Assessing IEK about animals and hunting in the Annamites

Hunting and forest product collecting have traditionally played an important role in the lives ot all the Indigenous peoples in the Annamites. Among the Ka Tu, for example, hunting has long played a very important role not only in supplying meat tor protein, but also in providing a way to express prowess and masculinity (Hickey 1993: 133). Hunting trophies collected by men would be displayed prominently in the communal house of the village (known as a giro/): as US researchers noted in the 1960s

It is thought that the presence of buffalo skulls promotes the fertility' of the land and prosperity of the village. According to Ka Tu belief, animals have a soul; thus, the buffalo’s soul stays near the communal house where its skull is hung. In addition to buffalo skulls, the skulls and tails of wild animals are hung in the communal house.

(Schrock 1966: 363)

Hunting trophies and visual markers for culturally' important animals (buffalos, deer, and snakes chief among them) continue to decorate the outside and inside of modern gircrl as well, many of which were rebuilt in the 2000s after a relaxation of state prohibitions of ethnic minority community' spaces and longhouses (McElwee 2004). Figure 25.2 shows a reconstructed giro) rebuilt with state permission in 2002.

Souls of animals would reside in the communal house if their skulls were hung there (see Figure 25.3), and the spirits of ancestors who had died good deaths (that is, natural ones in old age) were also considered to be resident within the communal house, watching “over their descendants, protecting them from danger in the forest by' warning them when evil spirits are nearby” (Schrock 1966: 364). KaTu were particularly' afraid of spirits of people who had died a “bad” death, such as being devoured by a wild animal like a tiger, and it was necessary to ask good spirits to help guard against these bad spirits, who might bring misfortune or calamity. Such warning signs from good spirits might include

peacock eggs in a path; a large tree uprooted across a trail; and the call, from the left side of the path, of a bird nesting in reeds. The evil spirits also have visible forms such as a tiger, a cobra hissing in the afternoon, and the flood waters causing a person to drown.

(ibid.: 364)

Ka Tu customs traditionally placed great emphasis on the avoidance of these bad spirits, leading to a pantheon of omens and taboos, many of which continue to be followed today. Hornbills flying in certain directions, cobras crossing ones path, and encountering certain types of trees and plants as one goes into the forest are all taken as signs from deceased ancestors watching over the living. These omens led to specific animal taboos which the community' would never hunt,

KaTu communal house (gical),Tabbing commune, 2005

Figure 25.2 KaTu communal house (gical),Tabbing commune, 2005

Animal skulls hanging inside a KaTu communal house, 2005

Figure 25.3 Animal skulls hanging inside a KaTu communal house, 2005

Painting of a saola in a KaTu communal house, Tabbing commune, 2005

Figure 25.4 Painting of a saola in a KaTu communal house, Tabbing commune, 2005

including hornbills and many types ofsnakes.Taboo plants were still recognized among many Ka Tu communities as well, including staghorn ferns, which may not be disturbed. Understanding these links between good and bad spirits, their earthly manifestations, and how hunting or collection of plants would be an invitation for the bad spirits to descend is an example of the type of IEK that could have been collected for conservation purposes, but was not.

Rather, the project encouraged as part of their “conservation awareness raising” activities that KaTu communities should paint pictures of wild animals in their communal house, instead of hanging hunting trophies (Figures 25.4 and 25.5). In an ironic twist, the KaTu in Tabbing commune were given photos of endangered animals, like the saola pictured, to paint in their communal house rather than hang hunting trophies like boar skulls. However, in reality, the saola had at that time not been seen in south Nam Dong district by KaTu or by biologists, and this area was presumably outside its natural range. Nonetheless, the KaTu agreed to paint a picture of an animal which they had never encountered in the deeply symbolic spiritual space of their communal house, all the while suffering from restrictions on collecting important trophies of locally common and non-endangered animals like deer or wild pig.

Understanding the spirit world and the complicated series of omens and taboos is necessary to understanding why groups like the Ka Tu have community rituals that often involve the sacrifice of domesticated, rather than wild, animals. Nancy Costello, who has worked with Ka Tu in Vietnam and in Laos, has written:

The whole fabric of Ka Tu society is intermeshed with the environment. The Ka Tu must live in harmony with the world around them, which includes other people, animals, birds, trees, stones, water, traditions and the many spirits. When this harmony

Picture of a hunting party painted inside a gacrl, Tabbing commune, 2005

Figure 25.5 Picture of a hunting party painted inside a gacrl, Tabbing commune, 2005

is disrupted, though the breaking of taboos and traditions, which displeases the many spirits, the correct relationship must be restored through ritual and sacrifice.

(Costello 2003)

When omens were not followed, or bad luck befell a village, domesticated animals such as buffalos were often sacrificed, along with common hunted animals, such as wild pigs. Such sacrifices were also made at times of plenty, such as after a good harvest, to thank the spirits for their blessings.

Yet conservation organizations who conducted research on hunting in the Annamites and its conservation consequences paid little attention to putting hunting in a larger cultural context; indeed, it was often biologists who conducted hunting surveys (LêTrongTrài et al. 2003), and they were often not aware of cultural factors in hunting. In fact, social practices of both hunting and of domesticated animal sacrifices were actively discouraged by the conservation organizations, who were opposed to hunting of nearly all kinds, even of common nonendangered animals like wild pigs that often destroy agricultural crops, if not kept in check. A total hunting ban within the communities surrounding SôngThanh was being applied across the board when 1 visited in 2005, particularly in response to what the ranger stations reported to be breaches of regulations on wild animal protection. Some 23 people had been caught in violation of the hunting law, although statistics kept by the management board did not distinguish between local violators and those who came from afar to poach, and 309 kg of wild animals were confiscated in the previous year as part of the new interdiction efforts, which indicated to rangers that local communities were hunting in violation of park laws.

Yet according to a brief survey of 30 Kà Tu households done by students 1 was supervising in a research project, 70 percent ofKàTu surveyed did not hunt or trap wild animals at all, and of the 30 percent who did hunt, none of the households hunted for the market, but for subsistence and mostly for crop protection. The main animals hunted were wild boar, deer, monkey, porcupine, civet, rat, and coucals, which were all predators of the crops in their swidden fields, and none of which were endangered or threatened species. Yet these practices of protecting fields were assumed to have as much impact on biodiversity as outsider poachers who came in and targeted highly endangered wild animals like tigers, elephants, or primates, as the across-the-board hunting restrictions made no distinction between the types of animals hunted and who collected them.

Further, the impact of hunting restrictions at the Song Thanh was combined with laws forbidding the raising of buffalo by villages living along the park boundary, the concern being that buffalo were being left to graze freely in the park, which damaged park flora. This meant that Kà Tu had been unable to perform any sacrificial ceremonies for the past few years and had to substitute pigs or even chickens instead, something many KàTu regretted and which elders said was leading to a “loss of culture” among their youth.The changes in practices can be contrasted to KàTu on the other side of the Lao border; there, Yves Goudineau notes there has been a “revival of extravagant sacrifices of buffalos” thanks to increasing prosperity and lenient laws in Laos (Goudineau 2003). Such ritual revival is not, however, occurring on the Vietnam side in the research sites visited, largely as a result of conservation restrictions and declining prosperity as agricultural fields have been restricted to areas outside of protected forests.

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