Many contrasts seem to meet in the single person that is Dr. Sahil Nijhawan. He studies tigers but favours lions and is intrigued by them; he is a Delhi urbanite but is equally at home in the wilds across the world; he is a mechanical engineer who should be building power machines but who has [...]


The mysteries of a tiger tribe

Dr. Sahil Nijhawan who has ventured into the heartland of the mountain tigers and the Idu Mishmi lifts the veil over the Dibang Valley in India

Many contrasts seem to meet in the single person that is Dr. Sahil Nijhawan.

Sahil placing a camera trap

He studies tigers but favours lions and is intrigued by them; he is a Delhi urbanite but is equally at home in the wilds across the world; he is a mechanical engineer who should be building power machines but who has produced a robotic crocodile to the chagrin of his teachers; and he is a trained jazz dancer who is as sure-footed on the dance floor as on any treacherous mountainous slope. The list goes on……

A constant in his life though in recent times seems to be wild cat studies and Big Cats at that and Dr. Nijhawan will be in Sri Lanka next week to enthrall us about them – the indomitable and formidable ‘mountaineer-tigers’ of Northeast India and a strange but real brotherhood between man and tiger!

Dr. Nijhawan will speak on ‘Tribal Tigers’ at a lecture organised by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) at 6 p.m. on Thursday (January 16) at the Jasmine Hall of the BMICH, Colombo.

This is significant as the one and only Big Cat in Sri Lanka, the sleek and majestic but endangered leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), is under threat, with the most recent being an alleged killing within the Uda Walawe National Park and many in the hill country last year.

Dr. Nijhawan’s studies are particularly important for countries such as ours because he has looked in-depth at how the mountain tigers have been protected not by the Indian government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but by the tribal Idu Mishmi.

The Sunday Times gets a glimpse into the life and work of Dr. Nijhawan, currently based in the United Kingdom as a Research Fellow at the University College London (UCL) and British Academy Fellow at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), in an exclusive e-mail interview after a sojourn in Mexico.

Before we look at his studies into the mountain tigers and his close interaction with the Idu Mishmi people living in India’s remote Dibang Valley, he talks of a memorable night in a small village in the Amazon in Colombia.

Dr. Nijhawan recalls: “I spent a fair bit of time here that winter. A group of young Americans and British arrived one night to attend an Ayahuasca ceremony and were looking for a translator. Ayahuasca is a traditional spiritual medicine used in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The psychedelic effects it has on its consumers had made it quite popular with westerners.”

He had acted as interpreter to a shaman as he led a carefully ‘orchestrated’ and undoubtedly complex spiritual ceremony to a bunch of vomiting and convulsing westerners.

It was among these exotic scenes in non-urban spaces in the Amazon in Colombia and the Pantanal in Brazil, not usually witnessed by people, that Dr. Nijhawan realised that a lot of the human stories were frequently intersected by wild animal stories particularly Big Cats.

“The shaman in the Amazon in Colombia invoked the jaguar spirit several times as he led his drugged congregation through a spiritual experience. I was becoming increasingly interested in these intersecting human-animal stories – there was more to this relationship than conflict which is what we, conservation researchers and practitioners, preferred to focus on. This is what led me to the tigers in India’s tribal northeast,” he says.

By “chance” he found the mountain tigers – though he was looking for tigers, he was doubtful of finding any, let alone chance upon an entire population.

Dibang Valley is dotted with spectacular high-elevation lakes, believed to be ‘home’ to both spirits and tigers. These lakes are also said to be the abodes of the spirit master of all wild animals and a strict code of conduct is followed there

Dr. Nijhawan dismisses the word ‘discover’ and says it conjures up painful historical memories. (It was Christopher Columbus’ incompetent navigational skills that led him to ‘discover’ America and kicked off the largest destruction of nature and human life and culture in mankind’s history, what we now call colonialism.) “I’d rather use the scientific ‘register’ or ‘identify’. The Idu Mishmi, in whose forests these tigers live, have always known of them. I am, in fact, a very recent arrival to this knowledge,” he says with humility.

When he returned to India from South America, he had been offered the role of technical consultant in a new partnership between Panthera and Aaranyak – an enthusiastic conservation NGO based in India’s Northeast, a biodiversity hotspot but “entirely alien” to him.

