Pala Lake, Mizoram, Northeast India Photo: / Facebook
Pala Lake, Mizoram, Northeast India Photo: / Facebook

Finding Maraland

A baby cried, an old man coughed with tuberculosis-infected lungs, and two young men and a girl crooned an old Mara song. A Burmese cheroot was lit, and passed it to anyone who showed any enthusiasm for smoking this vile imitation of a cigar. Suddenly, the vehicle we were all travelling in skidded, the tires spinning and splattering us with mud. We were stuck again.

Still, things seemed perfectly normal in the early-morning chill. It was November 2006, and I was making my way back to the village of Phura, deep in southern Mizoram. The ride from the town of Saiha to Phura is a mere 98 kilometres, yet it was to take 14 hours in a battered Mahindra pickup, loaded with people and sacks of rice. During that time, our vehicle snaked along precipitous foot trails, which had been cut wider to serve as tenuous roads. The rice sacks were meant for the public distribution system, but for the moment they also served as seats for the 30 to 40 passengers at the back. Twelve of my co-passengers were friends from nearby villages, and the others I recognised by sight. They knew that I was here for the ramsa ('wild animal' in the Lushai language) survey, which was to document mammals and birds in the area.

A little more than a year earlier, my colleague Arpan and I had been sitting in the state capital Aizawl, trying to decide where to start a community-based conservation initiative. We could hardly have imagined that we would eventually reach Mara District, in the southernmost tip of Mizoram, a place that seemed surprisingly blank on the political map. It intrigued us that there still existed areas with such minimal human presence and vast forest cover. Even wildlife biologists had neglected this lush area, due simply to its remoteness.

Within a week we were in Saiha, the district headquarters, sitting in the house of Deputy Conservator of Forests Thaly T Azyu, of the Mara Autonomous District Council Forest Department. He told us that we could visit Palak Lake – pala tipa in the local Tlosai Mara tongue. The lake was close to the village of Phura, but going further south into those blank spaces on the map, we were told, would involve "a bit of walking". With that bit of advice, we set out.

Around Pala Tipa
Palak Lake, the largest lake in Mizoram, is a breathtaking sight, surrounded by mountainous jungles and jhum fields. The place abounds with birdlife. Common moorhen, darters, oriental pied hornbills, imperial pigeons, trogons and garrulous laughing thrushes are all abundant in the area around the oval-shaped body of water. The lake itself measures about 400 by 600 metres, and has an almost crater-like appearance, with the lake's water level inside the rim higher than that of the surrounding ground.

To its east and southeast, the lake touches a lush patch of primary forest, which has retained much of its canes, palms and massive dipterocarp trees. A broad variety of mammals also continues to thrive here, in spite of the area's proximity to two major villages, Phura and Tokalo. (Not all mammals have done well, though. When we were there, a lone elephant was wandering the area – all that was left of the last herd in this area.) The only source of previous information for the Palak Lake area had come from Samrat Pawaar and Aysegul Birand's astounding 2001 survey of the Indian Northeast, which had documented some species of wildlife completely new to science.

From Palak, our guide Radia led us to our next stop, the village of Tokalo, after a steep and relentless climb of seven kilometres. As we trudged on, my backpack seemed to get heavier with each step. This was a sensation with which, like myself, visitors to this area have longed been forced to deal. Reverend Reginald Lorraine, the first missionary to visit Mizoram, back in the early 1900s, put it well when he said, "In this land, you can either go up or down."

Over the next 11 days, we forced our weary legs through all eight villages of the area. Wherever we went, a handshake and a chibai (a Lushai greeting) was all it took for people to welcome us into their houses, and give us food and shelter much beyond their meagre resources. As Arpan quizzed the village elders on their land-tenure rights, village-council dynamics, system of selecting jhum lands and cycles, I asked the hunters which animals could still be found in the immediate surroundings. With just a few photographs, a field guide and a very problematic translator at our disposal, it was a miracle that anyone could understand anyone else.

But the information that we found was exciting. I was thrilled to hear the locals reporting the presence of clouded leopards, wild dogs, Phayre's leaf monkeys and many other rare animals. Then there were the trophies, hanging near the entrance to virtually every house. These told of an amazing diversity of mammals, reptiles and birds. Skulls of wild pig, sambar, serow, barking deer, casques (the helmet-like craniums) of hornbills and squirrel tails decorated the entrances of many of the simple bamboo habitations.

However we looked at it, the signs were extremely encouraging. In spite of all the animal remains that we saw, active hunting of large mammals seemed an activity restricted mostly to the few professional hunters in the villages. While these hunters occasionally shared their catch with relatives, depending on the size of the animal, there was no sale and most of the meat was for self-consumption. Others hunted mostly in the vicinity of the villages, and most of the skulls that we had seen had been shot by farmers guarding their jhum crops. Commercial hunting had yet to enter the region, we concluded.

There were other encouraging signs in Maraland, as well. Each village had forest reserves for both 'supply' and 'safety' uses. These showed both foresight and appreciation for the importance of the forests in the lives of these communities. The supply reserve, a patch of forest that was utilised by the villagers for their daily needs, had a host of intricate rules to discourage overexploitation by a select few. The safety reserve, on the other hand, was akin to the sacred groves elsewhere in India – such as those in the Khasi hills nearby or the Kodagu District in the Nilgiris – only without the 'sacred' aspect. The safety reserve was absolutely out of bounds for any use during normal times, and there were severe penalties for people who broke the rules. Meanwhile, jhum cycles had remained at roughly six- to seven-year intervals, always outside of the forests, giving the forestlands sufficient time to replenish themselves.

