This is the second part of a two-part series about Pakke before it became a tiger reserve, as told by elder Nyishi tribesmen. You can read the first part, here.

Long before Ashok walked me across the gushing Pakke river into the grasslands of Pakke Tiger Reserve, I had gone looking for Capped Langurs and Barking Deer with a tourist permit. Following elephant trails and tiger pugmarks, I had hoped for impossible sightings. Beside soaring Hornbills and scurrying Kalij Pheasants, Pin-striped Tit-Babblers frisked in the bush and spiderhunters hid amidst broadbill flocks.

Come spring, the forest turned red with blooming Simuls. As we ducked to avoid huge swarms of buzzing bees, Pakke felt like a world of magic. Wading across the Lalling river, when we paused for lunch at the Khari Forest Rest House, its guest registers introduced me to like-minded strangers.

     Nitin Rai | Nature Infocus     Aparajita   | Nature Infocus     Rajesh Gopal | Nature Infocus
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(Left to Right) Khari Forest Rest House guest registry entries by Nitin Rai, Aparajita Datta and Rajesh Gopal

In a guest registry entry from 1995, Nitin Rai from Pennsylvania State University mentions Binturongs, Malayan Giant Squirrels and Tiger Beetles but also hints at forest degradation. In the same year, Aparajita Datta from the Wildlife Institute of India laments about not seeing a single Great Hornbill during her stay. The years since have revealed how deep her ties with Pakke's hornbills would grow. In an entry from 2006, Rajesh Gopal (former director of Project Tiger) envisions the merger of Pakke, Eagle Nest and Sessa wildlife sanctuaries into a contiguous ecological unit. Others highlighted recreational aspects, one of them describing Pakke as "a mini-wonder for the people from crowded and polluted cities" (Major S. Chaudhuri, 2004).

Walking through the yellowing grass of Pakke and sitting amidst the silence of birdsong with Ashok, however, allowed a comprehension quite different from how the accounts in the guest register described its forests. Ashok talked of accompanying Nyishi elders on their hunts. The elders' familiarity with these forests seldom required formal observations. For Pane Dako, an elderly priestess from Seijosa, the forest is a utilitarian space. Beyond fond memories of the few times she went fishing with her husband, no romantic notions dwell within her. Knowing the forest and guarding its vitality is, for her, a survival essential. She must abide by what her elders have taught her.

Indigenous perspectives are far removed from the colonial interpretation of man and nature as separate entities. I wonder whether it is our post-colonial hangover that has kept the viewpoints of forest dwellers away from our forest policies. The Forest Rights Act is perhaps the only piece of legislation that has attempted to accommodate indigenous voices. But ever since its enactment in 2006, the law has been at war with the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). Even today, protecting wild spaces in India remains synonymous with curbing the rights of forest dwellers. 

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The home of Pane Dako, an elderly priestess from Seijosa

The relentless spotlight on indigenous hunting has always kept their cultural checks and balances in the shadows. While Nyishis have tipped arrows and laid traps, it has always been rooted in a philosophy of never acquiring beyond what is necessary from the forest. Nyishi elders talk of how Taking-Taring, the prodigal archers of Nyishi folklore, were rebuked by Abo-Tani (the first Nyishi man) and expelled for mindless hunting. Nyishi traditions also talk of Mig-Miri and Yachum-Yachi, who guard the inviolate interiors of a forest. In the magical realm of their beliefs, there roam sentient tigers and dutiful ghosts who maintain strict boundaries between man and the jungle. There are no rulebooks. Looking after the forest that sustains them is so deeply embedded in the indigenous subconscious that, among elder Nyishis, there exists no conscious understanding of the invaluable contributions they have made towards conservation.

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Nyubu Lata Issang displays fans made out of a Crested Serpent-Eagle's feather. The heartbreaking news of his sudden demise reached just a few months after the fieldwork for this story was completed

Modern developmental models, in their bid to reduce forest dependence, often take young Nyishis far away from such connections. Few get to witness the depths of Pakke's rainforests as their elders did. But, faced with the economic truths of survival, when they eventually look back at the forest, they are no longer equipped to live off it like their elders. The cultural ties have grown too loose to stop them from mining for sand or fishing with explosives.

Cultural undoings feel inevitable in this era of "modernisation", but Budhiram Tai (Gaon-Burrah, Darlong) wishes for them to linger a little longer. "How many of our children shall manage jobs in the city? What about the ones who are left behind?" Budhiram believes that holding on to culture can at least ensure sustenance. "Fish are already scarce and nobody tracks changes in growth patterns of wild vegetables these days. How long before we collectively forget to forage? How long will the forest provide if we continue to exploit it?"

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(Left) Capped Langurs | (Right) Wreathed Hornbills
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Stone quarrying and sand mining on the river bed right outside Pakke Tiger Reserve

Budhiram fears that this cultural watershed shall only escalate the illegal exploitation of forest resources and eventually cascade into social disorientation. But he clings to hope as my toes clung to the coarse pebbles on the riverbed, helping me keep my feet planted against the biting current of the Pakke river. As evening approached, Ashok and I waded back to Bally village.

