This tiny hamlet is a birdwatcher’s paradise. It’s also an ornithologist’s nightmare. For, Jatinga remains a place where birds are supposed to commit suicide.
Jatinga village, inhabited primarily by members of the Jaintia tribe, on the foothills of the Barail Range in the Northeast Indian state of Assam is a halting place for many birds. This mysterious phenomenon which has had ornithologists from the world over fumbling for answers is known to locals as a suspected mass suicide committed by birds.
The occurrence happens during the late monsoon months of September to October, when birds are said to be trapped by what locals call “bird lighting” – they are fatally attracted by artificial light on a dark, moonless night. The phenomenon occurs only when certain climactic conditions are met: apart from a moonless night, the direction of the wind must be south-west to north-east. All along the Barail Valley there must be a thick fog or mist, accompanied by a drizzle.
The moment the southern wind carting the mist wafts over this hamlet, thousands of birds make their sudden appearance over locations that are illuminated. The birds, however, don’t make attempts to fly away – they dash for these lit up spots. Many die on impact, others remain traumatised and disheveled. They fall easy prey to villagers. Some are even brought down by locals either by using bamboo poles or catapults. The spectacle often ends in a fest.
The popular belief was the birds commit suicide. Though not fully explained by ornithologists yet, wildlife scientists like Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury conjecture that “the birds get caught in the fog and the wind, get disoriented, and seek solace in the light sources (usually torches in the olden days) put out by the villagers. They hit against the trees or other objects and get grievously injured in the process.”
Kulendra Daulagupu, member of the Dima Hasao District Council, points out that the birds are not attracted to the entire Jatinga range, but to a well-defined 1.5km long and 200 metres wide strip. Daulagupu, who hails from Haflong, says that attempts at placing lights on the southern side of the ridge have failed to attract the birds.
“The birds are not migratory ones, but resident birds of adjacent valleys and hills,” says Gopal Sainshai, a forest department employee posted at the Jatinga watch tower. Among birds that have been spotted here are the Indian ruddy kingfisher, the Indian pitta, green pigeon, black drongo, grey heron, spotted dove and quail.
One person who has been seeing this phenomenon for a long time is Sylvia Suchiang, a teacher. Jatinga village was established in 1905 by her Jaintia maternal great grand uncle, Lt U Lakhon Bang Suchiang. Jaintias follow the matriarchal system, and Sylvia is known by her mother's clan. In fact, Jatinga was originally a Zemi Naga village. When the Zemis first witnessed the phenomenon, it frightened them out of their wits. They sold off the village to the Jaintias and moved on to a neighbouring valley.
Recollects Sylvia, “I remember vividly since the time I was 5-6 years old when my grandma would be cooking delicious meat for me; I would see hundreds and hundreds of birds being slaughtered randomly every night when the phenomenon would occur. As I grew up in that environment, I looked at it as a part of my culture to kill and eat their flesh, which is very delicious. There were no restrictions. Even high officials from district headquarters Haflong would come to Jatinga to enjoy the game. No wonder I would participate and catch some stray birds or even juvenile ones. It was only in 1994 when at the behest of animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi was an order issued by the Deputy Commissioner prohibiting killings.”
Over the years, the number of species that could be found here has declined. Earlier, over 40 species of birds could be spotted; now the number can be counted on fingers.
But have people changed too? “Of course, they have,” says Sylvia. “People are aware as they are educated. The restrictions work too. Yes, there are some of the older folk who do indulge in the killing since old habits die hard. But the younger generation are anxious to preserve the wildlife heritage. With help from authorities concerned and proper guidance from experts, they can make this place a tourist hotspot.”
That’s precise what Daulagupu is working on relentlessly. Last September he organised a tourism festival here. That was the first step. “There is no tourism infrastructure worth the name yet. The festival was a way to (re-)introduce Jatinga to the world,” he says.
Meanwhile, the mystery of Jatinga endures.