New Delhi: When a photograph of a tiger wading through snow in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley was released, it took the scientific world by storm. This ‘discovery’ of the big cats at high altitudes, sparked a chain of events culminating in the inevitable proposal of notifying the area a tiger reserve.
However, none of this surprised the Idu Mishmi tribe. For centuries, they had known of the striped creatures in the snow. The Mishmis knew they shared the forests with these tigers—who they believe are akin to brothers—and that killing them would amount to killing a family member.
It was this belief that protected the species in the valley, even when poaching and habitat loss wiped them out elsewhere in the northeast. But all this could come to an end, as the Mishmis fear, with the proposed tiger reserve that will potentially dispossess them of their land and strip the animals off the protection that their culture provides.
The influential Idu Mishmi Cultural & Literary Society (IMCLS) has now written to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Union environment ministry, along with the Arunachal Pradesh government, arguing that the community needs to be consulted during deliberation on the Dibang tigers, thus proposing, a cultural model of tiger conservation.
“Based on years of empirical research on ecological and social aspects of tigers in Dibang Valley, we strongly believe that the right strategy would be to develop a new kind of tiger reserve that is built not with fences and armed patrol guards, but around a cultural model, a culture which has so far proven to be effective in saving the tiger," the representation read.
Brothers in arms
This story, like so many others, starts with two brothers—the elder, a tiger and the younger, a Mishmi— both born to the same mother. One day, the younger brother hunted a deer. As he went off to collect firewood, he left the hunt behind with his brother. On his return, he was terrified to find that his brother was eating the deer raw.
Petrified, he fled to his mother and said, “My brother is a tiger. If he can eat raw meat, then one day he could eat me too." The mother then devised a plan, a race to cross the river where the victor kills the loser. The tiger swam and the Mishmi used the bridge. Although the tiger reached first, the mother threw a net on him to prevent him from winning.
As the tiger leapt back into the water, scratching his body against a rock, the boy climbed the bank and shot his brother with an arrow.
Suspended in time, the tiger’s dead body floated down in the river for years, until one day, a bird found his bones scattered by the riverside. The bird, who thought the shiny, bright bones were eggs, went and sat on them. And as the legend goes, from these bones the tiger was reborn.
That’s how the tiger was born once again, and that’s why the Mishmis don’t kill tigers. After all, for them it is the most revered, and yet, the most feared animal.
“Why a tiger reserve here? We don’t hunt tigers, they are our brothers! Tigers and humans were born to the same mother…we are protecting them anyway?," 45-year-old Angeche is as quoted as saying by Ambika Aiyadurai, in her 2016 study titled, ‘Tigers are our brothers’: Understanding Human-Nature Relations in the Mishmi Hills, Northeast India.
However, the government’s reaction to notify the area as a tiger reserve isn’t surprising.
The NTCA and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) were set after the local extinction of tigers in Sariska jolted the nation in 2004. A host of researchers and biologists were hired and trained by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in order to survey tiger habitats, estimate population and assess prey density.
Ever since, the formula has been straightforward: assess how many tigers are there in protected areas, fortify those areas and ensure the population exists at any cost.
But, what the IMCLS’ proposed “cultural model" entails and tries to communicate is the ancient relationship—one based on reverence, respect and centuries of co-existence—describing it as a “real opportunity to set the stage for a new tiger conservation paradigm; one that is grounded in the constitution’s mandate for Arunachal Pradesh – local tribal autonomy and sovereignty – and is based upon strengthening local cultural values."
The representation further explains how the Mishmis will inevitably decline “offers of great sums of money from outsiders in return for tiger parts, as they will not “kill their brother." While attacks on livestock often is the reason for conflict elsewhere in India, the Mishmis serve a unique case, as for them “this could mean, among other things, that the older brother has come to seek his share of his younger brother’s property".
While urging authorities to “look beyond a one-size fits all model for saving tigers", the Mishmi representation also pointed out that at the time of the Independence the inner-line permit was granted because of the “different cultural context of northeast India."
“It is important that even cultural context is considered so that we do not endanger the lives of the tigers and the locals," it says.
‘Dangerous’ to base policy on ‘half-truths’
Until 2012, biologists and wildlife researchers usually dismissed speculations of the existence of tigers in Dibang valley. This changed when two tiger cubs were rescued from a dry water tank in Angrim valley by the forest department. The cog wheels started to turn and almost immediately, suggestions were made that Dibang could be declared a tiger reserve.
The rescue of the cubs also led to the involvement of the scientific community, following which a preliminary survey was carried out by the WII in collaboration with NTCA in 2014.
Led by GV Gopi and Aisho Sharma Adhikariyam, a PhD scholar at WII, the survey threw up concrete evidence that tigers did reside in these higher altitudes. After three years of research and setting up of 108 camera traps, the survey results were finally published in current issue of Journal of Threatened Taxa. The results: 42 images of 11 individual tigers, including two cubs.
However, the prime contention made by IMCLS is that the WII research and the ensuing media coverage, told only “half of the tiger story" which is the biological and not the cultural aspect. It argued that this could have severe ramifications in terms of shaping policy by citing the example of Arunachal’s another tiger reserve, Namdapha, where the population of tigers has plummeted due to “issues with local communities".
Some of the “serious omissions" cited by IMCLS are: the photos were taken outside the wildlife sanctuary in the community forests; claims that these are the highest altitudes where tigers have been photographed are false as such photographs have earlier been taken in Bhutan; and the research doesn’t mention how many tigers were photographed inside or outside the sanctuary.
Speaking to News18, GV Gopi countered the allegations and said, “The published study doesn’t encapsulate the work we have done for three years and was published with a different objective."
“We are still analysing our results," he said, adding that there would be further research on the possibility of “a genetically unique population of tigers". However, he did agree with the community on one count. “I definitely agree that the community needs to be a part of any conservation efforts. These tigers wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the Idu Mishmi people’s special relationship with the tiger."
One of the authors of the letter, Dr Sahil Nijhawan, who conducted his PhD in the valley from 2013 to 2015 by combining ecological and anthropological methods to study the relationship between the tigers and the community, also conducted his field research here. Apart from interviews, his camera trap survey in the sanctuary and the village-owned community forests found that the “tiger density in community forests is nearly 4.5 times that of the sanctuary"
“The tigers that WII’s researcher photo trapped at 3630 and 3246 meters inextricably depends on the forests in lower hills which are inhibited by the Idu Mishmis. Notwithstanding its large size, DWLS’ highland geography makes it insufficient to hold enough tigers on its own to sustain a viable population," adds the representation.
Nijhawan too agreed that the tigers thrive in this area is a result of the relationship the Idu Mishmis share with wildlife.
The Dibang Valley district has the least human density in the country of one person per square kilometer. Even though the government, for a long time now, has been planning to increase infrastructure development here which includes building India’s largest dam, concerns over the unplanned manner of development continue to plague the community.
The Dibang Dam is supposed to be 288 metres high and generate to 3,000 megawatts of power. With concrete evidence of a thriving tiger population here, Gopi said, “A cumulative assessment from upstream to downstream needs to be done, to figure out which projects are feasible and which need to go."