Year of the Falcon

When the Wildlife Trust of India gave me the opportunity to go to Nagaland and document their efforts to conserve the Amur Falcon in November,2013, I was told that I would end up seeing a lot of dead birds. About 5,00,000 Amur Falcons congregate in Nagaland during the winter months, during their journey from Siberia to South Africa. This is a pit stop, before they undertake their final leg of their journey which includes a non stop fight over the Arabian Sea. These are also the lean months in Nagaland in terms of crop. Over the years these birds have been hunted in the hundreds of thousands by local people to overcome this lack of food  in the lean months.
In 2013 due to efforts of the Wildlife Trust of India and their local partners Natural Nagas, working in close co-ordination with Nagaland department of Forests, hunting came down to insignificant levels. The remarkable turnaround of the local communities from hunters to conservators ranks as a success story of conservation efforts in India. The collaborators in this effort – MME/Bird Life Hungary, WII, CMS(raptors unit), Nagaland department of Forests and other partners all contributed to this unprecedented success. 
The Amur Falcon is a truly amazing bird that we know so little about. About the size of a dove, their complete migratory path is approximately 22,000 km. Starting from Siberia  and Northern China, they fly down to congregate at Nagaland for about 45 days each year. From here they make a marathon journey across the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Sea  to Africa. The 300km that they fly oversea in about 3 days and nights of non-stop flying is a world record ‘The longest oversea journey made by any raptor’.
Apart from documenting the conservation efforts, I also witnessed at close quarters a tag and release program aimed at accurately tracking the migratory paths of these birds. Three Amur Falcons were tagged with VTT markers.<br/><br/>Apart from the tagging devices being less that 5.25gm in weight, the harness used was state of the art and will not hinder the bird in flying. Watching the tags being put on the birds was like watching surgeons at work. Each bird took more than an hour and a half to tag. Even though the solar powered devices have antennae they will not impede mating. I was quite worried when I heard that the birds would be given a backpack to carry all their lives. But trust me, all you nature lovers out there, these birds have gone through loving hands.
We were able to track Naga (male), Pangti and Wokha (both female) make their incredible journey from the comforts of our tents. Their paths  were tracked in real time on a google map. As Naga and Pangti flew over the arabian sea after an overnight rest at Goa out hearts were in our mouths. However, that did not prepare us for Wokha’s incredible feat. She flew non-stop from Bangladesh across the Arabian sea and touched land next only in Somalia. No Goan holiday for her. The energy and instinct that propels a bird across a subcontinent and an ocean non-stop is unbelievable.

Nagaland’s success in protecting the Amur falcon is a conservation miracle like no other. In contrast to the large number of Amur Falcons harvested for food till 2013, the local community ensured that not a single falcon was killed during the 2013 migration. The Wildlife Trust of India, the Natural Nagas (the local NGO here) and other green groups have done a lot for the people here.
 
 
Here Steve Odyuo of the Natural Nagas celebrates a successful conservation effort. " I used to use a gun, but now I have a canon! " <br/>
WTI and the Natural Nagas started several programs to help the local community find alternate sources of income and nutrition during the lean period in Nagaland. Their co-ordination with the Village Councils of Aasha, Sungro and Pangti was no small feat, it realised an impossible dream. I can only imagine the extent of ground work done before I set foot in these forests and stayed for a month.
 

Last years hunters formed a patrolling Squad to protect the falcons. Rice and poultry were provided to compensate the families that were living off the birds last year. The church was involved and  children educated. Reversing the trend was no small feat, it took the entire communities effort.

While there is much work to be done for the organisations involved here , I was on cloud nine. The birds have had the safest passage imaginable.

Nagaland is starting to be called the Falcon Capital of the World.

It deserves that name. This is the largest congregation of falcons in the world. In the evening when the birds retured from all over Nagaland to their roosting site in Aasha, it is a grand spectacle. Four lakh falcons flying in the setting sun fill up your senses. There is not a patch in the sky that is not filled by falcons.
 
I have been immensely lucky to be here. This has been my job for the last month, but it has felt like a holiday at an exotic resort called the Natural Nagas Base Camp. A resort with guides for the forest. A resort that introduces you the most hospitable locals I have ever met. A resort that has provided me with absolutely amazing food. This has been my first visit to Nagaland and I could not have dreamt of a better way to break the ice. Steve, Yuri, Mhombemo, Kosy, Ngulli, Shan, Stephan, Yani, Sunger, Tia, Zuchamo, Nzamo , Thungbem and everyone else that made my stay wonderful, I do not know all your local dialects so I hope you forgive me for using Nagamese when I say Mon-tso-ka ( May your spirit soar – thank you).

Update 2015 May : Two birds are still viewable by satelite – Pangti ( Female and largest wing span) and Naga (Male)

WTI website: http://www.wti.org.in/

Natural Nagas page: https://www.facebook.com/naturalnagas.org?fref=ts

Website to watch live tracking of the birds: http://satellitetracking.eu/inds/showmap/?check_143=143&check_145=145