Shirui Festival: Where is it heading

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Khoyumthem Brajesh Kumar
Among the slew of new initiatives being undertaken by the new Government, the decision to upgrade the hitherto local Shirui festival into a state level event is worth a closer look and scrutiny. Not that the decision to celebrate the state level festival is under question but a little more thought on why the festival should be celebrated is called for. What are the aims and objectives of organizing such a festival? Thereafter how best the festival should be celebrated will naturally follow. Is the decision to grandly celebrate the festival a political decision or is it for the development of Tourism or is it for the conservation of the famed Shirui Lily, which is the state flower of Manipur. Ideally a healthy mix of all three would be best but neglecting the conservation angle, not just of the Shirui Lily but of the ecology and biodiversity of the Shirui range would be disastrous.

Judging from the timing of the festival it is apparent that the organizers intend to showcase the Shirui Lily during its blooming period. A well intentioned plan indeed but the hard realities on the ground demand a closer look. If all goes as planned the event is likely to attract thousands of tourists. A good percentage will be from Imphal. Recalling the scenario experienced at the recent Tourism festival at Santhei Natural Park, Andro and the Kwatha festival where the crowd turnout was way beyond the holding capacity of the respective villages. From the commercial angle these events may have been remarkable successes but for an ecologically fragile place like Shirui it can spell disaster. It is a well known and documented fact that the Shirui Lily is moving on a fast track to towards extinction. The reasons for its decline may be many and most probably global climate change is a major culprit but other local factors adversely affecting the ecology of the Shirui range such as pressure from the local populace on the resources available on the Shirui range cannot be ruled out. Year by year jhum fields are replacing once pristine forests. The Lilies which during the days of Frank Kingdon Ward grew luxuriantly now grow barely to a height of about one and a half feet. That too scattered here and there. May is also a season when most orchids bloom, moreover a number of plants also bloom concurrently making the slopes of the Shirui extraordinarily beautiful. When thousands of non locals most of whom are ignorant or insensitive to conservation makes footfall on the slopes of the beautiful but ecologically fragile Shirui range we cannot expect anything positive for the Shirui Lily or the ecological well being of the place. As of the last flowering season, the barbed wire fencing supposedly erected to fend off visitors trampling on the Lilies no longer stands. Are we nailing the last nail on the coffin of the Shirui lily?

The need of the hour is to strike a fine balance between the tourism and conservation. The number of visitors trekking the Shirui needs to be restricted on a day to day basis to prevent overcrowding on the trails. Local volunteers or guides need to be well informed about responsible ecotourism above their knowledge of the terrain. They should be able to convince the visitors about observing the dos and don’ts governing the place. One major concern about festivals and crowds is the generation of wastes in their wake. Non degradable wastes are seen accumulating on the slopes around the IFAD rest house. The same place is slated to be the venue of the opening function and more wastes are going to be generated. These concerns must be accounted for and addressed properly before going any further. Every visitor must be made accountable for every water bottle or any bottle they carry. Every wrapper of Toffees, chewing gums or other eatables they carry must be accounted for and properly disposed. Those who fail to comply must invariably be fined. Failure on the part of the organizers to implement a zero garbage policy will be seriously defacing the pristine beauty of the Shirui where according to local Tangkhul myth, the Goddess Philava, who is said to be extraordinarily beautiful reside.

A unique feature of the Shirui range is that it is the home of three of Manipur state’s symbols- Shirui Lily, the state flower, Nongin (Mrs. Hume’s barred backed pheasant), the state bird and Uningthou, the state tree. In fact the area covering an area of 100 sq. km comes under the proposed Shirui National Park. The conversion into a full-fledged National Park has been pending since the early eighties. It is high time that the Government expedite the settlement process while the Sun shines.

