Arunachal Pradesh's Airgun Surrender Abhiyan (ASA), initiated by Minister for Forest and Environment Mama Natung, has gained international recognition for its unique approach to wildlife conservation.
Launched on 17 March 2021, the mission encourages the state's tribal communities to give up their airguns, traditionally used for hunting, to protect the rapidly declining bird and animal populations.
Natung has been a wildlife enthusiast since his childhood.
“The forests of Arunachal Pradesh used to ring with the songs of birds at one time. It pained me a lot that they had fallen silent. I observed that there are more birds in big cities than in the forests of our state,” Natung told Swarajya.
The minister said he thought very hard about how to stop the killings of birds and animals.
“Everyone knows that hunting, which is widespread and a very common practice in our state, is responsible for our rich fauna facing imminent extermination. But hunting is an age-old tradition and people will simply refuse to give it up,” he said.
“I then realised that our fathers and grandfathers also used to hunt, but they used traditional weapons like bows and arrows. People started switching to airguns about two decades ago because of their affordability and easy availability. The number of ‘kills’ went up exponentially with more and more hunters using airguns. Then came attachments like scopes and silencers and it became possible to kill many animals and birds within a span of just a few hours,” the minister said.
He zeroed in on airguns as the prime culprit for the alarming loss of fauna and also flora. “I realised that while it will be impossible to bar people from hunting, at least in the immediate future, it would be possible to convince them to return to the traditional modes of hunting with bows and arrows, and surrender their airguns,” said Natung.
Mama Natung, along with officers of his department, launched a pilot project in Debeyar administrative circle of West Kameng, his home district.
He devoted a few weeks to explain the objectives of the mission to elders of some of the major villages in Debeyar circle.
“I told them about the urgent need to conserve our flora and fauna and the dangers of environmental degradation. Educated youngsters were roped in to spread awareness among the villagers,” recalled Natung.
People responded positively and many agreed to surrender their airguns. The first (airgun) ‘surrender ceremony’ was held at Lumdung village that falls in the Debeyar administrative circle on 17 March 2021.
People from not only Lumdung, but four other neighbouring villages came for the ceremony and a total of 48 airguns were surrendered.
The minister realised that people’s participation was the key to the success of the mission.
He asked officers of his department to reach out to people’s representatives, NGOs, village elders and civil society organisations to create awareness about the need to preserve our flora and fauna.
A 360-degree awareness campaign was launched through camps, seminars, conferences and painting competitions. People’s elected representatives, community elders, doctors, religious leaders and other influential persons were roped in.
The minister himself spoke about the mission during his frequent tours to different parts of the state.
He had some interesting encounters.
“In one village, people told me that their crop yield had fallen because insects were damaging the crops. I told them that’s because the population of birds, who eat insects, has fallen. And population of birds had fallen due to largescale hunting. The people realised the calamitous effect of hunting and vowed to give up the practice,” Natung told Swarajya.
The minister also tried to kindle pride among the people about the state’s flora and fauna. “I told people that birds like the Bugun liocichla (a babbler) were found only in our state and we must be proud of that. Everyone started responding positively,” he said.
At another interaction with people of a village, he asked them who planted the trees which bear them fruits, provide them firewood and wood to build their homes. “I told them that they didn’t plant the trees. Birds and animals were responsible for planting those trees; birds like the hornbill and animals like the deer disperse seeds and are responsible for the growth of forests. Without them, there will be no forests,” the minister recalled.
Till date, 2,467 airguns have been surrendered. In October 2021, the ambit of the ASA was extended to licensed firearms and that resulted in the surrender of nine double-barrel shotguns and 0.22 bore rifles. Chainsaws (used for felling trees) were also surrendered.
In November 2021, the Union Ministry of Forests and Environment gave a ‘conservation award’ to ASA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the mission and spoke about it in the 84th edition of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme on 26 December 2021.
Natung now wants the neighbouring states of Assam and Nagaland to launch similar missions. “Birds and wild animals do not know interstate boundaries and they migrate from one state to another. Our abhiyan will not be successful if birds and animals who go to the neighbouring states get hunted and killed there. A combined approach is necessary for preserving our flora and fauna,” he said.
The minister, an ardent advocate of preserving traditional faiths, cultures and customs, said that the mission to save flora and fauna cannot be one state’s alone.
“I firmly believe the ancient Indian concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) needs to be adopted to tackle issues like environmental degradation and resultant climate change. After all, the land, the sky, the rivers, and everything belong to everyone and it is our collective responsibility to conserve and preserve,” he said.
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