Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mysterious Suicidal Phenomenon in Jatinga, Assam

Satellite Map of Jatinga
Jatinga is a mystic, beautiful, lush green village located on a ridge in the North Cachar Hills of Dima Hasao District in Assam at the foothills of the Borail range. It is located in the vicinity of Haflong town which is the District Head Quarter of North Cachar Hills. It is a popular tourist spot which is easily accessible by train, buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws. Decorated with blue Vanda Orchids during the flowering season, it is home to 2500 Dima Hasao population. Jatinga is located about 330 km South of Guwahati – the commercial capital of Assam. The natives earned their livelihood mostly from forest products, specially cultivation of bamboo and export. Hunting was a part of their life and the juveniles were trained to adopt various hunting techniques.

Blue Vanda Orchids in Jatinga

The watchtower in Jatinga on an elevated area
The mornings in Jatinga is illuminated by the spectacular sunlight peaking through the Hempeopet Peak. The Hempeopet Peak is the second highest peak in the mountainous terrain which gives tourists a marvelous view. Jatinga is famous for its orange orchards, beautiful orchid gardens, and its traditional tribal dances, and for the mysterious suicidal tendencies in birds. In fact, Jatinga is also called Death Valley for Birds due to the strange phenomenon of avian mass suicides. There is a bird watchtower in Jatinga from which one can witness the mysterious phenomenon, however prior permissions from district forestry office in Haflong is necessary.

Jantia tribal women perform a traditional dance during the first International Jatinga Festival

Tribals performing at the first International Jatinga Festival

The Zeme Naga tribes were the natives of Jatinga, which was ruled by the Dimasa king. They were the first to witness the extraordinary behavior of the birds in which hundreds of birds seem to be attracted to their camp fires, descended from the sky and crashed to their deaths by colliding into the bamboos, trees, or other man made structures. Nowadays they also collide with buildings. This phenomenon is unique and happens in the late evenings during the late monsoon months of September and November. The tribals were frightened with this rare phenomenon. They believed that it was wrath of the Gods that the evil spirits and demons were falling to death from the sky in the form of birds. Thus they abandoned the village and the settlement was deserted.

Fatal attraction of the birds towards flood lights in Jatinga

Around 1905, some wanderers of the Jantia tribe found Jatinga and its adjoining areas very suitable for beetle plantation and settled in the abandoned village under the leadership of Lakhanbang Suchiang. They came to know about the mysterious showering of birds when they were searching for their stray cattle in the night with lighted torches. The Jantia's considered the fatal attraction of the birds towards the lighted bamboo torches as a “Gift of God”.

A bird injured due to its fatal attraction towards lights in Jatinga

In late 1950's British tea planter and ornithologist E.P.Gee and Salim Ali visited this place to find out the cause of mysterious death of migratory birds. The first record of this mysterious phenomenon is found in the book Wild Life of India (1957) by E.P. Gee. Gee, a naturalist, wrote that the suicides of birds only at the specific spot is extraordinary. The phenomenon did not occur at the nearby places even if they were illuminated just like Jatinga. He also recorded the conditions required for this phenomenon - fog, cloud and mist. The incident happens in the late monsoon months between September and November in the late evenings mostly between 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM. It mostly happens in dark moonless nights with light rains when the South Westerly winds are blowing. Gee brought this mysterious phenomenon to the Global attention.

Mass suicides/killings of the birds in Jatinga

Jatinga became a popular tourist destination by the 1980's. The mystery of Jatinga attracts ornithologist from all over the world but the phenomenon still needs to be investigated and understood. The most likely cause of mass avian suicides could be disorientation of the birds at high altitudes and high speed winds due to the widespread fog, which is common at the end of the monsoons. Dr. Sudhir Sengupta send by the Zoological Survey of India to investigate and unscramble the mystery strongly believes that the magnetic properties of subterranean water is altered by the atmospheric conditions of this terrain. These changes though invisible, affect the physiological rhythm of the local birds and they start behaving abnormally towards the sources of light which leads to the mysterious happening.

Mysterious death of a bird in Jatinga

Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, one of Assam's best known ornithologist has recorded a vivid description of this phenomenon in his book The Birds of Assam. He has also compared similar incidents in Malaysia, Philippines and Mizoram. He inferred that high velocity of winds faze the shelter of the birds. The birds in distress, mostly juvenile and local migrants fly towards the lights to find refuge. On the way, they collide with bamboo poles, trees or such other sources and are either killed or injured seriously which contributes to their death.

The disoriented dead birds in Jatinga

This extraordinary behavior is not confined to any specific species. Records prove that 44 species of birds are attracted to the lights including the Kingfishers (Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, etc), Tiger Bittern, Black Bittern, Cinnamon Bittern, Little Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Chinese Pond Heron and Indian Pitta and many other exotic species of birds. However, it has been established that long distance migratory birds do not get attracted towards the light sources. The victims are mostly nonmigratory birds of the adjacent valleys and hill slopes. It has also been established that the birds are attracted only to a distinct strip of land 1500 meters long and 200 meters wide. The birds mostly come in from the North and attempts to place light sources on the Southern edge of the Jatinga ridge has failed to attract them.

A dead bird in Jatinga
The Statesman says that the birds are disoriented and fatally attracted to the lighted bamboo torches lit by the villagers. Some of these confused birds hover over the lights and are captured using bamboo poles or catapults by the locals and are killed for food, while others, bedazzled and disheveled land near the lights. Shocked by the trauma, they do not attempt to fly away and fall easy prey to the villagers. Various conservation groups and wildlife officials are creating awareness among the illiterate villagers to prevent motiveless killing of birds, which has reduced the deaths by about 40%.

Railway station/halt in Jatinga

Not only the extraordinarily unusual behavior of the birds occur in peculiar weather conditions, the events are also co-related to their breeding periods. Heavy rains and flash floods submerge the natural habitat of the water birds, and force them to take refuge in neighboring areas. This seems to be common behavior since Jatinga valley falls on the migratory route of locally migrating birds. Some renowned ornithologists such as Dr. Salim Ali, Dr. Sudhir Sengupta, A. Rauf, etc have done extensive research on this strange phenomenon, but no hypothesis comprehensively explains the Jatinga mystery till date. Research is still in progress to unravel the mystery of Jatinga's unnatural phenomenon.

A train travelling through the mystic landscape to Jatinga

The Hindu on October 28, 2010 says, on a moonless night, when the mist and fog bearing South-Westerly winds blow over the Jatinga valley, different species of local migratory birds get attracted to strong light sources or “bird trap lights.” The phenomenon remains an unsolved mystery, with many theories doing the rounds.

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