One of his main responsibilities was to lead expeditions into the region’s many, little-studied community forests to establish scientific evidence of tigers and other large wildlife. There was pessimism though whether they would find any tigers, for two high-profile tiger reserves in India had been poached clean of all of their tigers. They were also hovering close to extinction in Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia. The global population was believed to be less than 3,000, he points out.

While conducting surveys in the Dibang Valley foothills, where they believed they would encounter any remaining tigers, every time Dr. Nijhawan interacted with Idu elders, the same story came up: “If you want to find a lot of tigers, you must go high up in the mountains. In our culture, tigers live on tall mountains.”

This went against everything he, as a conservation practitioner, firmly believed, backed by hard data. ‘A lot of tigers’ didn’t and couldn’t ‘live on high mountains’.

The tiger was a conservation dependent species that survived when governments and NGOs, like the one he worked for, put in active measures to protect them. There were no tiger reserves in Dibang Valley, no guards and the nearest sizeable tiger population was more than 400 km away in Assam’s Kaziranga.

“I was quite convinced that the ‘tigers’ the Iduelders spoke of were characters in some mythical tale,” says Dr. Nijhawan, who did find conclusive evidence of tigers in the foothills.

But, the thought of tigers prowling high mountains had taken a firm seat in his head and he did return months later to request his local friends to take him to where these tigers lived.

And they did………they showed him tiger pugmarks from river valleys at 1,800 metres up to steep mountain slopes at 2,700 metres – ‘high up in the mountains’.

“I was stunned. How many tigers lived in the rugged temperate forests of these frontier villages? Dibang Valley lies next to China, arguably the largest consumer of tiger parts. Tigers had largely disappeared from other regional reserves, then why were these tigers there? Who was protecting them? My incredulity was met with an even more curious response from my host father, Naba Jibi, a charming middle-aged Idu,” says Dr. Nijhawan.

“In our culture, tigers and Idusare brothers. We cannot kill them,”he had said.

A year later, Dr. Nijhawan was back in Dibang Valley armed with 100 automatic camera traps. The tigers and the relevance of Idu-tiger ‘brotherhood’ for their conservation were now the focus of his PhD that combined tiger ecology with the study of human culture – anthropology, a discipline he was new to. However, it was becoming increasingly clear that the tiger story in Dibang Valley would be incomplete without its human story.

Dr. Nijhawan paints a beautiful image of these predators: “Unlike most tigers in India, these tigers are indomitable mountaineers – they scale mountains up to 4,000 metres tall and rely on unique prey with two species of barking deer (Indian muntjac and the rarer and slightly larger, Gongshan muntjac) making up most of their diet followed by mithun, a semi-domesticated gaur (Indian bison) – culturally and economically valuable to the Idu people and two species of mountain goats – the Himalayan serow and the Mishmi takin, a bizarre-looking creature like a furry cross between the African wildebeest and a sheep.

While most Idus he spoke to were well aware of the value of tiger parts in illegal markets, they would not kill tigers for the fear that it might invoke the ancestral curse of death and destruction.

“Every Idu adultknows the story of the tiger brotherhood. Iduchildren grow up on the story of the ancestral brothers born to the same mother – the first Idu, from whom all present-day Idusdescend, and the tiger. A disagreement resulted in man conspiring to kill his brother. The creators rebirthed the tiger and sent it to the ‘tall mountains’, away from his brother’s villages, where it lives to this day,” he says.

The Idu believe that the wilful killing of the tiger by his own brother, an act of murder that spilled the blood of one’s own kin, unleashed the misfortunes and diseases that still haunt the Idu. The two live separate lives. However, the tiger does occasionally descend into his human brother’s villages in the lower mountains to steal his prized cattle, mithun, creating tense confrontational situations.

Pointing out that livestock depredation, a definitive sign of conflict in most places where people and predators co-habit, is a complicated matter for the Idu, Dr. Nijhawan says the tigers preying on mithun is not mere livestock depredation; it is a re-enactment of the ancestral myth that intertwines man and tiger. It is this myth that enrages man, but despite financial, emotional, spiritual and psychological stress, it is the same myth that prohibits immediate and violent retaliation – elsewhere, a significant cause of tiger deaths.