Let’s say everything goes well and the festival is a commendable success. The period of about two weeks when the Shirui Lily bloom, have had brought hordes of tourists. After that, is it closing time for the nascent tourism service providers operating there? Is there nothing else the Shirui can offer other than the Lily? In my opinion and experience the Shirui Lily is a local attraction pertaining mostly to the people of Manipur. The best part of Shirui lies in the biodiversity of the place. The forest type around belongs to the Eastern Himalaya wet temperate forest and is especially rich in Bird life. The State bird Nongin (Mrs. Humes’s barred backed pheasant), Blyths Tragopan, Green Pigeons, Sunbirds, hornbills, Jungle fowl etc. are found on the Shirui. Of the 1300 species of birds found in the Indian Sub-continent, a staggering 660 above bird species are recorded to be found in Manipur which accounts for only 0.68% of the country’s area. Of these the commoner ones are found in the plains while rare or uncommon species are found in unique places like the Dzuko, Shirui etc. The Shirui area is a birding paradise because most of the birds found here are rare and any sighting is a prized moment for which birders do not mind to spend their money. Shirui range also hosts migrating birds locally known as Siri (Grey sided thrush Birding, Eye-browed thrush) during winter. Birding as a tourism activity is most eco-friendly and demands the least infrastructure. Moreover, it spreads the message of conservation among the local populace. Tangkhuls in general and Shirui villagers in particular are incomparable with anyone regarding hospitality. The cool climate of Shirui and the warmth of their hospitality are inseparable. Birding tourism also opens the avenue of home stays to the villagers who can also double as birding guides. This will bring additional income to the poor villagers and in turn decrease dependence on forest resources. Usually hunters turned birding guides are the most excellent because on one hand they know where to find which species and on the other hand they serve as living testimony to conservation as a better choice. As birders from India and abroad are constantly on the search for new areas to explore, repackaging the Shirui range as a Birding destination will be an excellent proposition. In 2016, Centre for Conservation of Nature and Cultivation of Science (CCNCS) took the initiative to introduce birding tourism to Manipur.
Closely working with our partners from outside the State we could bring a team of birders mostly from Goa & Mumbai to Shirui and later to other Important Bird areas of Manipur. The Birding tour was named 1st Discovering Wild Manipur, 2016 which was during mid may of the same year and incidentally it was also when we first encountered the Shirui Festival in its local form. The significant thing about the tour was that these people were actually paying us and the villagers to see and photograph our birds. Remarkably these people demanded the least comfort and ate what we ate, slept where we slept. Their only demand was clean sanitary toilets and lots of birds to photograph. From the tour we learnt many lessons. Prominent among them is the necessity to stop the hunting of birds and animals because prolonged hunting has made the birds and animals to be wary of humans and are extremely shy. Hunting has always been a way of life for the hill people. It is also a past-time recreational activity, much like the plain dwellers indulge in fishing for the same reasons. It is not going to be easy for them to give up but education and exposure to the conservation activities seem to have made an impression on the minds of the villagers. The news from Shirui regarding hunting is that the villagers have resolved to keep a ban on hunting for most time of the year except a few months in winter. This is good news but not good enough. Wish they had left an area as a sanctuary where it should be considered as sacrosanct and absolutely no hunting of any kind should take place. Moreover hunting is a culture that is passed from one generation to another. An elder usually takes a younger one to his hunting trips thus imbibing him with his skills and knowledge. Then the youngster spreads the skill and knowledge to his peers. The key to break up this chain is to engage the youngsters to more enjoyable and productive activities during their vacations and holidays. Otherwise youngsters will continue to sneak off to the forests to trap birds and kill animals. The Government should adopt a holistic approach encompassing multiple angles regarding Shirui.

Can we dream of the Shirui range with a thick carpet of Shirui Lilies swaying in the gentle breeze as far as the eye could see? Can we dream of the birds and animals playing freely on the slopes of Shirui? Indeed we can if the government really cares for their fate. It could establish a research station on the hill for the in situ conservation of the Lily. Agencies like the Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development, Imphal who are capable of mass production of Shirui Lily saplings through the use of Tissue Culture technology can roped in. How far the Government is prepared to go will be the only limiting factor.

If the Shirui Festival is on the lines of the Sangai Festival where everything under the sky is encompassed except the conservation of the State animal, fine go ahead, please the ‘mela wallas’ and create a ruckus at Shirui and scare away the Nongin. Otherwise ecotourism activities like Birding and Butterfly tourism in the long run will prove to be a major component for any conservation effort or of eco-tourism on the Shirui range.

(The writer is a wildlife photographer, filmmaker, a trustee of Centre for Conservation of Nature & Cultivation of Science and a member of Indian Bird Conservation Network, Manipur Chapter)

Source: The Sangai Express

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