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The Birds Perform Harakiri at Jatinga
The occurrences of an unexplained and mysterious phenomenon in the world often become the subjects of scientific research researches and debates. Such incidents once raised the fears that the world will come to an end by the end of 2012.
But nothing untoward happened except the few unnatural events like a large number of dead drum fish hitting the shores of the Arkansas River in the US in the beginning of 2011 or more than 5,000 dead red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky for unforeseen reasons.
Further in Latin America about 100 tons of dead sardines washed up the shores of Brazil, millions of tiny fish died in Chesapeake of Maryland in New Zealand, about 100 jackdaws were found dead in Sweden and the coast of Kent in England became the death bed of 40,000 devil crabs.
The scientists are still trying to unravel the mystery of these collective deaths, which may have occurred due to weather, disease, poisonings or pollution.
A small hamlet in Assam in the Northeastern part of India also has a long history of unexplained natural deaths of birds. The incident still baffles the ornithologists, scientists, and experts who are still groping for a plausible answer to explain the reality behind this bizarre Bermuda Triangle of foul death.
The Timings of Suicides
The strange phenomenon of migratory birds hurtling themselves to their imminent death usually occurs on dark moonless nights in the months of September and October after the monsoon season.
The birds seem to become disoriented by losing the sense of sight and unintentionally plunge toward death by flying towards the torches and lights.
The epithet of suicide is a misnomer as the birds are hunted by the villagers. The ritual is repeated year after year.
Earlier it was believed that evil spirits in the skies were responsible for bringing down the birds.
The Mystery in Nutshell
When fog comes on a moonless night,
And winds blow in the direction right.
Jatinga becomes a land of light,
And birds become ghosts on death flight.
The Jatinga Village
Jatinga, the Death Valley for the birds is located on a ridge at the foothills of the Borail range in the North Cachar Hills. It is 9 Km from Haflong, the only hill station in the State and the district headquarters of the Dima Hasao district formerly known as North Cachar Hills district.
It is a mystic, scenic, beautiful and lush green village midst serene mountains, about 325 Km in the south of Guwahati, the capital of Assam state in the north east of India.
The village is famous rather notorious for the phenomenon of the birds coming in droves to commit collective suicides which have baffled the experts.
It is located at the tri- junction of the roads leading to Haflong, Lumding, and Silchar and is bedecked with blue Vanda orchids and obscure gorgeous or well-forested valley.
About 834 years ago Jatinga was a part of Kachari kingdom which extended up to north foothills of Lusaiking. It was ruled by the Dimasa king and the Zeme or Jeme Naga tribes were the natives of the land. These aborigines were the first to witness the extraordinary behavior of the birds. They found that hundreds of birds descended from the sky on getting attracted to light and fell into their camp fires on their own. They had lit the bonfire in paddy fields to scare away the wild pigs.
The birds also crashed to deaths by colliding into the manmade structures, bamboos, trees etc.
These incidents frightened the people and they believed it to be the wrath of Gods. They thought that in the form of birds the evil spirits and demons were swooping down from the sky for self-immolation. Hence they abandoned the village and the settlement became a deserted and desolate place.
It was between 1903 to 1905 AD, that some wanderers of the Jantia tribe under the leadership of Lakhanbang Suchiang, reached Jatinga. They found the adjoining area very suitable for beetle nut plantation and decided to get settled in the forsaken village.
Once while searching to round up their stray cattle in the night with lighted torches they noticed this mysterious showering of birds. They considered this fatal attraction of the birds as a gift of god.
It was in 1957 that the British tea planter and naturalist E.P.Gee brought global attention to this phenomenon of avian hara-kiri in his book, “The Wildlife of India”. He visited the place with Salim Ali, an ornithologist, to ascertain the cause of this mysterious and strange phenomenon of avian mass suicides of local migratory birds.
He wrote that these extraordinary suicides occur at the specific spot and not at the nearby places even if they were illuminated just like Jatinga.
