By: Jaya Peter


Every once in a while, we all get the urge to just pack our bags and take off to some faraway place. Some choose exotic luxury resorts at the other end of the world, while others undertake strenuous treks into the wilderness that will not only push our physical limits, but also make us question our sanity.

Every year, like clockwork, thousands of Amur falcons make an incredible journey across many seas and oceans, not for leisure, or for any of the reasons that humans undertake long journeys, but in search of food.

Come winter, when food is scarce, Amur falcons fly from their breeding grounds in Northern China and Siberia, all the way to South Africa and back, a distance of 22,000 kms. This journey is the longest known migration by any bird of prey. The sheer number and scale of this migration makes it a grand spectacle, making it to the bucket list of any wildlife enthusiast.



The most fascinating lap of this annual journey is the non-stop flight of around 84 hours from India’s west coast to the east coast of Africa. The thermals and deflection currents that help a raptor soar over land are absent over water and hence these slim raptors, weighing no more than 150 gms, have to flap their wings continuously for three to four days until they cross the ocean. This is the greatest over-water crossing of any bird of prey. To survive this transoceanic trip, the Amur falcons need to refuel, and the Doyang reservoir in Wokha district, Nagaland, is their pitstop. The raptors break their journey here and it is where our story is set. A story of high drama, action, massacre and redemption.

For 10 days, the Amur falcons feed on termites and insects before embarking on the next leg of their journey. Local fishermen used to string their nets in the trees, where the birds roost, to capture them. And it is here, at the site of the largest gathering of birds of prey across the planet, that the most gruesome killing would take place. An estimated 1,40,000 falcons were killed every year. Each bird was sold for Rs 16–25. Each hunter sold roughly 1,000 birds a day during peak migratory season. In effect, a sizeable portion of the global population of Amur falcons was wiped out in one go.

The global outcry that followed when this mass killing came to light in 2012 led to the start of a conservation programme by NGOs and the government. It involved the villagers and school children, who orchestrated the most beautiful turnaround and stopped the massacre of these birds in a year’s time. So long, Amur Falcon, the first book for children by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), tells the story of how the Naga hunters turned conservationists.

“So long, Amur Falcon is an extraordinary story. It is not just about a bird or bird migration. It is a story of what humans can do collectively to save a species from merciless massacre. Such stories are scarce and need to be told to everyone. It’s a story of the wonderful and extraordinary people of Nagaland whose big hearts embraced these magnificent birds,” says Deepak Apte, Director, BNHS.

Prabha Nair, who has worked with comic books publishers, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, was roped in to tell this story. Until she was commissioned to it, Nair’s interest in birds was restricted to those that she saw in her garden, which sometimes found their way as embroidery work on her pillow cases. She dived into research on the Amur falcons and marvelled at the delicate and incredible balance of nature. It is fortuitous that the time of migration of these raptors coincides with the migration of dragonflies across the Arabian Sea, providing the birds with a much-needed snack along the way as they make their exhausting journey. A small tilt in this balance will alter ecology and have far-reaching impacts, even on agriculture. When Amur falcons reach Africa, the African Bolworms, the greatest pest to sorghum, are in full form, wreaking havoc on the fields. The hungry falcons feed on the Bolworms and keep the population of these pests in check. Nair chose such nuggets from tons of research material to create a beautifully-crafted story for children.

Deborshree Gogoi, a wildlife cartoonist from Assam was approached to illustrate the book. An avid birder, Gogoi had actually witnessed the Amur falcons’ migration. “In the month of October, when I travel from my home to work, I have seen hundreds of Amur falcons perched on the wires in the fields. I have gone to Nagaland two to three times and have a lot of photographs which served as reference material,” says Gogoi. Perched on wires, they look like pigeons to the naked eye.

When you look through the binoculars, one can see the dark grey body, orange eye-ring and rufous thighs that distinguish the male. The females are slightly different, their face showing the trademark ‘falcon teardrop’. Being from the region, Gogoi added perspective to not just the illustrations of the birds, but also to the landscape and the people. The most difficult part was to bring emotions to the birds. For this, he sacrificed his usual style of realistic detailing and added an element of caricature to the birds.

It would be simplistic to call the fishermen who hunted the birds, the villains of this story. As Nair says, “They used to fish in the Doyang River. When the dam was built, the population of fish depleted. That is when they noticed the Amur falcons resting on transmission wires and trees. They liked the meat and also got good money and it soon became an alternative source of livelihood.”

What is indeed heartwarming is that that the villages agreed to abandon the hunting in a surprisingly short time and they took this hard call with serious economic consequences. Dr Apte says that the BNHS is moving in a new direction with this book for children, which traces the flight of the Amur falcon and shows how conservation efforts resulted in saving it from being hunted during their long migratory flight. “There are two more books in the pipeline. One on inter tidal marine life and another on vultures,” he says.

What happens when these migratory raptors run into bad weather? Reports have come in that a radio-tagged female Amur falcon, Longleng, named after a district in Nagaland, has changed her course slightly, skirting the coastline of Diu, and flying straight over Surat instead of Mumbai. Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India are observing her flight with great interest as they feel she is tracking the Cyclone Fani as it is headed along her migratory route.

Punekars can look out for the Amur falcons in the month of October–November as they make their onward journey to Africa and once again in April–May as they make their way back to their breeding grounds in northern China.

For more details on the book So long, Amur Falcon, you can write to cmd@bnhs.org.

So long, Amur Falcon is an extraordinary story. It’s a story of the wonderful and extraordinary people of Nagaland whose big hearts embraced these magnificent birds

Deepak Apte, Director, BNHS



Source link