In Arunachal, the Idu Mishmis are protesting a proposed tiger reserve

On March 24, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) chief SP Yadav said that the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh would soon be notified as a tiger reserve. The announcement has caused disquiet among the area’s Idu Mishmi people, who feel that a tiger reserve would “hinder their access” to the forest.

Who are the Idu Mishmis, what is their relationship with the forest and why are they resisting the proposed tiger reserve?

The Idu Mishmi, the ‘tiger brothers’

The Idu Mishmi is a sub-tribe of the larger Mishmi group (the other two Mishmi groups are Digaru and Miju) in Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring Tibet. Known for their weaving and craftsmanship skills, the Idu Mishmis primarily live in Mishmi Hills, bordering Tibet. Their ancestral homelands are spread over the districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley as well as parts of Upper Siang and Lohit. The tribe is estimated to comprise around 12,000 people (as per census 2011), and their language (also called Idu Mishmi) is considered endangered by UNESCO.

Traditionally animists, the tribe has strong ties with the region’s rich flora and fauna. Animals such as the hoolock gibbons and tigers have deep cultural relations with the Idu Mishmi. Tigers are especially important to the Idu Mishmis — according to Idu mythology, they were born to the same mother, and thus, tigers are their “elder brothers”.

While hunting has traditionally been a way of life, the Idu Mishmis also follow a strict belief system of myths and taboos — ‘iyu-ena’ — that restrict them from hunting many animals, including a complete prohibition on killing tigers. Anthropologists and other researchers who have studied the area say that this belief system has led to a unique model of wildlife conservation. “Idu beliefs concerning tigers prevent their widespread and immediate retaliatory killing…it is because of these cultural beliefs that tigers thrive in these areas,” wrote Dr Sahil Nijhawan, who did his PhD in the Dibang Valley, in his research on the subject.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in April 2023. Full article here.