He found that the conditions of fog, cloud, mist, dark moonless nights, light rains and the South West winds are necessary for this phenomenon. The incident happens in the late monsoon months between September and November in the late evenings mostly between 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM.
The Zoological Survey of India sent Dr. Sudhirsen Gupta to investigate the matter. He strongly believed that the magnetic properties of subterranean or underground water in the terrain get altered by the weather and atmospheric conditions. Such invisible changes affect the physiological rhythm and the sense of direction of the local birds. As a result, the birds start behaving abnormally towards the sources of light which lead to mysterious deaths. This hypothesis appears plausible but has not been proved.
Various studies were conducted and different reasons are cited for the mass avian suicides by the birds. But no single hypothesis comprehensively explains the mystery which demands a deeper scientific study. Further, the birds do not have suicidal tendencies and this phenomenon has baffled all.
Some people are of the view that in cold weather, the birds naturally get attracted by the light sources or bird trap lights while traveling through long distances.
Another reason cited by the researchers for the suicide is the magnetic behavior of the subterranean water. The birds get the sense of direction by the magnetic polarity of the earth. But the weather of the region is supposed to change the magnetic polarity of the underground water and the birds get disoriented.
One theory suggests that a combination of high altitude, high winds, and fog disorients the birds and they get attracted to the light. It is a common fact that the bright light generally disorients the birds and they lose the sense of flight stabilization.
Besides the peculiar weather conditions of late monsoon period, there is a relation between the breeding period of birds and their death.
The death flight of water birds can also be attributed to heavy rains and floods in the surrounding areas which submerge their natural habitat and force them to take refuge in the surrounding areas. The area falls in the route of local migratory birds and a large number of birds committed suicides during the time of high floods at Jatinga in 1988.
The experts from the Geological Survey of India assessed the geophysical status of the area. They came to the conclusion that with the onset of winter, the high-velocity winds blow towards southwest from the hilltop together with the widespread fog. It causes the disorientation of the birds at high altitudes and they seek refuge or solace near the light sources. The birds are killed by the villagers with catapults or bamboo poles covered with strong adhesive.
The burning of torches by the villagers together with the strategic location of high power searchlight sources attracts the flying birds at night and they hover over the light sources and are captured.
While descending towards light they often get stuck in trees, walls, buildings etc., and become injured. The birds become dazed, half dead and immobile. These bedazzled and disheveled birds land near the lights. They do not attempt to fly due to shock and fall easy prey to the villagers.
But it is still a mystery that why the birds fly at night, or why they voluntarily get themselves trapped at the same place and time every year.
Is there an answer ?
What you think may be the reason for mass suicides.
Contrary to the popular belief this phenomenon of suicide by birds does not occur throughout the entire Jatinga region but happens only in a specific area of 1500 meters long and 200 meters wide.
On the other hand, the birds come from the north and did not get attracted when the light sources were placed on the southern side of Jatinga ridge.
As an exception, the long-distance migratory birds are not affected by this phenomenon and the victims are mostly the indigenous non-migratory birds of the adjacent valleys.
Therefore this logic is often given to avoid the protection act.
Other Places of Suicide by Birds
Thousands of birds have flown to death over a small strip of land in Jatinga in the last century.
The phenomenon of similar suicides has also been reported from Malaysia and Mizoram in India. The similar phenomenon in the Philippines occurs at the same time in similar climatic conditions like foggy, windy and moonless nights, but here the birds are mostly migratory and are trapped with Tawang.
Bird deaths are not Suicides
Contrary to the popular belief the birds do not commit suicide as they are hunted by the villagers for food. The birds are quite delicious and the people relish these exotic delicacies sent from heaven.
The doomed birds destined for imminent death, do not attempt to fly after coming near the trap lights and fall easy prey to the villagers.
The villagers without any sense of guilt consider it a sport and a gift of god. They say that during floods the fish are killed in the plains in a similar manner.
Jatinga in Assam
The illiterate people are now becoming aware of the need to conserve the bird population.
