If there are five Khalij pheasants in a tree and you bring one down with a catapult, how many are there left?
If you had been Sanjay Rai of Latpanchar about a decade ago, the answer would have been four.
Sanjay’s hunting prowess was such that he could sneak up on pheasants roosting in a tree at dusk and bring down five in five shots. “Shoot it under the beak and it drops soundlessly,” he says, “like a jet-fighter in neutral.” But that was before he became a bird-guide.
The son of an employee at the cinchona plantation at Latpanchar, in Kurseong district in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, Sanjay owned a taxi in which he ferried tourists to and from the town until six years ago. Most tourists came to Latpanchar for the birds. They would spend hours watching or photographing them, and Sanjay wasn’t spared their contagious passion. When some bird-guides who would come with them told him that he could make a living out of it – plying him with books and binoculars – there was just no stopping him.
He has always had a keen and restless intellect. Before the taxi, he tried his hand at business, the tea market and used to play chess on the side in public competitions that people bet money on. Once he started bird-watching, the experience from his hunting days stood him in good stead and he went from identifying birds to figuring their habitats, habits and movement patterns out in a remarkably short time. At 41, Sanjay is now the most sought-after bird-guide in Latpanchar, and we were lucky to get a chance to watch hornbills with him.
I had accompanied Rohit Naniwadekar of Nature Conservation Foundation and his colleague, Arkajyoti Shome of Nature Mates, on a survey of rufous-necked hornbills. To cover the upper reaches of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal, we went to Latpanchar village. It had caught our attention because of all the pictures of hornbills that were showing up from there on social media.
Latpanchar looks like a regular hill-town but it is unlike any other settlement I have been to. It is surrounded by the sanctuary’s forests on one side and territorial reserve forests on the other, with no privately owned agricultural fields or community land at all. The town was settled because of a cinchona plantation established here in 1943, the youngest plantation that the Cinchona Directorate has in Darjeeling district. The grandparents – or great-grand parents – of everyone who lives here came to work at the cinchona plantation, and it is only through marriage that families are beginning to be related to each other. They own only the plots of land that their houses stand on. Their jobs are hereditary, so when someone retires, another member of the same family is offered a job, but not necessarily the same one.
Anmol Rai’s (no relation) late grandfather came to Latpanchar as a compounder at the dispensary. After him, his father worked at the plantation. Anmol, 28, studied social work at Visva-Bharati in Sriniketan and worked with an NGO in Gangtok before he decided to return and launch his own homestay in 2016. We stayed with Anmol and got to meet his friends, the bird-guides of Latpanchar. Aged 27 to 37, they are young, enthusiastic and passionate. And like everyone else in Latpanchar, they used to all hunt birds, and brought back whatever they could when they went to collect fuel wood.
Sometimes, if they had to bring a whole tree down, they would be happy if the tree had a barbet nest with chicks to be roasted and eaten. “Red-vented bulbuls and spotted doves had gone locally extinct during my childhood,” says Anmol. His face is serious, reflecting the gravity of that claim.
It is amazing, then, that no one hunts in Latpanchar today. “It might sound like a cliché but the catapult has been replaced by binoculars and the camera,” Anmol says.
No one asked anybody to stop hunting. They just did, one by one. “Tourism had a big hand in that,” says Sanjay. “Once people realised that it was the birds that the tourists were coming to watch, they stopped hunting. They also stopped cutting the fruit-trees that they knew the birds ate.”
It must have happened through a series of incidents like the one they narrated to us. Two young men were out hunting for fun when some tourists saw them and offered them 150 rupees each to not shoot at birds. The men were so embarrassed at having being mistaken for poor subsistence hunters that they gave up hunting for good.
The range of the rufous-necked hornbill has historically extended over large parts of mainland Southeast Asia, but today, they are found only in two disjunct regions: northern Laos and the adjoining parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and China, and in Northeast India, Bhutan and the adjoining forests of western Myanmar. Because they are not found in Nepal anymore, North Bengal is the westernmost end of their range, and that was another reason we were looking forward to seeing them here.
We walked two trails in the wildlife sanctuary that went for a distance along the edge between the forest and the cinchona plantation – since the land that the Cinchona Directorate acquired on lease from the forest department now falls within the sanctuary – and though we heard the hornbills, we did not see them. So on our last day, Sanjay and Anmol decided to join us for a walk through the territorial forest to show us the known nesting trees. It wasn’t nesting season just yet but if we were lucky, we would get to see the birds, too.
