Adventures in Nagaland, fitting PTTs on Amur Falcons in North-East India

Just short of a whole day spent flying, we arrived on the 3rd of November to Guwahati airport where we met Nick P. Williams (UNEP CMS Raptors MoU) and R. Suresh Kumar (Wildlife Institute of India). The day’s travel didn’t just end there; we sat another half day in the Mahindra 4x4 kindly provided by the Nagaland Department of Forests, Ecology, Environment and Wildlife, arriving at Dimapur late in the evening. The next day continued with a meeting Mr. T.M. Lotha, Chief Wildlife Warden informing him about the purpose of our visit, and detailing our itinerary for the week. As a symbolic gesture, we were honoured to receive the traditional Naga waistcoat from Mr Lotha demonstrating the kindness and thoughtfulness of the people from the forestry service and the locals that we were to experience throughout our journey.

The team in the traditional Naga waistcoat in Dimapur (Photo: Obed Swu)

 

Mr.Lotha explained that the Nagaland Forestry Department had launched a comprehensive campaign to halt the unreasonable mass harvest of Amur Falcons. One result of this campaign is a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Pangti, Ashaa and Sungro villages acknowledging that killing and trapping of Amur Falcons is illegal on their land and is a punishable crime. The local hunters understood the importance of the roost sites in their vicinity,as no trapping has been carried out this season. Merit goes to Zuthunglo Patton and Hemant Kamdi, two young forestry officers who played an eminent role in organizing and implementing the conservation measures. There is lot to be learned from them.

On the ‘road’ to Doyang (Photo: Szabolcs Solt)
 

Following the meeting, we set out to reach Doyang before sunset, giving us an opportunity to for the first time experience the unspeakable; hundreds of thousands of falcons pouring in like flocks of starlings from the surrounding valleys to the roost sites. Despite our experience in counting raptors, we were reluctant to even estimate the magnitude of the number of birds, even the most pessimistic figures were at least a million falcons entering the area that day. The falcons settled into two discrete areas approx. 2.5 km away, with the smaller roost (holding 20-30 thousand birds) being seemingly better for trapping in the following days.

Amur Falcons leaving the evening roost site half way between Doyang and Pangti. (Photo: Péter Fehérvári)

 

The evening and the next morning was about assessing the possibilities for setting up the nets to trap and tag 3 Amur Falcons with satellite tags (Microwave Telemetry Ltd., 5 gramm PTT). After compiling all the ideas we managed to erect a single canopy net on the 5th of November. Although, the locals seemingly liked the idea and the methods we used, they claimed that the mist-net’s height was just not enough to trap the birds. Well, they were right as we only managed to capture a couple of fruit and nectar eating bats that evening. On the 6thwe tried a different approach; basically we combined our equipment with the know-how of local villagers (the same people who last year had trapped and killed thousands of falcons) and placed out three canopy mist-nets approx. 3 meters higher than the previous one.

Mist-net in the canopy of the tropical forest used by the falcons for roosting (Photo: Szabolcs Solt)
 

Although, the birds behaved somewhat differently each night, we still got immense number of birds in the right location. We could hardly wait for the night to set in and sneaked into the roost like thieves to check the mist-nets where finally we managed to trap a total of 30 birds. Late in the evening after safely removing all birds we immediately selected the three to-be-tagged individuals, an adult male and two adult females. The birds were kept safe for the evening and the delicate procedure of sampling, ringing and tagging started early on the 7th of November.

’Naga’- the adult male PTT tagged individual (Photo: Szabolcs Solt)
 

The first bird “Naga” the adult male was released by Mr. Lokeswara Rao Madiraju, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Head of Forest Force of Nagaland.

Mr. Lokeswara Rao Madiraju, Chief Conservator of Forests & Head of Forest Force of Nagaland releasing “Naga” (Photo: The Telegraph)

 

The second bird “Wokha”, named after the district in Nagaland where Doyang is located was released by Nick P. Williams (CMS Raptors MoU) and R. Suresh Kumar (WII), while the third bird “Pangti” was set free by the leaders and hunters of Pangti village.

Nick P. Williams and R. Suresh Kumar releasing “Wokha” (Photo: Obed Swu)

The leaders and hunters of Pangti praying for “Pangti” to safely return to Nagaland next year, just before releasing the bird (Photo: Obed Swu)

 

They even prayed for the well-being and safe return of this adult female to Nagaland before she was set free. Standing amongst the villagers and hearing them pray for a bird that just last year they regarded as food was a heart-breaking moment making us both understand what an extraordinary community the Naga tribes have. All other trapped birds were colour ringed and set free after several sampling procedures.

For both authors the visit to Nagaland changed completely our idea of India. Today we think that India has something special, not only the rickshaws, the uniquely diverse culture, the largest population of Asian elephants and tigers make India special. In a remote place somewhere in the far North-eastern end of the country in a hidden valley practically never visited by foreigners lies the single biggest congregation of raptors anywhere in the world. The roost sites here hold hundreds of thousands, possibly up to two million Amur Falcons, a species with the longest known migratory route amongst raptors. Lot of superlatives for an area, and a remarkable location to study avian migration in the future.

The migratory routes of all  the falcons tagged with PTTs can be tracked at www.satellitetracking.eu

Please keep an eye out for further updates and news about Pangti, Wokha and Naga on this website. 

Partners of the collaborative joint expedition:
1. CMS  Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (Raptors MoU)
2. Wildlife Institute of India (WII),
3. Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India
4. Department of Forests, Ecology, Environment and Wildlife, Government of Nagaland
5. MME/BirdLife Hungary
6. Hungarian Natural History Museum

 

Szabolcs Solt - Péter Fehérvári