The Idu observe elaborate restrictions and taboos on hunting of tiger prey. “My research showed these taboos were one of the reasons why the population of tiger prey species in Dibang Valley was at par with prey populations in government protected reserves. In the absence of formal protection mechanisms, tigers, their prey and habitat had been protected in Dibang Valley in large part due to the Idu culture, which in turn had been safeguarded by the ‘Inner Line Permit’, a legal instrument that prohibits settlement by non-locals in Dibang Valley,” he says, adding that “it is why I call them tribal tigers”.

Dr. Nijhawan assures that the Idu (tribal)-tiger link hasn’t ended. While he does not think that it will ever end entirely, he fears, however, that their relationship and the future of Dibang’s tigers are “very uncertain”.

These fears are based on India’s plans to divide Dibang Valley into a high mountain tiger reserve, meant for tigers only. Its valleys and rivers will be converted into 17 proposed dams. If these plans are put into motion, he thinks it would radically change the lives of the Idu people, the tiger and their unique relationship.

“Many such human-animal relationships around the world have been lost to the combined force of one-size-fits all development and conservation programmes. My hope is that we don’t repeat the same mistake in Dibang Valley,” adds Dr. Nijhawan.

 Living with the Idu 

Dr. Sahil Nijhawan lived, ate, drank, farmed and went walkabout with the Idu Mishmi people for years during his research which he has co-produced with members of their community.

An Idu shamanic ceremony. Pic courtesy of Mishmi Hills Photo Agency

His godfather was Naba Jibi; his field assistants, Iho and Achili, his host brother, Apiya Alinji and his shaman guide, Naba Sipa.

So who are the Idu?

The Idu, about 13,000 people, are one of the 26 recognised indigenous communities of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The Dibang Valley an unending expanse of dense green mountains dotted by snow-covered peaks is their ancestral homeland.

Explaining the backdrop in which they live, Dr. Nijhawan says that in Arunachal Pradesh, unlike the rest of the country, land and forests are under the de facto ownership of local people while the Forest Department controls a meagre percentage of land. Each Idu village has exclusive rights over its mountains and forests. Within the village land, each family has its own forest land while some of it is communally owned. Ownership rules are strictly enforced and without the owner’s permission, Idus do not go into forests that are not theirs.

“Idus are predominantly animists. Traditional animists believe that non-humans such as animals and spirits can think and make moral decisions like humans do. The world of the animists is full of good and bad spirits. To survive and prosper, one must ensure that these spirits are appeased with the help of a shaman, who is able to communicate with the spirit and animal worlds,” he says, pointing out that the Idu believe that all animals belong to the spirit of the high mountains. A hunter must request the animal he wishes to kill from the spirit and in return, pay a price. The taboos that Idu hunters follow upon a successful hunt are part of this symbolic payment.

Sketching a detailed profile of the socio-economically “very diverse” Idu who include businessmen, politicians, doctors, scholars and professors, he says that there are also the Idus who live a three-day walk from the nearest road and depend almost entirely on farming and forests for their livelihoods. Even though their socio-economic lives may be drastically different, most are still animists.

About his trials and travails in the Dibang Valley where life is “challenging” and he spent most of his first year placing camera traps (for the first such study in the area), Dr. Nijhawan says: “We would walk several hundred kilometres. Initially, I struggled in Dibang’s forests – steep, wet, dense, laden with thorny bamboo and crawling with leeches and dum-dims, a type of bloodsucking fly. Of course, Iho was always there to pull me back every time I lost balance on a slippery boulder or went down the wrong trail.

“Our trips took us to some of the most remote parts of Dibang Valley. To many of these locations, I was the first outsider. I’ve been to over three dozen countries in the world, but Dibang Valley is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.”

And it was during these forays, huddled around the fire to keep warm in the chilly evenings that he tried to rote learn 20 new words of Idu a day. His repeated inability to correctly pronounce Idu tones would crack everyone up. Now Dr. Nijhawan can “pretty well manage” in Idu as also Portuguese and Punjabi, while being fluent in English, Hindi, Spanish and Urdu and being able to understand Assamese.

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