Why Sophi Put His Gun Down

Earth

Why Sophi Put His Gun Down

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

E

ver since he turned 23, Michael Megovisa Sophi had taken pride in being one of the Angami tribe’s most sought-after hunters. Hunting is a way of life for Naga tribals. It’s a practice steeped in tradition; codes and ciphers are handed down through generations like priceless heirlooms. It’s the bond of brotherhood. For the Angami tribe, hunting is sacred; it signifies sustenance and survival.

“If it moves, we want to know how it tastes,” used to be Sophi’s unapologetic response to anyone who’d ask him why the Nagas hunt. Sophi was the top pick for any expedition, not only because he was a skilled hunter, but also because he could be counted upon to be the storyteller during dark nights of endless wait. He was also considered to be a lucky charm, since his presence would almost always guarantee the team their prey.

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Sophi and his tribe of ace huntsmen would trigger an exodus of wild animals as soon as they’d enter a jungle. They would ape the wild calls of animals and birds, track them, patiently stake them out, and then in a swift, practiced rhythm, go in for the kill. The six-foot spiked spear, the foot-long dao with its bevelled blade, the now-archaic crossbow, Sophi has killed with them all. He’s hunted deer, wild boar, monkeys, and claims to have taken the grey-bellied Blyth’s Tragopan, Nagaland’s state bird, to the brink of extinction.

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Michael Khonoma, a former hunting enthusiast, is now leading a crusade against the cruel tradition.

Chandrani Sinha

But Sophi doesn’t hunt anymore. The day his life changed started out like any other. The pellets of his air gun were piercing everything in his tribesmen’s path. One side of the hilly forest wall was covered in blood. A female monkey hit by his pellet was trying to escape with a giant hole in her stomach and an intestine bulging out. After a few tries, she fell and died.

When Sophi went near the monkey, he saw a baby hiding in her arms. He pulled the baby out and tried to strangulate it. But even as his hands wrapped themselves around its soft, fragile neck, Sophi began to feel sick. He knelt, cried, and let it go, paralysed by guilt.

At that moment, he decided not only to quit hunting forever, but also to never let anyone else practice this tradition.

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The now 47-year-old, greying ex-hunter leans forward in his swivel chair, and tells us what happened in the forest years ago. He lives in a wooden cottage in the tiny village of Khonoma, 20 kilometres from Kohima, Nagaland. Outside the front door, a waterfall gushes down a slope matted with a thicket so green, it could hurt your eyes.

Sophi watches the pouring rain as he tells us of his struggle to counter an age-old hunting tradition in a land where every house has a gun. Initially, the young people in the village were up in arms against the idea. But thankfully, Sophi’s thoughts echoed what the village elders had also been quietly contemplating. As a result of a burgeoning timber trade, large swathes of forestland were vanishing. And if Khonoma continued to exploit its natural beauty, the generations to come would be left deprived.

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Michael lives in a traditional wooden cottage in the tiny village of Khonoma.

Chandrani Sinha

Tsilie Sakhrie has been advocating a radical idea since the 1980s – if Khonoma didn’t begin to pay attention to its depleting animal population, there’d be nothing left to hunt. After being elected to the village council in 1995, he set in motion the plan for change.

Circulars were pasted across the village, announcing a grand feast to rival any that feted successful forays into the forest. When villagers poured in, Sophi, the storyteller, told them his life’s biggest story. There were sceptics. Some tittered. Some shook their heads, mystified. But a few listened. Sophi worked with them as if his life was at stake, and the number of converts slowly swelled.

In 1998, the Khonoma nature conservation and Tragopan sanctuary was born. Every villager was made a member by default. The village council declared the forest that spread over 20 square kilometres, out of bounds. Though the KNCTS wasn’t recognised as a sanctuary by the forest department back then, the villagers did everything in their power to step up conservation efforts.

In 2002, Khonoma officially declared a ban on hunting and logging. Those flouting the norms were fined ₹3,000. It was the most gratifying day of Sophi’s life. Some of the local youth were particularly moved by his experiences. The Khonoma Youth Organisation, which he led, was tasked to keep vigil.

But along with the ban came tension in the peaceful hamlet. After a decade of conservation, conflict erupted again. Many men fought the ban. In 2012, they pressured the village council to open the hunting window to check the increasing population of birds and animals that were posing a nuisance to farmlands. But, the council rejected the appeal, not once, but several times.

It’s been 14 years since the first conservation efforts gained ground. Today, the forest adjoining Khonoma has been declared a sanctuary, within the larger conservancy of the Japfu mountain range.

The hunters are now the guardians.

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