Ace hunter turns wildlife protector

Those alerting about hunters are rewarded
Last Updated : 12 November 2016, 20:09 IST
Last Updated : 12 November 2016, 20:09 IST

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There is an old saying that not every trip into the woods ends with a hunt, but hunters always come home with a new story.  Stories are everywhere in the     wild--some are short, others are epic, but they’re all special because most of them are worth remembering.

Stories of the wild have turned a full circle for an ace hunter in Nagaland, where hunting even today is a way of life, at least in remote villages. Michael Megovisa Sophi from Khonoma village tries to narrate his early days of hunting while sitting in his small wooden drawing room staring at his window.

Today, 47-year-old Sophi is a leading wildlife conservationist. He grew up in Khonoma, a picturesque Naga village, some 50 km away from the state capital Kohima.  “Nagas eat everything that moves,” Sophi starts his story.

“I was a teenager when I first went on hunting with my friends. With all the hunting tools we packed our food stuff along, so that we could have some good time in the jungle. I was not good at hunting but still my friends used to take me along as they considered me and my name to be lucky. They used to say, whenever I accompany them they would get good number of prey. We used to hunt deers, tragopan, wild boar, monkeys, birds, snakes and whatever that moves,” Sophi added.

He still remembers that once his group killed at least 300 Blyth’s tragopan in a day. To kill them was difficult as they are very shy birds. They continued it for years. One day, which turned out to be his last expedition, he hunted countless number of prey. They included deers, monkeys, birds and boars.

“The bullets from the air guns were bang on target. He saw a swathe of forest land soaked in blood. I suddenly started feeling uncomfortable and something happened which changed my life eternally,” he said.

Sophi saw a female monkey hit by bullet was trying to escape with its stomach slit. After a few futile attempts it collapsed and died. “When I went near the monkey and saw a baby monkey in its arms, I pulled the baby out and tried to strangle it. By that time I was feeling sick as if a huge storm was going deep inside my heart and mind. To my shock I saw tears rolling down the cheeks of that baby monkey, I controlled myself and let the baby monkey go,” Sophi narrated.

He felt a huge guilt and decided to give up hunting and conserve wildlife. “The most difficult task was to make the village community understand the ill-effects of hunting. As we had two festivals specially related to hunting,” Sophi said, recalling how his initial talks on conservation fell on deaf ears.

Till a couple of decades ago, Khonoma was famous for its traditional hunting sharp shooters. During 1995-96, nearly 300 guns were sold to Khonoma village alone. Timber cutting and hunting were increasing. People from neighbouring villages started hunting in Khonoma forests.

From 1997 two elderly villagers, who were inspired by Sophi, started talking about conservation to young hunters. “We trekked hills to reach hunting villages and explain to the youth that if they don’t conserve, then one day they will have nothing to hunt.”

Initially Sophi and his team tried to speak to the youth in Morungs (traditional Naga house) but that did not work. They decided to organise a feast.  A circular was pasted in the village that a grand feast has been organised. In the garb of the feast villagers were explained why hunting has to stop, why timber logging has to stop.

In 2002 the official declaration came banning hunting and logging. “We also implemented a customary village law which brought a fine regime. An adult is fined Rs 3,000 if he is found hunting or logging, and his hunting and cutting equipment seized for life.

The Khonoma Youth Organisation was given the task of keeping a strict vigil. Sophi was elected as the president of the organisation then. “Sophi has been a great inspiration for the younger generation. He has done a phenomenal work. To convince a village of ace hunters to give it up and conserve wildlife is a huge task,” said Jupiter, a youth from Khonoma who helps Sophi in his awareness campaigns.

Khonoma, which  is called Green Village, is popular as people are conscious about proper sanitation and clean environment. Under the reward scheme, an informer is offered Rs 1,000 for alerting about the hunter. Once caught, the person has to pay the fine within five days. “Slowly the villagers took interest in following rules. Today  protection and conservation of Blyth’s tragopan, which is the State Bird of Nagaland, has become the motto of the community,” Sophi said with a smile.

Now Khonoma is one of the important hot tourist spots for its unique story of conversation as well as beauty. Sophi has made Khonoma and nearby villages “hunting-free” and is  trekking every week to new villages to tell his story on how and why he gave up hunting to save his hunt.

Published 12 November 2016, 20:09 IST

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