By K. Bhumika
Filmmakers Rita Banerji and Shilpi Sharma go beyond their film, The Wild Meat Trail, to bring awareness in children of north-east India on wildlife conservation
The camera trails all sorts of creatures being sold in the bustling market in a remote village in Nagaland, North East India. There are limp but colourful exotic birds being heaped on the ground, being plied for meat. There’s a chained slow loris too on sale. Prices are being called, negotiated. A woman selling wild birds says she makes Rs. 15,000 a month selling wild meat compared to selling vegetables off which she makes Rs. 3,000. This, in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots!
The Wild Meat Trail, a film by Delhi-based Rita Banerji and Shilpi Sharma of Dusty Foot Productions delves into this wilderness of north east India, where, she says, “The maximum wildlife we saw was in the markets, not in the forests. We never heard birds in the forest.”
Rita has been filming in NE India since 2002, tracing a pair of orphaned bear cubs that were being rehabilitated into the wild, which led her to the hunting practices in the area. “We have this false notion that traditional hunting is fine, and illegal wildlife trade is the problem…” she said, showing her film, and speaking on ‘Visual media in conservation’ at the recently held WCY2014 conference in Bangalore. Organised by Wildlife Conservation and You, the conference looked at various aspects of conservation, including the impact that wildlife films can have in aiding conservation. Rita has been a wildlife/environment filmmaker for over 15 years now. This film won them a Green Oscar in 2010.
Rita and Shilpi spent more than seven years in the region trying to understand what hunting in the NE was all about, in its current cultural and economic context. “It’s not all black and white. Wild meat hunting and consumption is an integral part of the life of communities in the north east of India. Open wild meat markets exist in different towns and cities across the states. The remoteness of some of these regions means that they don’t even know about the Wildlife Act. Most young boys hunt for leisure or because they are expected to. People in the cities ‘have to’ eat this meat as part of festivals,” says Rita.
Older hunters had knowledge of wildlife, but the younger ones were only driven by money. ‘Why should we stop?’ was the question always raised. But they were willing to, if they were given livelihood, and leisure alternatives. Discussions with community members, village elders, and traditional hunters were held. It was obvious children had to be made future protectors of wild animals around them. “Collaboration is the key, and engaging the community is the only way to bring about change,” says Rita. Together they decided to create a training manual for educating children, and help teachers guide children into the world of nature. A clipping of the film brought in funding for Dusty Foot to complete the film, and then some, to start a wildlife education programme in the region called Under The Canopy.
“In India it’s difficult to talk of wildlife in isolation. It’s also about people. I was drawn to this relationship. Making just a natural history film was impossible. I would have felt empty to just leave it at filmmaking, having spent so much time there,” says Rita.
Next came the Hoolock Gibbon Eco Club in Chizami village in Nagaland. The Club, a collaboration between NEN (North East Network), Dusty Foot, and Go Wild Workshops, started in 2010 with about 20 children aged 10 to 14; each year 20 students have joined in. Children learn about their environment through interactive classroom activities, photography, writing, and field-based learning.
Also, if you are a member, the condition is that you can’t eat wild meat! Two boys from Chizami, Alo and Peter, are training as trainers so that they can continue the programme over the years.
“Till then the kids didn’t look at a frog as a frog, but as food!” says Rita. The Club has already managed to generate valuable documentation of birds, butterflies, and moths from the area. Through the efforts of NEN and the Eco Club there has been a dialogue on ‘ban on hunting’ amongst the parents, the village council, and the forest department. The hope is that these children will one day be able to influence decisions on conservation in the village.
Rita talks passionately about how films can change the world, making an example of Shores of Silence – Whale Sharks in India, Mike Pandey’s film on which she too worked, and won the Green Oscar in Wildscreen 2000, went on to put the whale shark in the Wildlife Protection Act of India; its hunting got banned. “Wildlife films have an outreach and education component embedded in them. You can choose to do a film, or go beyond it,” concludes Rita.