It's not often that a remote village finds a mention in government tourism brochures. Khonoma in Nagaland does. The village is not exactly an archetypal exotic destination. You have to withstand a two-hour, bone-rattling bus trip from Kohima to get there. But it's a trip worth taking if you are a wildlife enthusiast. For Khonoma is the site of a unique conservation endeavour: the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan sanctuary. The 70 sq km reserve is the fruit of a predominantly local initiative to preserve the endangered pheasant, the Blyth's Tragopan.
Getting to the village could be a bit of a bother. The place is about 20 kilometres southwest of Kohima. For about four of those kilometres, the road runs smoothly, since this is National Highway Number 39. But once you are off to the "unmetalled' roads that lead to the hills, your vehicle must negotiate slushy roads and treacherous landslips. It's best, the villagers say, to take one of the jalopies that connect the hill communities with each other.
But at Khonoma you are surely to be well provided for. The Khonoma Tourism Development Board, run by the village's residents, offers various packages (see box: Packaged for comfort). The sanctuary is ideal for trekking and research work. It has a variety of ecosystems ranging from semi evergreen forest to savanna grasslands. There are camping sites in the reserve.
The origins Conservation had little place in people's lives in 1994, when the Ahmedabad-based ngo Centre for Environmental Education began work in Khonoma. "When we visited the village in 1994, the residents threw a lavish feast. On the platter were monkeys and endangered deer varieties,' reminisces Abdesh Gangwar, a researcher with the ngo.
A year later, Khonoma's residents were into wildlife conservation.
A lot of the change had to do with the Centre for Environmental Education's awareness programme. But the real impetus came from the village council. Customary laws came to the aid of the conservation effort. In 1998, the council passed strictures to regulate hunting in 70 sq km of forests near Khonoma. Limited hunting of crop-destroyers like wild boars and deer was allowed. The village council banned the sale of wild meat. Violators were fined Rs 3,000. There was a further deterrent: clans of the defaulters also faced the prospect of fines. All this meant that the villagers complied with the council's strictures. Hunting was completely banned in 2000.
In 2003, the Khonoma Tourism Development Board was constituted. The agency encourages youths and women in the village to work as tourist guides, tour operators, and interpreters. It also provides equipment to wildlife wardens. In 2003, the Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture adopted the village under its Green Village Project. Khonoma got a circular road and solar lights.
Take your pick But has the community benefited from the endeavour? Opinions vary. "Benefits have only been at the individual level. Payments are made to guides, to performers at cultural programmes and to individual families but the village as a whole has not benefited much,' says Kevichulie Meyase, a member of the Khonoma Tourism Development Board. Others disagree. "The experiment has been a success and Khonoma can become a role model,' says Firoz Ahmed of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based conservation organization.
Want to see how Khonoma is doing? Take a tour of the village. The tourist season is between April and October.