Interview by Uttara Mendiratta
Starting in March 2021, we came across reports on the Airgun Surrender Abhiyan that had been initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Arunachal Pradesh. We noted it with mild curiosity, but did not think it was more than a localized phenomenon. But soon, through our interactions with the forest department, it became clear that this was not a one off event but a growing movement, and one that the forest department felt very invested in. The forest officials had been reaching out to the village elders (Gaon Buras and Buris), and other stakeholder within and outside the government structure through dialogue meetings, and creating awareness about the initiative across communities. A key reason behind the forest department’s commitment became apparent when we met Mr. Abhinav Kumar (DFO, Hapoli Forest Division) at Tale Wildlife Sanctuary who told us how the abhiyan is being passionately spearheaded by the Honourable Forest Minister, Shri Mama Natung himself. By April 2022 over 2,000 guns had been surrendered at events across many locations including, Seppa, Pasighat, Yingkiong, Ziro, Boleng, Pakke, and counting. Reports of similar events have also been reported from Nagaland more recently. The message that has been going out, and that seems to strike a chord amongst the masses across Arunachal Pradesh is this – conserve wildlife to maintain the balance of nature, and to ensure the coming generations can see these beautiful wild creatures.
While we prepared to set off on an interview survey trying to understand what was motivating people to surrender their airguns, it seemed logical for us to start with Shri Mama Natung himself – the energy behind this growing movement. Below are excerpts of an interview that that I conducted with Honourable Forest Minister, Shri Mama Natung on Itanagar on 13th May 2022.
UM: What motivated you to initiate the Airgun Surrender Abhiyan?
MN: The sale of licensed guns is easy to control as the government can easily control through the licencing process. But unlike these guns, airguns can be owned without licences and can be easily purchased online. They come with modern features, like scopes, and are much cheaper to use compared to regular guns that need expensive bullets. People will think twice about using expensive bullets in a regular gun to kill birds and animals, but will be able to easily afford these bullets, which are easily available in the local market. They are therefore regularly using airguns to kill the beautiful wildlife that lives around us. So in a meeting at the assembly I announced that I will start an airgun surrender abhiyan. Since charity begins at home, I started with my home constituency of Seppa (East Kameng district). I started this abhiyan on 17th Mar, 2021, with people from five to six villages, which fall under Debeyar Circle. On the first day itself we saw 48 guns being voluntarily surrendered. Then using the concept of ‘Janbhagidari’ (people’s participation), I encouraged people from the legislature, administration DFOs, Rangers and local NGOs to help make this abhiyan work.
Mother Nature has blessed Arunachal in bounty with dense forests and a diversity of flora and fauna. We, the tribal people of Arunachal Pradesh, have always depended on these jungles for our survival. But I believe it is now time for us to give back to Mother Earth and protect wildlife and forest. I travelled across Districts to personally request people to surrender their guns.
When I travel across the state I find that one cannot see many birds, even in these vast jungles, which is a very sad thing for a state like Arunachal, even shameful. So I tried to impart awareness to the people on some rare and endangered bird species in Arunachal currently such as the Bugun liocichla that is only found only in Arunachal Pradesh and nowhere else in the world; the Mandarin Duck, which was recorded in Ziro after many years, and others like the Bengal Florican. I want them to understand their value of these birds and take pride in the fact that they are in our state, so that instead of killing, people preserve them.
Mandarin Duck (2022; Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh)
UM: Since the start of the abhiyan, over two thousand airguns have been surrender, are these results what you had envisioned?
MN: I have full confidence in our people. Once they realize the value our wildlife and their role in our future, they will for sure agree to give up their airguns. I also explained that these birds and animals will attract tourist to our state. I see that even in big cities like Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata you can see so many birds and you can hear them call – it is beautiful, yet in our biodiversity rich state we see so few and our forest is silent.
Another very important point I explain to the people is that of ecological balance. In one interaction with the students’ union group from Pasighat, who have supported out a lot, the group told me how produce from their farmlands has reduced. As compared to 100 bags of grain earlier, they get only 50 now; instead of 50 quintal of maize it is now 10. We spoke about how this was caused by ecological imbalance, and how the birds that ate the agricultural pest have been hunted out and there is an increase in the damage caused by pest.
I have also asked the villages – who planted these trees that you use for collecting fruits, and flowers and cut to build your homes? Did you plant these trees? I explain to them that our wildlife -- our birds like the hornbill and our deer -- they disperse the seeds that let the forest grow. They are the farmers of the forest, just like you are farmers. Without these birds the forest won’t be able to grow. How can you not love them? I also ask people to think of wildlife as living creatures with family bonds, just like us, not just as meat. I tried making them look at wildlife with love, as our allies and friends.
UM: What were the biggest challenges you have faced in implementing this abhiyan?
MN: As of now, people who are accepting of change and have understood the value of wildlife are surrendering their guns, even the licensed ones. Not only that, some have also surrendered fishing nets and timber sawing machines, and this is a good sign. But there are challenges – in some villagers they have asked me what they will get in return of surrendering their guns since some of these can cost 1-2 lakhs. I have said that the government will try and provide them with sampling of fruit bearing trees and some monetary incentive. However, this scheme is in the pipeline and has not been implemented yet. We need to work around the processes and access the funds. But once we are able to deliver these incentive, I look forward to seeing people plant those saplings in their lands and have birds visit them.
UM: Do you think this initiative has set in motion a new outlook towards wildlife conservation?
MN: There is a hunting festival by the name “Unying Aaran” that is celebrated by the Adi community. In this festival the youth will go inside the jungles, spend some 10-15 days there and bring back wild meat to feed the elders and the young in their community. This time, when I asked if they hunted for this year’s festival, they told me that they did not hunt. Instead of hunting, they collected money (be it 20 or 50 rupees) from their community members and bought meat for the feast. So I believe that people are now becoming aware that hunting leads to destruction. The other change that is happening is that those who are still using airguns for hunting are feeling some shame in openly carrying these guns. Many have told me that they believe that the government has taken a good step towards wildlife conservation through this abhiyan.
UM: What do you think these youths will do now instead of hunting, now that they are surrendering their guns?
MN: It is very important what we discourage the use of technologically advanced weapons that can enable a hunter to kill many birds in the same day without much effort or skill. Some of these guns have scopes and silencers – the hunters can very easily hunt 10 birds a day with these guns. These are nothing like the traditional methods of hunting that limited the number of wildlife being hunted. Also, my message for all our youth is that they should stop shooting birds with guns and instead use cameras and take photos of these birds.
UM: Going forward, what is your vision for this project in the future?
MN: I have been requesting our neighbouring states of Assam and Nagaland to also implement this abhiyan in their states. Wildlife does not recognize any political boundaries and they will roam across large areas. It will not work if we are conserving them here in Arunachal but when they cross these state boundaries and go to Assam or Nagaland, they get hunted there. Then our abhiyan will not serve any purpose. I would also like to make this same appeal to our neighbouring countries.
I think it is time that we, the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means “the world is one family”, come together and act as one family to tackle global issues of climate change and environmental degradation. Ultimately this land, the sky, the water, the wind, the wildlife, everything is part of this family and it is our collective responsibility to save our world.