There is a danger of the entire bird species getting wiped out if this hunting for food continues unabated.
In order to stop the mass killings of the birds, the wildlife or nature lovers and several bird societies in India have tried to educate the villagers about the phenomenon.
As a result, the bird deaths have decreased by about 40 percent.
The conservation groups and wildlife officials have taken steps to prevent wanton killing.
But the number of birds is also decreasing due to the destruction of their habitats like forest, wetlands and breeding grounds.
The forest-based industries have severely affected the ecosystem of Barak valley.
The flora and fauna are in danger due to the encroachments of forest land.
As per records, there are about 48 species of the juvenile birds which commit suicide.
The wide range of species affected includes Tiger Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Black Bittern, Little Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Chinese Pond Heron, Indian Pitta, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Rudy Kingfisher etc.
Why these Suicides
The most exquisite thing is that so many species of diurnal resident birds move at night when they are expected to be fast asleep.
The slopes and hills of Jatinga buzz with the squeaks of the birds in agony that are found plummeting to the ground. It becomes a nightmare for a bevy of birds.
A single person catches 50 to 60 birds per night. Earlier the haul of a night reached 500 to 600 birds with around 200 as the maximum by a single person.
Tourism in Jatinga
The phenomenon has become a boon for tourism as thousands of wildlife enthusiasts, domestic and foreign tourists come to witness the incident visit the state every year. The place became a popular tourist destination in the 1980s as the mystery of bird deaths attracted the ornithologists from all over the world.
Jatinga is easily accessible by train, buses, taxis etc., and new accommodations for the visitors have been created due to the inflow of tourists. The nearest airport is 325 Km from the village at Guwahati.
The place becomes enchanting due to the flowering of blue Vanda orchids and other indigenous flora and fauna are the main attractions. The sunrise from the Hempel et Peak is spectacularly marvelous and majestic. It is the second highest peak in the region.
Some of the residents of Jatinga arrange home-stays for the visitors. The accommodation at bird watching center can be booked at the district forest office at Haflong. The budget hotels are available at Silchar.
A bird watchtower has been built at Jatinga for the visitors to witness the incident of reeling birds on prior booking. The visitors wait for particular weather condition to witness the rare phenomenon.
In the second last decade of last century, Jatinga was a hot tourist destination, but the number declined as insurgency gripped the hill district in the late eighties.Now the militant groups have entered into a ceasefire and Jatinga is again becoming a favorite tourist destination.
The journey is incomplete without watching the traditional tribal dances.
The tribal performing at the International Jatinga FestivalClick thumbnail to view full-size
International Festival at Jatinga
In 2010, a three-day festival about the incident of bird suicide, called the International Jatinga Festival is organized to boost the tourist activities like trekking to the Hempel et Peak, visits to different villages and tourist spots, exhibition-cum-sale of handicrafts, relishing ethnic cuisine etc.
The festival is also an attempt to spread communal harmony, cultivate peace and tranquility, create emotional integration, remove the spell of despair and to reaffirm the faith in brotherhood after various socio-political changes caused due to the insurgency in the area.
The performances by folk dancers and musical bands from Dimapur, Shillong, Guwahati, Silchar are the part of the festival. Dressed in traditional attire the troupes of different tribes give dance performances. The village elders, youth and the visitors cheer the school children in the village playground.
The bird watchers, nature lovers, tour operators, travelogue writers and tourists arrive here to interact with local tribes. The festival has opened new vistas of tourism promotion in the entire region.
The Tribal People of Jatinga
The Jatinga village is inhabited by about 2,500 Khasi-pnar and few Dimasa tribes. Most of the villagers at Jatinga are farmers.
They earn their livelihood mostly from forest produce especially cultivation and export of bamboo and bamboo products.
They learn different hunting techniques from childhood, as hunting is a part of their life.
Recently they have adopted cultivation of citrus fruits especially oranges. The oranges and honey from orange flower have become famous throughout India.
© 2014 Sanjay Sharma