India’s tribal north-east, Nagaland, was once a “biodiversity hotspot”, one of 36 such regions identified globally. Ninety-two species of mammal have been documented here, as well as 490 species of butterfly, 500 species of bird and 360 species of orchid. But the Nagaland hit a turning point around 30 years ago when a perfect storm of guns, unemployment, and cultural shifts led to a dramatic loss of biodiversity.
Key to this was the Naga’s decades-long struggle for independence from India, a conflict that has cost an estimated 200,000 Naga lives. Chinese medicine also played a menacing role. As demand increased in the 80s, Naga began selling everything from tiger bones and bear bile to wild ginseng, geckos, and cordyceps. With Indian and Burmese middlemen buying pangolin scales for 8,000 rupees a kilo, the animal’s numbers plummeted.
In 1998, a Naga village called Khonoma set aside 25 sq km of the forest as a community conservation area, banning all hunting and logging within its borders. Soon other communities began to follow suit. One of these is Yaongyimchen, a Phom Naga village perched high in the mist-wreathed mountains of eastern Nagaland. In 2010 the villagers established the Yaongyimchen Community Biodiversity Conserved Area, setting aside 10 sq km of the forest as a refuge for wildlife. Their biggest success is the Amur falcon, a small, resilient raptor that undertakes a mammoth 14,000-mile round trip each year between its breeding grounds in north-eastern Asia to where they winter in southern Africa.
They pause at these protected sites across Nagaland to feast on flying termites and rest before crossing the Arabian Sea—there they know it’s safe. As many as a third of Nagaland’s villages now have conservation areas, all of them initiated and managed at a grassroots level. Churches have organized gun amnesties. Bushmeat is no longer openly on sale. All over the state villagers have donated land to community conservancies.
While young men with guns and catapults are still a common sight across the state, the tide is turning. With wildlife slowly returning to these areas, villagers are seeing that their actions matter, that real change can happen when communities work together. And in exchange for a land rife with hunting, the Nagaland has become a hotbed for eco-tourism