Often referred to as “the land of the dawn lit mountains”, Arunachal Pradesh’s extensive geographical diversity, climatic conditions and vibrant wildlife makes it one of the richest biodiversity and heritage spots in the country.

It is the only state that can claim to have four major varieties of the big cats in its jungles — tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard — as well as lesser feline species like the golden cat and marbled cat.

There are also seven species of primates, including the takin, which can be found only here. Each district has its own exclusive variety of orchids and one of Asia’s largest orchidariums is located at Tipi.

Sadly, much of its lush forested landscape has been altered by logging, hunting and the indiscriminate expansion of agriculture. Habitat destruction due to hydropower projects and excessive extraction of wood for fuel has become the biggest threat to many species, including the red panda, which is found only in the Eastern Himalayas. Thankfully, two tiny hamlets in Arunachal’s Pangchen Valley — near the settlement of Zemithang in the remote corner of the state — are turning the tide on ecological degradation by making conservation an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. The striking biodiversity of the valley includes the red panda, the leopard and the critically endangered black necked crane, a winter visitor. The Monpa inhabitants (they’re one of the major tribes of western Arunachal Pradesh) of the valley are the ideal guardians of this remote but beautiful mountain landscape.

Buddhists who revere Tawang Monastery as the fountainhead of their spiritual lives, the Monpas have a rich culture and tradition of conservation. They depend largely on agriculture and livestock rearing for a livelihood and generally refrain from hunting. In 2005, the World Wide Fund for Nature -India initiated a conservation programme in the Eastern Himalayas and two districts in Arunachal — Tawang and West Kameng — were earmarked as focal areas. As a result of the awareness created by the programme, two villages in Pangchen Valley– Lumpo and Muchut — decided to work towards providing a safe and secure habitat to the red panda. Cousin to the more celebrated giant panda, it is astonishingly agile, has a sweet tooth and uses its bushy tail as a wraparound blanket in the chilly mountain air. It is listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature list of threatened species and also under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

This mammal lives in deciduous and conifer Himalayan forests mixed with bamboo undergrowth at an altitude of 2,200-4,800 metres. Lumpo and Muchut villages, located just south of China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region, fall precisely within this range and hold immense importance in terms of critical biodiversity found in the region. Both lie in Tawang district and are not connected to the national electricity grid. As a result of the power supply being limited and erratic, people are dependent on firewood for cooking and heating purposes. This would explain why the unregulated felling of trees continued for a long time until the villagers realised that springs were drying up, rainfall was decreasing and summers were getting warmer every year.

As a wake-up call, the villagers formed the Pangchen Lumpo Muchut Community Area Conservation Management Committee with the help of WWF-India in 2007. The village panchayats endorsed this initiative targeted at nature conservation and socio-economic development of the forest-dependent tribal population. Ngawang Chotta, the Gaam Budha (village head) of Lumpo, told thethirdpole.net, “We felt the need for conservation as our generation saw the decline in numbers and species over the years as we grew up. For instance, approximately 20 years ago snow leopards were commonly seen around the Shagro Delemzur grazing grounds. Not anymore.”

The committee divided the community land into two broad zones — a core zone for complete protection of the forest and the wildlife, and a buffer zone for sustainable utilisation of available natural resources by the villagers. A ban on hunting and harvesting of trees, shrubs and herbs has been implemented and, to ensure that this is followed, the residents of the two villages carry out joint patrols twice a year with technical help provided by the WWF. In this half -early drill, teams of 10-12 people scan and patrol every inch of the core and buffer zone forests for almost 10 days. Small boards warning those caught hunting or cutting trees have also been put up at several places in the forests. All this has resulted in a significant decrease in poaching in the region.

The villagers, who enjoy an intimate relationship with the forest, are also working to list the biodiversity in the area with the help of GPS-enabled devices. They have already documented the red panda, black-necked crane, musk deer, blue sheep, monal pigeon, snow partridge, blood pigeon, leopard cat, golden cat and the Himalayan black bear. They are now making a separate list for trees and shrubs, with special focus on medicinal plants. The plan also helps local villagers sustainably utilise forest resources such as firewood, timber and bamboo for household use as well as employment opportunities. The committee plans to ban this as well once people get an alternative fuel. The felling of trees around water sources in the area has already been completely banned. Efforts to explore alternative conservation-friendly livelihoods are already underway. The economic incentives that community-based tourism provides are a great way to promote active involvement of local communities in conservation of forests. One such is the home stay tourism that enables locals to earn from visitors coming to stay for a sighting of the elusive red panda. The committee is planning to establish about 10 home stays in the villages.  As all the forests in Tawang district are legally classified as community reserves, the forest department doesn’t directly interfere in its management. Instead, it helps spread awareness, especially among elders, who decide where jhum cultivation is done. The department has also requested the Central government to sanction funds so that the remotest of villages can get fuel-efficient stoves and cylinders at subsidised rates. This can counteract the cutting down of trees for firewood. The progress is slow but positive and the villagers believe they can win the conservation battle. 

Surveys over the last couple of years have shown increased sightings of red pandas in the region. Given the rarity of this occurrence in the wild, the sightings of especially younger ones show the presence of a healthy breeding population. Apart from red pandas, increased sightings of Himalayan black bears, common leopards, Himalayan gorals, serows, large-eared pikas, musk deer and the famed winter guests, black necked cranes, have also been recorded. Interestingly, the arrival of the thung thung karma, as the black-necked crane is affectionately called by locals, is considered an auspicious omen. As a result, these beautiful birds are highly revered and protected. 

The conservation-friendly attitude of the Monpas has ensured that Pangchen Valley continues to provide a safe haven for the iconic species of the region. Exemplifying the guardianship of biodiversity by locals, these tiny villages in Arunachal are among the few truly successful community-based conservation models in India. (The better India)

By Sanchari Pal