Radak-Burrah had been asleep through the day, but when we visited him in the evening, he was full of stories. Radak was as unapologetic about killing a tiger that had taken his livestock as he was impartial in siding with the elephant that had trampled his son to death. His expertise in luring deers by imitating their calls had sometimes fed the tribe. At other times, he had blown his leaf whistle only for practice and watched confused Barking Deers and Sambhars in unadulterated joy. "Sometimes, these calls also attracted predators," Radak fondly remembers how even tigers and leopards were fooled by his trickery.  "Tigers are too dignified to accept being fooled. They would pass by as if it were routine." Sometimes, if they growled at Radak, he would retort with scoldings that usually sent them on their way. "But leopards are a menace", Radak spoke as clearly as he could with a mouthful of tobacco. "They would climb a nearby tree and follow my movements from there, body still, just the head bobbing left and right." 

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Radak-Burrah was full of stories on the evening we visited him

Radak had never seen leopards in photographs or films, and his days of hunting were in the distant past. Yet, the accuracy of Radak's descriptions bore testimony to his intimacy with the forest. Radak never saw himself as an observer. Radak and the leopard were simply cohabitants, interacting with each other. They would compete when needed, but sharing space was the natural order. The non-human denizens of Pakke had never been 'outsiders' to the Nyishis.

In Mem Tachang's memories of foraging for iron (left behind by the army after the Sino-Indian War), the leopard of Bally-nullah was a regular character. But she had been far more uncomfortable with the military that had set up camp near her village. To her, the (vaccine) needles of bearded doctors from the Christian Mission, who didn't wear a byopa (traditional Nyishi headgear made out of a Great Hornbill’s casque) were far more frightening than any element of the forest. The forest demanded respect from the Nyishis more than fear. The kind of respect that never allowed Japa Brah to return to the jungle after an impulsive mistake of killing a Slow Loris in 1984.

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Budhiram (Gaon-Burrah, Darlong) with his byopa, the iconic Nyishi headgear. While earlier it used to be carved out of Great Hornbill casques, synthetic alternatives are now well-accepted among the community

Smiling through her wrinkles, Mem Tachang talked of a night when she had watched the silent approach of a herd of elephants in fearful awe. Men had run for their lives. Mem had run too, with her daughter and the neighbours. But, somewhere on the way to the higher reaches of the Bally village, they encountered a young woman whose child had been consumed by the darkness. Mem had descended to lower Bally along with the mother. They saw how the entire season's harvest had been massacred, but the baby was safe on a cushiony bush by the trail of destruction. In the years after, Mem lost her husband to the forest and grew old in hardship. But her trust never wavered. While combing through the pages of her memory, she remembered when the men of the village had slaughtered a python for a feast and how none of their wives and mothers had let them use any of the utensils. "You were among them, weren't you?", she scowled at Ashok. "I was too young," Ashok argued meekly. 

Ashok represents an interesting blend of tradition and modernity. After learning to see the forest like the elders, Ashok had soaked in the ethos of conservation during his stint at Green Hub (a filmmaking fellowship for the youth in the Northeast). He gave up hunting but never forgot that the forest was his home. Ashok's study table, strewn with books and maps, still has space for the horn of a sacrificed Mithun. Spring shall pass him by before Ashok's blowing horn can produce the music he yearns to play. The forests of summer shall, then, beckon him into its realm of nurturing shadows. For those like him, who learned from the elders, it doesn't take more than a bag of rice to venture into its depths. The forest looks after them until they return with handfuls of darduk (wild litchi) and memories of stumbling upon a Blyth's Kingfisher by some unknown forest stream.

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Strewn with books and maps, Ashok's study table still has space for the horn of a sacrificed Mithun

The forest, for the Nyishis, is a space of comfort. And yet, they recognise forests as a power greater than man. The dialogue around conservation must increasingly be based on how little we know about the ancient ways of the forest. Refusing to learn from people whose rituals and customs have grown with the rainforest trees is refusing knowledge because the packaging looks unusual.

Seated in the pink bus for my return journey to Tezpur, I ran through the voice recordings on my phone. Pane Dako's voice played in my ears, "I see a lack of respect towards the forest these days. We seem to forget that a forest can destroy as easily as it nurtures." Late Issang's voice played after her, "If you have wronged your tribesmen, mistreated a woman, or taken more than what you need from the forest, you must be wary of the tiger's judgement." How do these beliefs and fears linger across generations?

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Ashok Tallong jumps across a small stream outside Bally Village

Rasham's faithful dog Yaaring would bark frantically whenever any young pup ventured near plastic waste. The colourful wrappers were appealing to the puppies, but Yaaring, having endured serious illness after ingesting one, was fearful. The interactions between the mother and the pups played in my mind as I listened to the recordings of my exchanges with the Nyishi elders.

It is difficult for us to imagine that these customs and practices, preached by elders through lore and myth, are shaped by precious generational knowledge that the mainstream visions for conservation are failing to include today. We need to accept that we don't know enough to be fearful.