There was no need to look any further. This was exactly the place we would set up our conservation project.

The survey
First we needed to confirm the presence of the animals being reported by the local people, through rigorous field surveys. This was, of course, easier said than done. The steep mountains and persistent rains on the small, muddy roads made vehicles useless. This also meant that we would not have the luxury of staying in a village and travelling out to our survey locations.

These conditions essentially decided for us what we needed to do. We had to build a bamboo camp in the forest, carry our supplies there and then get on with the surveying. The survey itself would rely on our sightings, call detections and other indirect evidence of animal presence, such as droppings and tracks. We also had five infrared 'camera traps' to be set up in the forest, which would allow us to capture images of the elusive nocturnal fauna.

Days began early. The field team, consisting also of two forest guards and one field assistant, would start off after a cup of tea at dawn. We walked the various animal trails, streams and ridgelines, looking for animals and birds. Often, we would have to diverge from our predetermined route when we heard gibbon calls, in order to get to a ridge or peak from where we could catch a glimpse of these elusive yet vocal animals. When they were close, it was even possible to sneak up on them below the tree where they were causing the ruckus.

It was important to be alert at all times, though not only in the name of animal detection. Self-preservation was a constant worry in the rugged landscape. Often, the only way to come down the slopes of a hill would be, much like apes, to slide down the inclines while our arms held on to whatever trees or bamboo stems we could grasp. Inevitably, our days ended with cut hands and bruised legs, and extremely sore backsides.

Our visits to nearby villages for rice and other supplies also brought us closer to the local communities. There would always be an appreciative and interested audience to hear about our team's latest experience in the forest. Advice was never in short supply, ranging from helpful suggestions on areas that the survey team should visit, and tips on paths and trails we had not seen, to somewhat more personal proposals that hinted at me getting married and settling down in their village. Those fireside sessions, punctuated by the calls of tokkey geckos, would inevitably lead late into the night. Occasionally, the locals also voiced some concerns. Why are you doing this survey? What does it mean for us? Is it true that the whole area is going to become a sanctuary, and that we will all have to leave? At other times, they were preoccupied with the bamboo flowering, which had just started. What is the government going to do about that? What about when the rats come in swarms, and famine strikes?

It was apparent that communication was lacking between the state authorities and the villagers, as the former had already taken some measures to tackle the problem of the mautam, or bamboo flowering that takes place every half-century. In this remote corner, however, few had heard about these initiatives, and quite naturally feared the unknown. Their isolation also meant that people had long been deprived of various essential services, such as health care, schools and markets at which to sell their produce. This also included access to information regarding the various schemes that were available, including income-generation undertakings such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or rice-supply programmes such as the Public Distribution System.

Maraland development
Our survey came to an end after we returned twice more to the Palak Lake area. During this time, we set up two more field camps, discovered six more troops of Phayre's leaf monkeys, saw leopard tracks right outside our camp, braved an army of leeches, survived on crabs and soyameal for two weeks, and skinned, bruised and sprained more body parts than we cared to remember. We also managed to confirm the presence of 42 species of mammals, 136 species of birds and 40 species of butterflies. We also identified troops of the endangered hoolock gibbon.

It was a proud moment for us when we finally presented the survey results in the presence of the dignitaries and officers of the Mara District Council. It had the desired effect. Soon, hardnosed bureaucrats were reminiscing about animals and birds that they had seen in their own childhood villages. Suddenly, everybody was talking about wildlife and conservation. Of course, some were comparing the culinary merits of various types of monkey, but this was to be expected: attitudes do not transform overnight.

But things were already starting to change. Maraland's inherent seclusion had long been due to the simple lack of roads, but that is bound to be gradually whittled away. There is already talk about the dirt road between Kawlchaw and Phura being metalled. There are also periodic surges of enthusiasm within government agencies to 'develop' Palak Lake and its surrounding areas. But past actions in the name of development have been disastrous. During the 1980s, the Fisheries Department introduced the African cichlid fish and common carp into Palak Lake, resulting in the complete extinction of the original species, about which very little is known. Also during the 1980s, the Agriculture Department reclaimed the swamps surrounding the lake for wet paddy cultivation, which contributed greatly to the extinction of the area's elephant population. Today, it is only that solitary, forlorn, middle-aged elephant that survives.

Now, the Tourism Department is keen to make the site into a tourist attraction. The problem here is not development per se (inevitable as it is), but rather uninformed development schemes that are more harmful than helpful. If tourism is promoted as haphazardly as were the examples from 20 years ago, it will undoubtedly have a negative effect on Mara's ecological balance.

At the end of the day, despite our focus on wildlife, it was clearly the poor peasant, living in near-primitive conditions in remote villages, who needed immediate attention. It was not too difficult to see that conservation in these mountains would succeed only when we were able to provide these communities with basic services, and answer their lingering questions. This realisation should perhaps make us feel daunted, even intimidated. But, somehow, the warm winter sun and the cheerful lives of the Mara people ended up giving us hope that it is possible to strike that elusive balance between people and conservation.

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