Jatinga village is located 9 km southeast of Haflong, the district headquarters of North Cachar Hills in central Assam. Logically, it should have been a part of the Barail IBA, but it has been kept as a separate site because of the unique ornithological phenomenon for which the area is famous. Its conservation needs are specific and attention may be diluted if we clump it with the Barail IBA. Jatinga is a big village located on a ridge that extends to the slopes of the main Barail Range. It is the second largest village in the district with a population of about 2,000. It was in 1905 that some villagers (Jaintia tribe) discovered that birds are attracted to light at night in certain weather conditions and began using this knowledge to kill the birds for food. There is a very interesting story about how this phenomenon was discovered. It happened that a tiger killed a domestic water buffalo sometime in September 1905. The villagers went out in search of it with lighted torches on a dark and misty night. They could not trace the carcass but a rather unusual phenomenon followed. A large number of birds started coming towards them, some even settling on their bodies. The villagers thought that the birds were a gift from God to compensate the loss of the buffalo, and so killed the birds for food. Later on, they discovered that the visit of the birds was an annual phenomenon during certain months. The killing generally starts around mid-August and lasts until the end of October. Some of the essential preconditions for the phenomenon are dark moonless nights and presence of dense fog or cloud, particularly if there is a slight drizzle. Southwesterly wind also helps in attracting the birds to torch light. At a time when all the above conditions are fulfilled, the villagers sit with petromax lamps and bamboo poles. The birds, attracted by the lights arrive singly or in small loose groups, and circle above the lights. Some species such as pittas land on the ground or house-tops while species like kingfishers perch in nearby trees or on telephone/electric wires. The ‘hunters’ then hit the birds with the poles. The birds that land on the ground are often caught with bare hands. In the past, the haul of one night sometimes reached 500-600 birds with around 200 as the maximum per person. But now the peak collection by a single person in a day may be 50-60. About 4,000 birds were reportedly killed in 1997. The following species are frequently killed: Tiger Bittern or Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus, Black Bittern Dupetor flavicollis, Chestnut Bittern Ixobrychuscinnamomeus, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Pond Heron Ardeola grayii, Cotton Teal Nettapus coromandelianus, Lesser Whistling-Duck Dendrocygna javanica, Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx erithacus, Hill Partridge Arborophilatorqueola, Kaleej Pheasant Lophura leucomelanos Yellow-legged Green Pigeon Treron phoenicoptera, Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica, Spotted Dove Streptopeliachinensis, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush Garrulax monileger, Hooded Pitta Pitta sordida, Indian Pitta P. brachyura, Whitebreasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus, Kora or Watercock Gallicrex cinerea, Koel Eudynamys scolopacea, Hawk-cuckoo Hierococcyx spp., Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo D. paradiseus and Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola. The majority of the birds killed are usually immature, they are also resident or at the most locally migratory. The interesting bird phenomenon of Jatinga came into the limelight in the 1960s (Gee 1964). Since then much publicity was given to the fallacy that ‘migratory’ birds commit mass suicide in Jatinga. Now, however, it has become quite clear that they are killed or captured. Of course, a few birds dash against buildings and are injured or even killed. To make the villagers aware of the importance of conservation, a birdwatching club was formed in 1982. The Forest Department of Assam has also built three birdwatching towers. One tower has floodlights for diverting the birds from the hunters’ petromax lanterns. As most of the birds are common, not protected species, it may be difficult to stop the annual killing by legal action. Motivation and awareness of the villagers seem to be the most practical solution. Already, the villagers do not kill the birds on Sundays (most of the villagers are Christian). Killing on Saturdays is also being stopped as part of their growing awareness. In this bird phenomenon, strong winds play a key role. ‘Jatinga’ is a Jemi Naga word meaning ‘pathway of rain and water’. Near Jatinga, the high Barail Range deflects the southwesterly wind at places. Moreover, the ridge (also called the Jatinga Ridge) separating the Brahmaputra and the Barak basins slopes down and joins the main Barails, resulting in a funnel effect. The southwesterly wind blowing over the Jatinga Valley with the high walls of the Barails on both sides suddenly gets an opening at Jatinga, resulting in a channel of very high velocity wind. After crossing the ‘funnel’ at Jatinga Tinali (trijunction) (altitude c. 600 m), it reaches the bowl-shaped Dolong Valley. The floor of the valley is at about 500 m, bounded by a mountain wall of about 1,500 m (Kaukaha peak is 1,736 m) in the south, a dome-shaped hill (sometimes called the Lomromon Hill, highest point 730 m) towards east and the Jatinga Ridge (highest part c. 750 m) towards west, its only opening is towards the north. So, wind blowing between 600 and 700 m elevation is channeled through the Tinali (a stretch of about 500 m from the main bird watching tower to the old Forest Beat Office), but faces the barriers of the three walls. As a result, the entire valley and the Jatinga Ridge remains covered with thick fog, while the other nearby areas remain clear. In fact, from the western edge of the Khasi Hills to the mountains of the Indo-Myanmar border, a stretch of more than 350 km, Jatinga valley forms the only gap. Hence, many locally migrant birds use it as a flyway, while the gap also allows channeling of wind at a very high velocity. It is probable that many of the birds killed are on (local) passage migration between the north (northern North Cachar Hills and the Brahmaputra Valley) and the south (Barak Valley region) of the Barails. There is little doubt that the birds in Jatinga are disturbed in their roosts by the very high velocity wind and thick cover of fog and mist, accompanied by drizzle. It is highly probable that the birds come towards the lights for refuge, as most of them go back to their roost with the improvement of weather (Choudhury 1996, 2000). The vegetation of the area is Tropical Evergreen and Semievergreen type. Forests degraded by jhum cultivation are dominant in the immediate vicinity of the village. There are large orange orchards in the village and surrounding areas.
AVIFAUNA: Among the many bird species, the Vulnerable Beautiful Nuthatch Sitta formosa is frequently encountered in the adjacent slopes of the Barail Range. The White-winged Duck Cairina scutulata was recorded only once during the bird killings (Phukan 1987). The Green Cochoa Cochoa viridis and Purple Cochoa Cochoa purpurea are in the forests near Jatinga. White-cheeked Hill-Partridge Arborophila atrogularis, Grey Peacock Pheasant Polyplectron bicalcaratum, and Black-gorgeted Laughingthrush Garrulax pectoralis are also found in the adjoining forests. This is perhaps the only site in India that was selected on the basis of A4iv criteria (site known or thought to exceed thresholds set for migratory species at bottleneck sites). Although Jatinga does not truly fulfil the criteria as most of the species found are common and short distance migrants, the phenomenon is so unique that the site needs to be identified as an IBA.
OTHER KEY FAUNA: Jatinga is rich in other wildlife also. Notable species are: Slow Loris Nycticebus coucang, Assamese Macaque Macaca assamensis, Stump-tailed Macaque M. arctoides, Capped Langur Trachypithecus pileatus, Hoolock Gibbon Hylobates hoolock, Asiatic Black Bear Ursusthibetanus, Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa and Serow Nemorhaedussumatraensis.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
MAIN THREATS: Killing of birds; Slash and burn shifting cultivation (jhum); Timber smuggling.
The annual mass killing of birds by the villagers is the main conservation issue. The forest department posts guards during the Jatinga phenomenon to prevent mass killing of birds. They place bright torches to deflect the birds from the ‘killing fields’. Jatinga provides a good opportunity for an environmental awareness campaign against mass killing of birds. As the villagers are mostly educated and Jatinga has received a great deal of publicity, an environmental awareness programme would be easy to propagate.
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Jatinga. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 22/06/2021.