By Nivedita Khandekar
New Delhi/Itanagar, Sep 26 (IANS): Traditionally hunting with bamboo contraptions, including sharp spears and bow-and-arrows, to upgrading to modern guns and now to surrendering them, Arunachal Pradesh has come a full circle.
Since its launch in March 2021, more than 1,000 people have surrendered their air guns in Arunachal Pradesh as part of the 'Air Gun Surrender Campaign'.
Till a century ago, Arunachal Pradesh remained cut off from other states, thanks to its deep forests and mighty rivers. The local communities - even they lived in silos in their respective territories - banked on wild meat mostly in absence of variety of food available in other parts and hunting was a tradition not just for variety of meat but also part of some religious rituals in almost all ethnic communities.
Air guns do not require any license and scores of people hunt birds and smaller animals using these air guns across Arunachal Pradesh, unaware of the biodiversity loss. Much of the ownership of the land rests with the tribal communities and effectively very small area falls under Forest Department, rendering much of the wildlife related laws ineffective.
When Arunachal Pradesh's Environment Minister Mama Natung got an opportunity to bring in the change, he wasted no time. In March 20121, he announced in the state assembly that he would inspire people to surrender air guns through a campaign.
Arunachal Pradesh is a vast geography with almost 80 per cent forested areas. According to the state forest department website, it has 20 per cent species of country's fauna and a wide variety of flowering plants, pteridophytes, conifers, bamboos, canes, Rhododendron species and more than 500 species of orchids and is considered as one of the 12 mega diversity "Hotspots" in the world.
"There are more than 600 orchids, 500 plus bird species, including the rare birds such as Bugun Liocichla and Bengal Florican," Natung said.
Starting with his own constituency, the Environment Minister helped form an NGO and launched an awareness drive. His logic is simple. Earlier, when there was lack of variety of food, it was alright, people went to the jungles and hunted birds and animals. "But now that we have meat and fish available for sale in market, we have other food items, what is the need?" he asks.
The first programme was conducted in Lumdung village, near Seppa in East Kameng district "On that day, as many as 46 people surrendered their air guns. All voluntarily," Natung told IANS over phone.
Till date 1,326 air guns and 315 rifles have been surrendered, Natung said, adding, in each district, each MLA, each students' union, forest department staff, everybody has been asked to work for creating awareness among people.
Several areas in central Arunachal Pradesh have seen this campaign take off in a big way. However, there are areas that have seen a little serendipitous response, for instance, the eastern districts of Lohit and Anjaw.
Behem Lap, a social worker running an NGO 'Kin Medo' in Lohit district, said, "The response has been okay in our area. To start with, not many people in the Mishmi belt can afford an air gun. But those well-off, who did have, have surrendered."
She said, Mishmis have always considered big cats such as tigers and leopards as sacred and there has been a taboo on hunting them in her community. "Even the Hoolock Gibbon is not touched. We kill animals, such as deer, only when it is needed for big traditional puja or for some party after wedding. Animals are never hunted for fun in our area," she said.
The Forest Department has instructed all Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) to help with the campaign explaining people the damage that the continued hunting can cause to the biodiversity.
Arunachal Pradesh Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, R.K. Singh said, "At some places, people surrendered their air guns voluntarily. But in other, there were people who did not themselves own an air gun, they actually snatched the guns from their relatives, who were initially reluctant to surrender."
All the surrendered air guns are being held in custody of the forest department for now. "We plan to later build a memorial with each of the person who surrendered his gun displayed," Singh said.
Welcoming the development as "fantastic", WWF-India coordinator for Western Arunachal Pradesh Landscape, Kamal Medhi said, "Air guns are a menace, especially for avi-fauna. We appreciate this initiative."
He also said that the community must be educated on the issue further.
Next step is surrender of licensed guns on October 3 in West Kameng district, Singh said.
Buoyed by the response in his state, Natung said, "I would appeal Union Environment Minister and my counterparts in different states to conduct such campaigns and ban air guns."
In fact, that was exactly what the Union Minister of State for Forest, Environment and Climate Change, Ashwini Kumar Choubey had hinted at when he visited Itanagar, the state capital on September 23.
Appealing people to not hunt animals and birds, Choubey had said, "Air Gun Surrender Campaign will be launched across the country and retired forest workers, representatives of social organizations etc will be roped in for the same."