The Kadar tribe in Kerala’s Thrissur district was blamed  for the decline in the critically threatened hornbill population. A researcher challenged this prevailing wisdom, roped in the tribe for conservation, and helped save the bird.

BY SURESH P THOMAS

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY K H AMITA BACHAN

Senthil Kumar was just a boy when he became a naturalist. It was the early Nineties and the teenager from the seasonally nomadic Kadar tribe that roams the Anamalai hills of the Western Ghats was in the right place. The riparian forests of Vazhachal on the banks of the Chalakudy River in Kerala’s Thrissur district had become a hub for research on hornbills. For the researchers someone like Senthil was a godsend.

Tribals know the forest and its creatures like no one else can hope to; it is their home. Ecologists and biologists in India, as elsewhere in the world, depend on tribal communities for their field work. Usually this is unacknowledged service. In the odd case when they do get credit, it is more as guides through impenetrable woods than for sharing their traditional knowledge which is absorbed into formal science.

The Vazhachal rainforest is one of the world’s most important hornbill habitats, the indicator species that defines their robustness. Four of India’s nine hornbill species are found here: the Great Indian Hornbill (Buceros bicornis), Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris) and Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).

Understanding the hornbill and its world takes time and effort in challenging terrain and science could not have done without the illiterate Kadars. Senthil was not the only one; other relatives too were part of the process.

But their collaboration was a mixed blessing for the forest-dwelling, food-gathering Kadars. They got no recognition for their contribution in terms of information and data. Worse, they were named as the prime culprits behind the dwindling population of the Great Indian Hornbill, listed in Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

There was no scientific evidence for the accusation but everyone who mattered believed it. The Great Indian Hornbill, Kerala’s state bird, was vanishing and the Kadars were to blame.

Maybe it would have made no difference if the topic had been confined to a few science journals. But it made the news as well, with reporting that never carried their side of the story. One report portrayed the tribe as zealous collectors of hornbill casques. According to this account the more casques a man had the greater his chance of impressing prospective brides and fathers-in-law.

It didn’t stop there. The men were depicted as manic dancers who wore hornbill casques on their heads for festive occasions and who ambushed hornbill nests with crude weapons. Not one of these increasingly bizarre accounts was true.

It’s water under the bridge now, but Senthil thinks he knows how this happened. “They must have asked someone who was helping them with their research. And that person must have said Kadars eat hornbill, and then it becomes a scientific truth.”

Senthil does not deny that at one point they did eat the meat of the Great Hornbill. “Of course we did, and I have heard my elders say it is a delicacy. But we didn’t hunt these birds. For starters, we’re not hunters. We just collected the birds the way we collected honey from the same trees. Are you telling me we ate all the hornbills here? They were dying because the trees were dying. Did we cut the trees and smuggle timber and build plantations?”

Almost a decade later, K. H. Amita Bachan, a young researcher working on his doctoral thesis on plant social structure in Vazhachal would be intrigued by the same question. If Senthil’s angst came from a sense of injustice, for Bachan the pressing concern was validating the legitimacy of such conclusions. Without tangible evidence to back your findings, how do you reach a consensus—Bachan prefers to use the term “local consumption”—that hunting by an indigenous community is the biggest threat to a species?

“For me, the issue was clear from the outset. If you study one particular species from one particular perspective—for instance the nesting behaviour of hornbills—you’re likely to miss many factors that determine the ecosystem dynamics of that species. That is why you come to such lazy conclusions, overlooking far more important factors like habitat destruction. We have six dams on the Chalakudy River which have substantially damaged the riparian ecosystem in the forests of the river basin. Why wasn’t this listed as a threat? Why this urge to blame the tribe?”

Bachan would find his answers, but only after an exhaustive interaction with the Kadars. In the process, Senthil became a research associate and friend, an association that affected both the political future of the Kadars and Bachan’s scientific journey.

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