Conservation and Society

: 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 280--282

Tigers are Our Brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India

Anirban Datta-Roy 
 Foundation for Ecological Security, Guwahati, India

Correspondence Address:
Anirban Datta-Roy
Foundation for Ecological Security, Guwahati

How to cite this article:
Datta-Roy A. Tigers are Our Brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India.Conservat Soc 2022;20:280-282

How to cite this URL:
Datta-Roy A. Tigers are Our Brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Jun 7 ];20:280-282
Available from:

Full Text


The book under review borrows its title from a paper in Conservation and Society by the same author (Aiyadurai 2016). I have for years recommended the paper to friends and researchers looking to understand the complexities of modern 'conservation' in northeast India. This book goes far beyond the argument in the paper. It builds on Aiyadurai's extensive ethnographic fieldwork spanning more than a decade with the Mishmi people, during which she has traversed disciplinary boundaries in her quest to understand the interplay of conservation actors in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh. The book opens with a remarkable interaction between wildlife scientists and Mishmi representatives, which may surprise the reader as much as it did the visiting scientists. Representatives from the local Mishmi community took centre stage at a meeting in which they were not invited, ensuring that their voice and their ideas on human-nature relationship were convincingly heard. This opening sequence creates the perfect setting for the author to explore the conflicts in conservation among indigenous ways of seeing nature, juxtaposing it against modern conservation projects advanced by the state, scientists, and NGOs. Centred around the aggressive push by the state for tiger conservation in Dibang Valley, resulting in the expansion of protected areas at the cost of Mishmi land, Aiyadurai's exploration of the resulting 'friction' is remarkable for the nature of the Mishmi responses as well as the ringside view we are allowed. Through an intimate analysis of Mishmi responses to a tiger conservation project, the book attempts to “understand how indigenous peoples express their relationships with nature, which is connected to their social, economic, political, spiritual and ecological contexts” (23).


The progression of chapters does an admirable job of introducing a region and people which few may be familiar with, while also providing a rich review of nature conservation literature from the social sciences. Chapter 1 provides an excellent introduction to social and anthropological literature on nature conservation, addressing fundamental issues of how nature, 'wilderness', and the role of local communities are viewed. The choice of literature for this section and the fluidity with which these seminal papers and books have been condensed into an easily comprehensible text is particularly noteworthy. Chapter 2 brings the reader closer to the study site through the eyes of the author. Structured largely as a chapter on methodology, the self-reflective nature of ethnographic writing allows us to see not only the Mishmi people, but also the author's own 'positionality' and challenges faced in the field. It will particularly resonate and elicit a knowing nod from researchers who have spent long periods of time attempting to understand different cultures in the field.

To understand the author's arguments on the need to incorporate alternative views of human-nature relationships into conservation, chapter 3 is critical. It introduces the relationship which the Mishmi share with nature, a relationship which includes both wild and domestic animals as well as guardian spirits with whom a reciprocal relationship is maintained through taboos, rituals, and offerings. While indigenous cosmologies of nature have allowed them to engage in activities like subsistence hunting for centuries, these activities are often seen to be in contravention of wildlife laws, a point of conflict which exists among the Mishmi of Dibang Valley and many other forest-dwelling groups across the world. In the tellingly titled chapter 4 (The Thin Red Line: Living on the Sino-Indian border), we are introduced to the complexities faced by borderland communities like the Idu Mishmi. Much like other such communities across the Himalayas who have been forced apart by ambiguously designated political boundaries since colonial times, the Mishmi too have been separated by a 'thin red line'. Yet they continue to use these geopolitically volatile areas for 'illegal hunting' even as they are indispensable as patriotic guides and porters for the Indian armed forces. The author's observations on the 'dual and contradictory' status of the border Mishmi is contextualised through an appropriate quote from Michael Eilenberg: “for many people living at the border, these areas continue to provide both opportunities and barriers” (75).