Parag Gurung, 28 and also a bird-guide, accompanied us. He had just completed his higher secondary studies in 2011 when his uncle opened a homestay. Soon, Parag began going out with the tourists, who would let him watch birds through their binoculars, and was enamoured. He worked as a bird-guide for a couple of years and then, encouraged by Sanjay and others, he decided to study further. He enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in zoology but quit in 2017, after his second year, when the Gorkhaland agitation broke out. He is now back home working as a bird-guide, hoping to get a degree through distance education. Like him, other young people who would have gone out looking for jobs elsewhere now have the option of staying back – of making their home a better place.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 166 houses in Latpanchar. At the time of our visit, there were 10 homestays and 12 bird-guides. Clearly, not everyone benefited equally from the tourism, and there were differences of opinion. But as we walked with Sanjay, Parag and Anmol, old women drying their hair in the sun, an old man painting the walls of his house, shopkeepers by the wayside – in fact, almost everyone we met – wanted to know if we had had any luck. “Dhanesh bhaeteyo?” they asked us. “Did you see the hornbills?”
“Once the money comes into Latpanchar,” says Sanjay, “it is bound to run around. It trickles down to everyone. And everyone knows that it is the birds that are bringing the money in.”
The greatest attraction for tourists is the hornbill – especially the one hornbill nest a stone’s throw away from the nearest house. We walked down a steep slope dominated by Schima wallichii trees to find the nest in an old oak. The tree stands on a steep slope, so by staying uphill, we got an eye-level view of the nest. During nesting season, between March and July, up to 30 people at a time may come watch the nest. Sometimes, that amounts to more than a hundred a day.
Hornbills nest in natural cavities in trees that the female seals herself into for up to four months, leaving just a tiny slit through which the male passes her food, for her and the chicks. The guides try to keep a distance of about 40 m from the nest, and to keep the tourists’ noise away when the male comes in to feed the female. “But sometimes,” Sanjay admits, “you can tell that they get disturbed.”
The guides would love to build a hide there but the land does not belong to them. It belongs to the forest department.
The forest department’s wildlife wing manages protected areas – the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – with a view to conserve all biodiversity, but its territorial wing manages the reserved forests with a mandate to ensure sustainable timber and non-timber forest produce extraction (though that is changing in some cases now to just afforestation and maintaining green cover). It is thus ironic that all the known hornbill nests around Latpanchar lie within the territorial forest but have ended up being protected by the local people.
There are a number of challenges, of course. The Cinchona Directorate isn’t doing too well, for instance, and the bird-guides aren’t organised yet. Then there is the eternal danger of the tragedy of the commons: of losing the goose – or in this case, the hornbill – that is laying the golden eggs.
“We do need some ethical guidelines to manage the bird-related tourism, especially when it comes to establishing a code of conduct in the forest and protocol for photography around the nests,” Anmol says.
They are currently forming an association, after which they hope to initiate a dialogue with the forest department so both sides can work together to benefit the birds as well as the community.
Our last day in Latpanchar was a hot one, the Sun relentless, the sky unencumbered by any clouds. We walked up and down the steep slope below Latpanchar, bird-watching and exchanging notes with Anmol, Sanjay and Parag. They wanted to know more about the work that Rohit – who has been studying hornbills for the last 12 years – did, and we wanted to know how this serendipitous model of eco-tourism had come about. Then we heard the loud bark of a rufous-necked hornbill and looked up to see one fly by, its white tail- and wing-tips shimmering in the daylight.
We walked around a spur and there they were: three hornbills, a male and two females, shaking the branches of a massive birch as they jumped through its canopy. They look prehistoric: their large beaks seem reptilian, halfway between a lizard and a bird. The females are all black except for the white wing- and tail-tips; the males have the rufous neck for which the species is named. They feed on large-seeded fruits, about the size of or slightly bigger than big jamuns. They swallow the fruit whole and regurgitate the seeds away from the source tree, dispersing them better. This is essential to regenerate saplings and maintenance a healthy forest. The forests are thus as dependent on hornbills as the hornbills seem to be on the forests; few other birds can match the hornbills’ dispersal efficiency.
No one reached for a camera. We all stood rooted, content to watch the birds through our binoculars. Then they took off and flew across the face of the opposite slope, stopping at the larger trees, and then they were too far to see. Sanjay, Anmol and Parag were all smiling, the joy of having seen the birds, mixed with a certain pride. It is as if the hornbills are an integral part not just of the forest but of their community as well, and they understand that to protect one is to strengthen the other.
All of them enjoy being in the forest and consider it adequate compensation for earning less than what they could otherwise. It isn’t just economic incentives that drive them.
“We have learnt to adjust,” Sanjay said. “I have come to realise how important contentment is.”
Anmol talked of putting aside a small portion of their tourism income for social work. Parag wanted to collect data about the hornbills that would form a baseline for anyone who wanted to build on his efforts. Sanjay, always way ahead of his time, is already thinking about increasing the density of fruit-tree species in the forest and has started work on a small orchard of his own to attract birds to his backyard. This, from the guy who could bring down five pheasants with five stones.
They have come a long way and where they will go from here will have far-reaching implications. Right now, they stand on the brink of what could well be that elusive rarity: a just, content society that manages its own ecotourism.
Sartaj Ghuman is a wildlife biologist and freelance writer.