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Hornbill, OK please

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Conservation and livelihoods don't have to be at odds, says Aparajita Datta, winner of this year's Whitley Award for her work to save the hornbill in Arunachal Pradesh.

Aparajita Datta had never been much of a bird-watcher. In fact, she calls herself more of a mammal person. In November, 1995, when she landed up in the Pakke Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh, she was there to study the responses of arboreal mammals to logging. But the hornbills caught her attention. And 18 years later, Datta won the Whitley Award, also known as the Green Oscar, for her exceptional work to save the endangered hornbills of Arunachal Pradesh.

Since that trip to Pakke, she never stopped returning to Arunachal Pradesh. And the giant, gorgeous hornbills became Datta's passion for life. Since she was interested in seed dispersal, tropical forest trees and fruits and seeds, the hornbills seemed like the ideal study subjects given their dependence on fruits. "I decided to carry out my doctoral research on the foraging, nesting, and the roosting ecology of hornbills in Pakke. I also examined their role as seed dispersers of primary forest trees. During my three-year PhD fieldwork, I also got to learn much more about the history, culture and lifestyle of the people of Arunachal, " she says.

Datta's love for the free and the wild began early - Gerald Durrell, David Attenborough and James Herriott were her favourite authors - and her earliest plan was to be a vet. Even though she spent her childhood in Africa, she did not get to do as much exploration as she wanted. "It was when I heard about biologists working in the park and saw the work of park rangers that I decided that was what I wanted to be doing, " she says.
Today, after a 17-year career as a wildlife biologist, she is a senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and heads their Eastern Himalaya programme.
The most significant aspect of Datta's work in the Northeast is its inclusive and innovative nature. In 2003, after several years of wildlife research in Arunachal, she felt the need to "do something" to address some of the key conservation problems (such as hunting). The funding came along soon. She shifted her main focus to Namdapha in eastern Arunachal and got more deeply involved with a community-based conservation programme. The overarching objective was to give them a stake in wildlife protection and engage 'reformed' hunters in the job.

Hornbills are adversely affected by hunting and habitat loss. And the larger species of hornbills are extremely rare. Recent research by Datta's student, Rohit Naniwadekar, has identified hunting as a bigger cause of hornbill decline than habitat loss. Some tribes in eastern Arunachal and Nagaland use the tail feathers of most species for decorating their headgear worn primarily during rituals and traditional festivals. The decline of hornbills in these areas has resulted in the use of paper feathers but the real thing is still highly valued and is even sold locally in markets at high prices, currently at Rs 1, 000 per tail feather. Moreover, hornbills are hunted throughout most of northeast India for the perceived medicinal value of their fat and also for meat. The Nyishi tribes in western Arunachal, the tribe that Datta works with, use the upper beak/casque.

Datta started working with the marginalised Lisu people, the main tribal community in and around Namdapha, on a wildlife monitoring programme. In two years of monitoring, they had obtained photographic evidence of rare and threatened mammal species. The programme also went beyond - it helped provide medical support, training in health care, education and agricultural assistance to the tribals.

"This work initially resulted in the community taking a stand against hunting and some reduction of hunting;however, given a lack of alternate livelihood options and several other factors, it was difficult to sustain this with the entire community, " says Datta.

In 2010, Datta and her team hit upon the golden idea. They realised that while the nests inside the Pakke Tiger Reserve were largely safe, the nesting habitat outside was rapidly disappearing. "There had been other slow changes in the attitudes of many people among the Nyishi community towards the park and hornbill hunting had been banned. There were fewer obvious/direct instances of hunting of hornbills. Local institutions had been encouraged and supported by the park management. The time was right for talking to the community about a partnership to protect hornbills outside the park, " explains Datta.

And thus started the Hornbill Nest Adoption programme, now a partnership between the Ghora-Aabhe (group of village chiefs), NCF and the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department. It is based on the concept of shared parenting: financial support comes in from faraway urban citizens who act as foster parents by adopting hornbill nests, while local people look after the nests. In the last two years, the programme has raised support from around 70 donors, mostly urban Indians. One adoption usually requires Rs 5, 000 although many have contributed more. Nine villages along the southern boundary of Pakke are currently participating in this, with 12 nest protectors who find, monitor and protect nests of four hornbill species.

"Conservation has to be equitable and uphold democratic rights of people, which is hard to implement, " says Datta. But she has enough inspiration to keep going - the fact that many erstwhile hunters are now monitoring, watching nests, recording data and their observations and taking pride in protecting hornbills, their chicks and their nesting trees.
Datta tells one story - Taya Tayum, a village headman, whom Datta knew since 1995 helped find nests/monitor wildlife/count hornbills at roosts. He had only studied in Assamese medium till Class 5 and could not write, so he would painstakingly make his son note down all the observations he made at hornbill nests and roosts. He had been a hunter all his life, but he underwent a change of heart and stopped hunting. He once tried to save a sick great hornbill and risked his life to save a drowning elephant calf. He had also become a member of the Ghora-Aabhe, which was trying to assist the Forest Department in protection and creating awareness in the community about stopping hunting. He died in 2006.

But what made her choose hornbills over all the other magnificent, wild creatures of the Northeast? "As a scientist, I am fascinated by their unique breeding biology. But at an emotional level, they look incredibly funny and awkward with their oversized beaks and somehow vulnerable. I remember once watching a great hornbill male perched on a lone tree in a totally degraded forest landscape looking lost in what was once his home. There was a nest tree there which was used by a great hornbill pair successfully for three years, till one year, that tree was also gone. I felt very helpless and sad then and felt that my research work had been of no use to save even that one nest tree. Now I think we have that opportunity to try to change the long-term future of hornbills and their forests. "

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