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Bird myth busted, but mystery continues

- Dima Hasao administration wants to cash in on Jatinga puzzle to attract tourists

Haflong, March 17: His eyes light up at the mention of the birds. Last year, he alone killed 30 of them.

Bansaindr Suchiang, a Class X student and resident of Jatinga village, about 9km from here, is not alone. Other residents of the village, too, wait for the time when the birds flock to Jatinga, never to return as they fall prey to waiting sticks and other instruments of death.

“They taste nice,” Suchiang recalled, the glint in his eyes clear.

The myth about Jatinga’s bird suicide is long exploded, but the mystery of the winged visitors said to arrive only at nights at a certain time of the year — between August and October — in certain weather conditions and drawn to light remains; It is when these birds drop to the ground near the lights that they are captured or clubbed to death. “We switch on lights or light lanterns to attract the birds,” Suchiang said.

It is this mystery that the Dima Hasao Autonmous Council seeks to promote as a means to lure tourists.

“We want to convert the district from a terrorist destination to tourist destination,” Debojeet Thaosen, chief executive member of the council, told The Telegraph.

It may not be a tall order any longer given that the two leading militant groups in the hill district have bade farewell to arms and there is hope of peace finally digging in after years of violence that has set the area back by several years with little to show by way of development.

“It is not only the mysterious behaviour of the birds at Jatinga, but there are several other possibilities to develop tourism and if promoted properly, these can make Dima Hasao a tourist destination,” Thaosen said with conviction.

Thaosen had the Hornbill Festival of neighbouring Nagaland in mind. The Hornbill Festival held in December every year has brought both domestic and international tourists in droves to Nagaland ever since it was unveiled.

“We organised the first Jatinga Festival with the Hornbill Festival in mind, but have not been able to make much headway yet. We will try and hold the festival again this year,” he said.

The first edition in 2010 was marred by a strike call coinciding with the days of the festival. There hasn’t been another since. “There is a mystery there, too,” Thaosen said while referring to the strike call but not willing to elaborate. The buzz, however, points to political one-upmanship being behind the Jatinga Festival not being able to strike root.

The council has already converted its guesthouse, which has hosted both security forces and then militants-in-ceasefire in the past, into a hotel in a joint venture with a private party. Apart from Jatinga, the council among other things plans to develop a meadow in Umrangso into a golf course to attract lovers of the game from across the world and organise trekking in the Barail hills in whose laps the district nestles.

The train ride on metre-gauge from Lumding in Nagaon district to Lower Haflong, which is the get-off point for this town, the district headquarters, through dense jungles and hills, through tunnels and over curving bridges that are over a century old, is in itself a joy for tourists; there is a move now to resume the steam engine-drawn coaches of yore as an added attraction.

Yet, Jatinga will remain the jewel in the tourism crown of Dima Hasao; the Tiger Bittern, Black Bittern, Little Egret, Pond Heron and Indian Pitta are some of the birds that are said to visit with their seeming death wish. But there is a growing campaign by groups against slaying of these birds.

The days of feasting for Bansaindr Suchiang and many others of Jatinga village may just be numbered.