Flight for Freedom: the Amur Falcon Story

The slaughter of an amazing bird that flies 22,000 km - and how it was stopped. A film by Rita Banerji & Shilpi Sharma

Every year, a bird you've probably never heard of flies 22,000 kilometres from Mongolia to Africa - stopping off en route in Nagaland for a pit stop - in one of the most epic migrations in the world.

Except this pit stop in the northeast of India nearly brought it to the brink of extinction.

The Amur Falcon is a raptor, a migratory bird that breeds in the jungles of East Asia. Every October, the skies above the massive Doyang dam in Nagaland's Wokha district turn dark as tens of thousands of Amurs congregate here for a respite from their exhausting flight.

For filmmaker Rita Banerji, the epic journey itself would have been worth a story - except this story turned out to have an ugly twist.

In 2012, a group of conservationists working in the area found that these birds of prey were being hunted in the thousands for food. In the 10 to 30 days they roosted in Nagaland, a staggering 10% of their total global population was wiped out - nearly 1.5 lakh birds. What happened next is documented by Banerji in her fascinating film, Flight for Freedom: The Amur Falcon Story.

Alarmed, the conservationists who discovered the slaughter reached out to the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT). They, along with Conservation India, launched a high-decibel campaign to stop the hunting.

In the few days they roosted in Nagaland, nearly 1.5 lakh Amur Falcons were hunted for food

A video documenting the slaughter went viral, caused an international outcry and triggered a governmental order banning the hunting of Amurs.

But bans, it's no secret, are meaningless unless communities buy into them.

This one did. In possibly one of the most successful community conservation programmes ever, locals - especially the fisherfolk directly involved in hunting - were educated about the vital ecological role of the birds and trained to protect them.

Their efforts were so successful that, incredibly, absolutely no birds were hunted the following year.

"To bring about any change is very tough," says Banerji. To witness the short-term success of this grassroots campaign, was "quite stunning".

She should know.

Banerji has worked extensively in the Northeast, creating video documents of environment and conservation efforts. Her company, Dusty Foot Productions, has now expanded into education and outreach with Green Hub, a video documentation centre.

Green Hub's fellowship program will train 19 people from across the Northeast in video production, then place them with organisations across the region to document their efforts.

Anyone skeptical of the role individuals can play in changing community behaviour only needs to see Banerji's film.

"A lot of work is happening in the Northeast," says Banerji, "but there's no documentation." The idea behind Green Hub is to fill this gap. "And, of course, to document the biodiversity that exists there."

Using video to support conservation efforts in one of India's most biodiverse regions is an idea worth chasing. Especially if it offers laypersons the opportunity to witness something as spectacular as the Amur migration.

Nothing, of course, can compare to being there when birds fill the sky. "From a filming perspective," says Banerji, "it was a miraculous sight."

Some miracles, fortunately, can be recorded, replayed and rejoiced in.

Catch Team

Catch Team @catchnews