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Bird Man From Begusarai

This trapper doesn't really hunt birds; they fly to him like moths to the flame. Meet Ali Hussain, practitioner of an ancient craft.

Bird Man From Begusarai

FOR two weeks in February this year, Ali Hussain watched with seeming indifference the efforts of Peter Bloom, a UK-based wildlife expert, to trap raptors at the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. Attempting to snare some eagles in his wire trap, Bloom spent the better part of each day boating in the park and setting up his bait of mice. But the eagles just weren't interested. White man plus white mice—that formed too obvious a lure. The day before Bloom was to end his rather desultory and unsuccessful stay, Hussain approached Asad Rahmani, head of the wildlife division at Aligarh Muslim University and soon to become director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) under whose auspices Bloom was making his sojourn, and said: "It doesn't look nice sir that we should send away a guest disappointed. If you give me just a couple of hours I will catch an eagle for him."

Rahmani assented. The rest, we could say, went into the already thick Hussain lore. Wading waist-deep in water, Hussain set up a Deccan trap—three sticks smeared with glue cooked from the pipal tree and set up at triangle points with a fish in the middle. In the space of half-an-hour Hussain caught three eagles even as an astonished Bloom, making his own last attempt in a boat nearby, looked on. Bloom's parting words to Hussain: "I will come back soon for a month to learn from you the art of trapping." He well might. For the simple reason that Hussain, a bird-trapper from the village of Manjhaul in Bihar's Begusarai district, knows more about birds than India's top ornithologists. Hailing from the Muslim tribe of Mirshikars, who have traditionally trapped birds for a living, Hussain's a legend with wildlife scientists. Says Vibhu Prakash, project leader of the BNHS at Bharatpur: "Hussain is phenomenal in his work. He is quite simply amazing." With enough reason. When Hussain dreams, it's about birds. Of the peregrine falcon that can swoop at speeds above 150 miles per hour, the marsh harrier's raids on the coots, kingfishers, sparrows, cranes, drongos.... They all visit his dreams and he identifies them by the whoosh of the wind they leave behind in their wake.

The kind that the late Dr Salim Ali drew him into 32 years back when he came to Manjhaul looking for a bird-trapper to help him capture birds for his ornithological studies. Young Hussain stepped forward and in that step he went from poacher to conservationist. Learning the trade from his father Ali Jan Shikari, Hussain and his family's livelihood, as indeed of hundreds of other families in Manjhaul, depended on capturing birds in neighbouring lakes and wetlands and selling them to wildlife traders in Patna and the zoos. But that came to an end with the passing of the Indian Wildlife Act in 1972. Says Prakash, who has been employed in BNHS for over 17 years and knows Hussain since then: "In those days Hussain used to identify bird pairs saying they are worth Rs 300 a pair or whatever. Now, he gives their Latin or English equivalent and can fill you in on their breeding habits."

Today Hussain can identify about 400 species of birds and over the last three decades has travelled to nearly all of India's national parks under BNHS or other projects to help ornithologists with their jobs. Says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India: "Hussain's a trapper of the old school. Even though he had access to new methods, it's incredible that he had the vision to stick to his traditional art."

An art which, according to Hussain, offers more than 100 techniques to snare birds. Says he: "Different situations need different traps. So do different types of birds." One of the most efficient and alluring, of course, is the gong and fire method which Hussain uses on moonless nights (birds get alarmed by shadows).

Carrying bundles of dry grass which he burns, Hussain is accompanied by a person sounding a gong. Once near the water birds—gurbles, braminy ducks, grey lag geese, ducks—Hussain throws his net mounted on a bamboo frame. Each throw nets him half a dozen birds. Says he: "The birds don't get alarmed. They think the fire is another star." Adds Prakash: "The light and sound confuses the birds. They get disoriented. The gong also muffles the sound of their footsteps. By this method you could net nearly 200 birds in a couple of hours." You could get fired at too. So haunting and eerie is the sight that a BNHS team was once fired at by residents of Alokpur village, bordering the sanctuary, who took them for ghosts. Luckily, no one was hurt.

