an awe-inspiring moment. It stirred something deep inside her.

How could Pangti, a village that had earned global notoriety in 2012 for the massacre of the handsome Amur falcons, the longest travelling raptors in the world, stop hunting almost immediately? How did the hunters turn protectors? What were their personal stories?

The product of that curiosity culminated in The Pangti Story, a 26-minute documentary that explores the transition of an entire village from slaughtering hundreds and thousands of these winged visitors to becoming conservationists.

The film won the 65th National Awards for Best Environment Film in the non-feature category in India this year.

“When I first heard about the massacre of the birds in Pangti, I was pretty shocked,” Yhoshu said. “But what really woke me up was that in such a short span of time, the village managed to reach zero-mortality rate. I was curious to know how it was possible to stop the hunting almost immediately.”

Sesino Yhoshu is flanked by 'The Pangti Story' team members Megotsolie Dolie and Neithonuo Tungoe. Photo credit: Hopong Chang
Sesino Yhoshu is flanked by 'The Pangti Story' team members Megotsolie Dolie and Neithonuo Tungoe. Photo credit: Hopong Chang

The film follows the people who saw this transition happen, said Yhoshu about the environmentalists, the hunters and the village council chairman. What was once a “killing field” for the birds had transformed into a “safe haven” by 2013.

This haven is Pangti, a small village closest to the Doyang reservoir in Wokha district of Nagaland, which took the lead in conserving the Amur falcons. Doyang reservoir probably hosts the single largest congregation of Amur falcons recorded anywhere in the world.

“The film also unravels the social economic structure of the village through the voices of these central characters,” Yhoshu elaborates. “For Pangti, this was not just a story of protecting birds but of deviating from their hunting culture, their food habits and a source of livelihood.”

Yhoshu emphasised that the people and communities behind the Amur falcon conservation continue their efforts irrespective of the opportunity to be in the spotlight. She believes the National Award is indeed a boost and will certainly help in taking this story to more places and to a wider audience.

“I hope that the film can continue the conversation on conservation wherever and whenever possible,” she said. “If the film is able to resonate and touch even one person, we will be very glad to have stirred the pot and would consider it the beginning of good things to come. We hope that the film can ignite questions and conversations about the environment.”

Amur falcons trapped in fishing nets in 2012. Photo credit: Shashank Dalvi
Amur falcons trapped in fishing nets in 2012. Photo credit: Shashank Dalvi

Beginning of the end

The filmmaker reminisces how in 2012 Nagaland made global news alarming environmentalists and the public alike.

Amur falcons are known to breed in southeast Russia and northern China and migrate west through India and across the Arabian Sea to southern Africa where they spend their winters, making a round-trip of at least 20,000 km every year, travelling between their breeding and wintering grounds.

This arduous journey includes a non-stop flight over the Arabian Sea after passing across India. The resilient falcons arrive in large numbers, during October in Nagaland and a few other places in northeastern India.

As tens of thousands of Amur falcons came to roost in Pangti on the way to South Africa, Somalia and Kenya, they were targeted by local hunters. Over thousands of the raptors were harvested everyday for sale and consumption.

Bano Haralu, managing trustee of Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust and a group of conservationists and researchers such as Ramki Srinivasan from Conservation India, Shashank Dalvi and Rokohebi Kuotsu, who visited Pangti in October 2012 to authenticate and document the mass hunting, discovered to their horror that 12,000 to 14,000 falcons were killed each day during the peak migration.

“There were about 70 groups of people who carried out the hunting and they used old fishing nets that were draped on trees to net the birds as they swooped down on forested patches to roost in the evenings. They would collect the trapped birds from the nets in the morning,” Haralu said.

The Amur falcon is protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Captured birds kept under a mosquito net in 2012. Photo credit: Bano Haralu
Captured birds kept under a mosquito net in 2012. Photo credit: Bano Haralu

Following the revelation, a massive campaign to save these birds began. Two years on, Pangti captured global attention again. It earned recognition as the falcon capital of the world and won accolades, said Yhoshu.

Haralu said the 2012 episode was the only time they saw the birds being hunted in Pangti. “We have been there several times since the revelation,” Haralu sadi. “Never did we come across hunters once again. I can’t say that Amur falcons are not killed in other districts. But it did stop in Pangti. Amur falcon has become an opportunity of a lifetime for us Nagas to see how conservation can turn things around. It has become a mascot of conservation.”

Amid national and global outcry, Haralu remembers that the dialogue to protect the falcons gained traction with India signing the Convention of Migratory Species under which it is “duty bound” to provide safe passage and ensure conservation of migratory species. India was “pushed to act” as a signatory, the documentary stressed.

“The campaign also gained momentum as we began interactions with the community and explained that this killing is unacceptable,” Haralu recalled. “They thought these birds would come forever. So we sensitised them about the ecological imbalance and told them that South African farmers would be waiting for the falcons to come.”

In 2013, a comprehensive campaign to protect the Amur falcons was launched in the Wokha district. It revolved around nature education, creation of Amur Falcon EcoClubs, patrolling and enforcement, as well as scientific study of the birds. Intensive campaigning led to the village councils calling for a ban on hunting the falcons.

Yhoshu, who was on the lookout for good stories, acknowledges that being a Naga and understanding culture and food habits here, she knew that it would not have been easy for the hunters to transition to become protectors.

