While I sat under the thatched roof, lit up by a dim lamp, we listened to this old yet strong voice of Moiley, the man who has been living there for the past 35 years with his family. We were sitting ‘almost’ on the border of India and Bhutan, accompanied by my two colleagues, Sitaram and Kejang, residents of the nearby village, and at that time, three of us were out on the hunt for a “treasure”. Our base camp was 18 km away from Moiley’s house, and we had to start early that morning to reach there, crisscrossing the flooded mountainous streams, which apparently form the political boundary between India and Bhutan. The trek was exhilarating due to unanticipated encounters with a pack of dhole, a snoozing Pope’s pit viper, and the omnipresent leeches!

Pope’s pit viper, encountered on the treasure hunt. Picture credits: Arkajyoti Shome

While I scribbled down the journey, we all had dived deep into the pool of thoughts while the night deepened with the rain outside. Moiley and his wife described the challenges and calmness of living in this pristine backyard. Sipping on the cup of milk tea, Moiley was curious to know the reason behind our arduous endeavour to his remote abode. For the past year, I have worked towards the conservation of hornbills in this region. We had found nests of great hornbill, wreathed hornbill, and oriental pied Hornbill, but the Vulnerable rufous-necked hornbill kept eluding us and finding this rare bird had brought us on this adventure. Since I was not fluent in the Nepali language, Sitaram and Kejang took turns explaining to Moiley’s family the story behind our expedition and the importance of hornbills for the survival of the forest. It was an intriguing moment for me, as I saw two young lads taking charge of making one of their tribesmen understand the intricately woven strings of human-nature relationships. 

The following day we started our trek in search of the treasure, sighting a rufous-necked hornbill. Moiley’s son knew the whereabouts of a nest; we reached there in just an hour accompanied by the occasional clamour of the hill partridge and great barbet along the way. On arrival, we camouflaged ourselves behind an Alstonia scholaris tree about 30 metres away from the nest to avoid getting in the sight of the male rufous-necked hornbill. The hornbills cannot build their own nest; they nest inside tree cavities formed due to fallen branches or other natural processes; the male hornbill visits the nest multiple times during the day with food for the female and the chicks, while the female seals herself inside the cavity for four months during that period. The female leaves a narrow slit open in the sealing for the male to feed it and excrete.

We stood there camouflaged for hours before we caught a glimpse of the “treasure”. After the long wait, we finally heard the gushing wing beat and distinct rufous colour emerging out of the infinite blue sky; the male finally visited the nest, carrying the food in its orangish pouch to feed the entrapped female!

Male Rufous-necked Hornbill, the rare treasure of these mountains. Picture credits: Arkajyoti Shome

Upon returning to Moiley’s house, we were pretty ecstatic. However, our excitement was lost in Moiley and his wife’s silence. Moiley’s wife, though she was not much of a speaker, explained that Moiley was in grief.  He later revealed that he was ashamed of his actions as he was one of the people who used to hunt this hornbill species from the nest for consumption in the past. Hornbill hunting for food used to be common practice in the region before the hornbill densities crashed a few decades back. The wife said he stopped hunting in the past few years due to compromised physical abilities. However, last evening, he was remorseful after seeing how far people like me travel from my home in a cosmopolitan city to the dense forest of north-eastern India to save these birds and make local people like Moiley aware of the rich treasure in their backyard. Moiley then told us that today when he observed the rufous-necked hornbill couple, he discerned it to be a true love story of caring and sharing pain and happiness, not so different from the bond that he shared with his wife. Remorse for his actions and his newfound appreciation for this species is his first step on the journey of becoming a conservation hero.

Mountain streams on the way to Moiley’s house. Picture credits: Sitaram Mahato

It was time for us to leave for our base camp. I was overwhelmed with joy and satisfaction when Moiley told us that he and his family would look out for more such nests to save them, and urge their tribesmen, even across the border, to not separate these contemporary ‘Romeos & Juliets’.

Arkajyoti is currently a PhD student in the School of Ecology and Environment Studies at the Nalanda University, India. His PhD is focused to unveil the relationship between macrophytes and wetland ecosystem services. Earlier, he had worked on Hornbill conservation in north-eastern India with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He is also a commission member of IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group, IUCN CEM.