Chapter 5 describes the evolving relationship between Mishmi and external forces, which brings in both stresses as well as opportunities. The forces of nature conservation, in the form of wildlife scientists, NGOs, and government officials, view the Mishmi as 'hunters', with all its associated negative implications. In response, an increasingly more educated, connected, and globally aware section of the Mishmi elite are creating an 'ecological identity' for their community which presents a more 'civilised' and environmentally conscious image. Replacing the wild takin with the domesticated mithun in the logo of a cultural society is seen by the author as evidence of how they want to be seen as a society—responsible and caring rather than wild and barbaric, even if it means giving in to a Western view of nature. In the penultimate chapter 6, we are taken back to the scenes of friction between the Mishmi and researchers, which we encountered at the beginning of the book. Tigers are a formidable symbol of nature conservation, especially in India where research and conservation activities on them is given the highest priority by the state at the expense of other animals, and frequently even at the expense of local communities. However, the Mishmi of Dibang Valley counter this through their cultural and even familial bonds with their tiger 'brothers', which provide them legitimacy as protectors of this landscape and endangered tigers. This legitimacy is essential if they are to counter the state's growing requirement for land towards setting up tiger reserves even as their access to these lands is being curtailed. In the final chapter, the author brings together the threads from different chapters in conclusion while also pointing out how the 'sociological emptiness' and the lack of interdisciplinary training among wildlife scientists are counterproductive to long-term conservation success.


Local communities like the Mishmi are capable of adapting to changing circumstances and making strategic decisions based on their priorities. They see the presence of state actors as an opportunity which can fulfil their economic aspirations. At the same time, they are wary of the forces of nature conservation whose actions threaten to limit their access and use of ancestral lands. These complicated dynamics of indigenous communities facing multiple agents of change have been addressed in detail, explicating them in language and reasoning which is understandable even to a reader unfamiliar with the region.

This book is an excellent resource for students and researchers interested in conservation biology. While the literature reviewed draws from social, anthropological, historical, and political ecology literature, it is contextualised by real-life examples from the author's own long-term field experiences. This can be particularly helpful for students trying to bridge disciplinary boundaries, something that the author strongly advocates. I am somewhat envious of the next generation of students who will have access to such an eloquent introduction to conservation in northeast India, which also manages to introduce critical approaches like reflexivity and positionality.

Throughout the book, Aiyadurai is brutally honest and refuses to paint any group with a uniform brush, while recognising the importance of history and context. Conservation discourses on the roles and motivations of indigenous groups have been characterised by polarised debates such as the one over the 'ecologically noble savage' (Hames 2007). To move ahead, there is a need to have a nuanced view of the communities at the centre of the debate which is neither black nor white. Aiyadurai sets out to understand the responses of the Mishmi to the external agents of nature conservation. In doing so, she uncovers a range of social, political, and economic factors which contribute to the Mishmi response, helping us contextualise and make sense of these interactions from the Mishmi perspective. However, we are also not left in doubt about how skewed the power equations are in conservation practice today, a striking case being how dominant narratives of tiger conservation attempt to overpower the diverse local cultural, historical, and symbolic meanings—even when they are supportive of tiger conservation.

The book touches upon a considerable number of issues directly or indirectly related to nature conservation, and it is understandable that some of them may have received less attention. The changes in Mishmi culture which impact their hunting activities are addressed, but left tantalisingly hanging. This is an issue which is being discussed for all indigenous communities across the world including other parts of northeast India, and our understanding of how cultural changes will or are impacting hunter behaviour is still incomplete. The book also does not devote much space to Mishmi livelihoods, which would have been helpful in light of concerted border development programs in recent decades.

My favourite section of the book is chapter 2 (My Journey in the Land of the Rising Sun), which captures the struggles and learnings of a researcher working with communities in Arunachal Pradesh. Aiyadurai traces her journey from the early days of being overwhelmed by logistics and difficult interviews, to the lasting friendships and the expectations of the community from her. Hers is also a journey from a wildlife scientist to an anthropologist studying nature conservation and the realisations which accompany this transition. Having worked in Arunachal Pradesh myself, the descriptions of jeep rides, drunken interrogations, and encountering researcher stereotypes touched a chord.

There are many reasons to recommend this book. The lucid language helps in reaching a broad audience, while the unique insights on conservation make it a must-read for those connected to this field. Towards the end of the book, the author decries the lack or superficial inclusion of social sciences and humanities in conservation biology and wildlife management. For those in conservation who fail to see the role of social sciences, there is perhaps no better argument than this book itself and its treatment of conservation issues in Dibang Valley. Aiyadurai's approach to studying the events in Dibang Valley provides ample motivation for researchers and conservation practitioners to embrace the social sciences and change the way conservation is practised and written about.


1Aiyadurai, A. 2016. 'Tigers are our brothers': understanding human-nature relations in the Mishmi hills, northeast India. Conservation and Society 14(4): 305–316.
2Hames, R. 2007. The ecologically Noble Savage debate. Annual Review of Anthropology 36(1): 177–190.