Nagas are culturally hunters and some of them in villages are economically dependent on hunting. The whole script and shoot was steered by the question, what happened in Pangti?

“I read about the data and numbers in local newspapers but did not see even a single personal story being told,” Yhoshu said. “This led me and my team to Pangti to listen to the stories that were not being told.”

Pangti village in Nagaland as seen in a still from the film. Photo credit: Sesino Yhoshu
Pangti village in Nagaland as seen in a still from the film. Photo credit: Sesino Yhoshu

Once hunters, now guardians

Not only does the documentary delve into the shock, disgust and numbness that Haralu and the others experienced upon witnessing the scale of harvest, but also shows hunter-turned-conservationist Thungdemo Yanthan recounting how they started eating the bird meat in 2005-’06. “In the past the birds did not come in big numbers,” Yanthan says in the documentary. “They were called Eninum meaning birds that fly in pairs. Another name for the birds is Osenvoro meaning foreign birds. We did not eat the birds before. We were told they carried diseases. I don’t know how, but we started eating the birds in 2005-’06.”

The birds started increasing in number after construction of the dam, said Yanthan, as he describes the application of catapults, airguns and the subsequent use of fishing nets to trap larger number of birds.

After the state pressured his village to ban the hunting, Ronchamo Shitiri, Pangti village chairman from 2012 to 2016, said fishermen and hunters “vehemently opposed” it as they would earn an average of Rs 50,000 in 45-50 days. It is still a “financial struggle” for them. “Our situation can improve if the government supports us and not just assure us with mere words,” Yanthan says in the documentary. “If not, we might consider going back to our old ways.”

The film, a Public Service Broadcasting Trust production, also features Steve Odyuo of Natural Nagas and the now retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Nagaland, M Lokeswara Rao.

Children watch the Amur falcons at Aare New village near Pangti. Photo credit: Rokohebi Kuotsu
Children watch the Amur falcons at Aare New village near Pangti. Photo credit: Rokohebi Kuotsu

Change for greater good

Pangti’s story proves we can rise to any challenge, Yhoshu says. That it is possible for a village to come together and bring change, that traditional communities are willing to change for the greater good, she said.

Today, for the entire span of the Amur falcons’ visit, hunters stay in the jungles guarding the birds. “Those in the ‘protection squad’ are given an honorarium by the state government and Wildlife Trust of India,” Shitiri proudly declares in the documentary. “Others are employed as tourist guides. The hunters have turned conservationists.”

Now, migration season has given the Nagas an opportunity to open up homestays in Pangti. “We also want the local people from other districts to come and see the spectacle for themselves so they can get an understanding of conservation and the dialogue continues not just for the falcon but biodiversity as a whole,” Haralu said.

As Yhoshu said, watching the Amur falcons in the roosting area with her team during the shooting of the documentary was an “out of this world” experience.

“I stood in awe watching those tens and thousands of birds coming to roost and connecting with nature in a way I’ve never done before,” she said. “It was a deeply personal moment for me and I don’t think I will ever be the same person again.”

Three Amur falcons that were tagged for satellite tracking in 2013. Photo credit: Nick Williams
Three Amur falcons that were tagged for satellite tracking in 2013. Photo credit: Nick Williams

On the world map

The Amur falcon satellite tagging, briefly glimpsed in the documentary, was initiated in November 2013 by the Wildlife Institute of India in collaboration with other agencies. It is the first effort to track this small raptor from India, informed R Suresh Kumar, a scientist at the institute.

The initiative was to support conservation awareness efforts in Nagaland and also to gather information on the Amurs as the species was very little known.

In the first phase, in November 2013, three falcons were tagged and released from Pangti. They were named Naga, a male falcon, Wokha and Pangti, both female. They were tagged with specialised five-gram solar powered satellite transmitters.

Prompted by the success of the satellite tagging, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change funded the second phase of tagging in 2016 where five birds were tagged from across roosting sites in Nagaland, Kumar said.

Naga and Pangti were tracked for a record duration of 1,117 and 880 days respectively. “This is a huge achievement especially that the falcons on average weigh 160 grams and are long distance migrants,” Kumar added. “Longleng, one of the five birds that were tagged in the second phase, is currently active and is on her return migration to her breeding grounds and is passing through India.”

Kumar, who has been studying the reasons for the birds coming to Pangti in large numbers in recent times, said the presence of termites in the area was a draw for them. But the falcons will keep moving and their roosting sites may change.

The journey undertaken by the three tagged Amur falcons. Photo credit: Satellitetracking.eu
The journey undertaken by the three tagged Amur falcons. Photo credit: Satellitetracking.eu

“About 100 km north of Pangti, there is the Changtongya Community Conservation Reserve that was declared by the villagers to protect Amurs in 2001,” Kumar said. “Amur falcons used to roost in very large numbers in that area and they have left that area and moved on to Pangti and to another roost site Yaongyimchen. Termites are the major resources that these birds are dependent on and termites emerge in different places at different time so its something like a cycle.”

Amur falcon conservation has been going on prior to Pangti and there have been villagers that have set aside their community lands for protecting the falcons, said Kumar.

The satellite tagging has created so much awareness that the neighbouring states of Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam have also started protecting the birds.

The Amur falcon conservation success has led to India signing the CMS Raptors MoU, an agreement on conservation of migratory birds of prey in Africa and Eurasia, in March 2016.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.