Carrying on the hunting legacy in Nepal
It was bitterly cold up at 2,800m in a village in the mountains of western Nepal as a cold rain fell, and the forested ridges above were covered in snow.
Chandu and Makar were waiting for the rain to stop, and night to fall. They are descendants of villagers whose profession was to hunt for game, and sell meat. It was seven days before the full moon, and perfect for night hunting because the moon was not so bright yet.
They were going to be out in the wilderness for a week at a time, and had to carry food to last the trip. They also lugged two long barreled muskets, gunpowder, locally made ammunition, and a ramrod to load the rifles.
Nepal’s royalty was known for its elaborate hunting trips in Chitwan and the Tarai jungles, where they bagged hundreds of tigers, rhinos, leopards, bears and even crocodiles at one go. It was more of a leisure activity, and an attempt to play hunting diplomacy with high profile British visitors in India.
But for the past 50 years, hunting has been completely banned in Nepal – except for the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve where trophy hunting of Himalayan tahr or ghoral is allowed. The license costs a hefty sum, but there are enough people around the world who can afford to fly in private jets all the way to Kathmandu, charter helicopters out to Dhorpatan.
Hunting used to be a legitimate profession in rural Nepal till recently, and unlike the royal hunts, there was no overkill. The country’s forests in those days were teeming with pheasants, small mammals and deer, and the culling was important to keep the animal population in balance.
Chandu and Makar are descendants of these professional hunters, and they still cater to the demand for wild game in the districts, although they have to do it clandestinely now. Knowledge about hunting, prey habits, stalking skills have all been passed down from generation to generation.
But this is a dying breed, and Chandu and Makar are among very few hunters who secretly still carry the tradition in their village (which we cannot name), and they could possibly be the last ones.
That afternoon, the phone rang. It was Chandu’s father, and Chandu told him that since it was raining there was no point going up the mountains because of the rain and snow. His father told Chandu to stick to the plan, and the weather may actually favour animal sightings.
“How can you even call yourself a hunter? When I was your age, we used to go hunt even in the snow. Don’t be a coward,” his father's loud voice could be heard on his son’s mobile.
As soon as he hung up, Chandu told Makar to get ready, and that they were moving out then and there. That night they stayed in a house up the ridge from the village. They tested their guns, but one of the muskets was not shooting properly. Instead of firing once with one big bang, it went “chhyat-tadyang-ga”, as Chandu put it, imitating the sound it made. Eventually the musket was repaired, and the barrel cleaned. It was better than before, but still the gunshot sounded off every once in a while.
The journey from the hut started early next morning before the sunrise to avoid detection. It was still dark and the path to the mountain forest was long and difficult with their destination at an altitude above 3,000 m.
It is said that hunters make their own way, and it is true. There was no path. The undergrowth was so dense that thorns scratched the faces and hands. They had to stoop to avoid the lower branches, and sometimes crawl on all fours. They went deeper and deeper into the forest, and the ridgeline came into view.
They were trying to move quietly, and Chandu suddenly stopped and signaled Makar to keep quiet and remain still. Slowly, he took off his backpack and lay it on the ground. Swiftly yet quietly, he took aim with his musket and fired. The sound reverberated through the forest, and echoed from the crags.
Chandu disappeared into the undergrowth in the direction of his shot. He reappeared a few moments later with a pheasant dangling from his hands. He closed his eyes, bowed his head and muttered a prayer for the life he had taken.
They stopped in a clearing further up, unpacked their bags and started to prepare lunch. It started raining, and they had three more hours to walk to the Odar overhang which would be their base camp for the next four days.
The rain turned to sleet and then snow as they climbed higher. The trail was now ankle deep in fresh snow. As darkness fell, they reached the overhang, the only shelter from the snow and wind on this mountain.
After settling down in the cave, the two hurried off to collect firewood as it was getting darker. This was not easy since the wood was all wet, but they came back carrying a dry log on their shoulders. This should burn all night and keep them warm.
Night does not mean sleep for hunters. It is the time the nocturnal animals are out, and off the two went to stalk and find prey. They walked slowly not making a sound, but there no sign of any animals. Hungry and tired, they returned to the cave and started preparing dinner.
It took a long time for the fire to get going, but they managed it and melted some snow for water. Still the meal of rice and lentil took three hours because of the cold, and the altitude. The rice tasted a bit raw.
It was a bitterly cold night. Chandu and Makar snuggled for warmth under a single sleeping bag beside the fire. They took turns to add wood to keep the fire burning throughout the night. By morning, there was no firewood left, and this was just the first of four nights.
Chandu had given Makar strict instructions not to speak in the jungle unless absolutely necessary. They would whisper, or whistle instead and remain as quiet as possible. They saw some deer and impeyan pheasants, but they were too far to shoot accurately. The old muskets did not have the range.
Chandu crouched towards his prey, hiding behind the thick undergrowth, to get closer. But no luck. The animals would either take flight, or simply disappear. He went into the surrounding forest several times a day, even at night with a torchlight pointing up at the branches, but always came back empty-handed. Hunting is like that, it is a matter of skill, training, patience, and lots of luck.
Chandu was getting worried that his luck had run out. He has been coming to these forests with his father ever since he was a child, and knows all the nooks where the animals like to hide. But even then there were days when they had to return empty-handed.
After five days in the jungle, they headed down to the village with just a pheasant to show for their effort. Makar was looking forward to going back to home food, and a warm bed. Chandu could not hide his disappointment because this was the first time he was returning empty handed. They returned exactly the way they had left, slipping into the village without anyone noticing the muskets they were carrying.
This photo story was made during the International Storytelling Workshop 2020, hosted by photo.circle (Nepal) in collaboration with Oslo Metropolitan University (Norway), Pathshala South Asian Media Academy (Bangladesh), and VII Academy (USA).