THE quinquagenarian's most elementary but ingenious trap, however, remains the Chakori—two twigs tied together in a cross and painted over with his special glue (gum of the pipal tree, boiled with mustard). From its centre Hussain hangs a live dragonfly or some other insect. Small birds like the kingfisher, attracted by the insect, get glued to the twig, and are unable to escape. His success with the method is to be seen to be believed. He knows where to set the trap and can spot birds where people with binoculars spot nothing. Says Wright: "He is a real act. To this day, even with contemporary research there is nobody I know who is as proficient as him."

Proud too. The kind of pride that comes if you are in love with your metier and superconfident of your skills. Eight years back at Karera, a jheel near Fatehpur in Uttar Pradesh, Rahmani deputed him to catch a few bustards. "Keep my honour," Rahmani told him. Hussain till then had never seen a bustard in his life and didn't know what trap to use. But he was confident. And tempted by Rahmani's incentive—a pair of binoculars. Though his first few attempts were unsuccessful and frayed a few tempers, Hussain wove a special 48 ft net in three days and caught five bustards.

But what Hussain treasures most is the pat on the back renowned ornithologist Salim Ali gave him 15 years back. Together in Ratnam district, he spotted an ashy-crowned finch lark from far without the aid of binoculars. Salim Ali prophesied: "You will go far."

But that hasn't happened. Hussain's more than three decades of work with the BNHS hasn't even earned him permanent employment with them. At a meagre salary of Rs 2,200 a month his work is too seasonal, confined to autumn and winter. The rest of the time he is at home at Manjhaul, making bamboo fans and flutes. Wielding the lathi is another skill he has picked from his father. His own boast: "I can defend myself against 10 people with two lathis." He also relishes throwing little mathematical puzzles your way. But the one puzzle which seems difficult to crack is why he sticks on with BNHS despite his rather poor treatment there. Hussain's own answer: "I have to stick on because I got all my knowledge from BNHS."

Of course, there's also his early apprenticeship with his father in the marshes of Bihar where in winter the water used to be so cold that often Hussain would play truant to avoid mornings wading in freezing water with his father. Says he: "Sometimes people think there's some kind of magic I have for catching birds so easily but they don't realise that I have done this all my life. I have been trained to see and hear things they miss—bird droppings, probe marks, their calls." But the toughest bird to catch, Hussain admits, is the Siberian crane. "They are very clever. Even the common crane is hard to catch. Because they forage in fields they are very alert to movements," he says.

Interestingly, Dr Mini Nagendran, a US-based wildlife scientist, who is self-admittedly Hussain's greatest fan, says Hussain 'understands' the languages of animals. Says she: "On one occasion a neelgai saw Ali and gave its 'alarm call'. Ali knew straightaway that this would displace the cranes and sure enough the neelgai call did exactly that. Ali returned saying that these birds were too smart and understood the language of other animals." Nagendran and the US-based International Crane Foundation have been trying for years to try and get Hussain to the US to train some of their personnel but Hussain recounts rather harrowing tales of bribery and police inefficiency, which has been instrumental in denying him a passport so far. Some people are trying though.

But what presages ill for this traditional art is the fact that Hussain's two sons Mehboob and Kasim, though as proficient as their father, have taken to alternate forms of employment. Mehboob works as a driver and Kasim is still unemployed. Says Sruti Sharma, director of the Keoladev National Park: "It would be a pity if the tradition that Hussain represents is allowed to die away." Adds Nagendran, putting Hussain's talent in perspective: "His knowledge of traditional bird-trapping techniques is astounding because it does not involve utilising hi-tech material. He uses material that can be accessed locally but requires tremendous craftsmanship to put together." A craftsmanship that might be lost to future generations if an organised attempt is not made for Hussain to educate others in his skill. But Hussain himself is happy either way. He says he has lived his life and loved his birds. Sometimes, when you gaze at him and try to figure what has made him tick in his trade for so long, you can't help feeling it might be moments in his dream when he has flown with his cranes, falcons and parrots thinking 'mein bhi saras, mein bhi lal kabootar'.

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