North East Part 2

If you love watching wildlife – Assam should definitely make it to your wish-list. Once you let Kaziranga happen to you – Jorhat should be your next likely destination if you are heading east. The contrary takes you to the alluring Nameri and Manas.

Images: Kaushik Bajibab

Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary

The Hollangapar or the Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary is the place to find the Hoolock Gibbons. Sandwiched between tea estates is a 20 sq kms patch of forest hosting a population of 106 individual hoolock gibbons, along with the stump-tailed macaque, eastern Assamese macaque, northern pig-tailed macaque and the capped langur. This small forest is also home to a small population of elephants, leopards, three types of civets, and of course a thriving population of the Bengal slow loris.

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We reached the sanctuary at 1.30 pm. The first thing we noticed was a railway track at its entrance. You are quickly thinking – here are arboreal species stuck between ‘flat’ tea plantations and threatened by a railway line at its doorstep. Sigh! Very paradoxical – the very location and the size of this further diminishing forest is alarming.

You are allowed to walk along the designated trail within the sanctuary. We enjoyed the stroll – the forest is vibrant, and buzzing with activity. We were constantly surrounded by colourful and massive butterflies. This sanctuary hosts over 200 species of butterflies and birds – and loads of snakes too.

Signature spider copy

We spent time watching the Signature spider quietly going about weaving its ‘pearly’ web. We didn’t spot any of the apes on the first day – reason? The lead guide clarified that gibbons sleep at 3 pm and hence cannot be found out in the open past the time.

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Hanging on a tree was one of most beautiful brown morphed short-nosed vine snake we had ever seen. Vine snakes can be found all across India – in fact down South it’s quite easy to spot the long-nosed ones. But this one was quite special.

This small patch of forest is lovely – keep an eye out for its colourful macrohabitat – loads of interesting bugs, acrobatic insects, and tsetse mimicking flies add their tunes and hue to the soaring tress – that include ferns, cane, holong, sashi, jack fruit, and ajar among others.

Collared scops owl copy

We spotted a beautiful collared scops owl at night – when we first heard its calls, we tried searching for it with as little light as possible. He was quietly eating a massive grasshopper. He started calling again, and that’s when we saw him look straight at us. Quite a stunner.

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We were back at the sanctuary at 5.30 am. Enquiringly peering down on us from the canopy was a voracious Malayan squirrel – it kept plucking out leaves and chewing them, all along straining his firm eye on us. A little while later the noisy capped langurs came about – and the juveniles started chasing the squirrel. This little fella reluctantly moved away from what looked like a favourite spot. We saw several scratch marks on ground – which the guide explained were that of a leopard. Fascinating.

Bamboo house

One stark feature of the landscape outside the reserves in Assam is its completely sustainable bamboo houses. You will notice thatched or tin roofs supported by bamboo and tall elephant grass weaved and slapped solid with mud and cow dung for walls. Most homes closer to the river are built on stilts. We were invited to one such house and the proud owner of a family of six exclaimed, “It’s an all-weather home. We don’t need a fan, the water seeps out easily and the floor is always clean.” You will be surprised to know that most houses are built in a matter of a few weeks and stay solid for over 30-40 years. “The only problem is the wall – the mud starts to disintegrate once every few years. We just patch it up again and it’s good as new,” he confirms.

Our next destination was the Dibru Saikhowa sanctuary – a birder’s heaven. The place is also popular for the Gangetic river dolphins and its rich species of orchids. The best season to visit the place if you want to watch dolphins is April or May. This biodiversity hotspot is semi wet evergreen forest, situated in the flood plains of the Brahmaputra. It’s also coveted for its rich herbs and rare medicinal plants.

We stayed outside the reserve – at the backwaters – a popular spot for birding closer to the Maguri-Motapung Beel Lake.  Beel is the local name for a lake with marshy areas.

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There is a lot of fishing that goes on in this complex system of water channels that is rich in aquatic and bird life. Most establishments are owned by local communities and the youth are excellent birders – they really do know their avifauna passionately.

On one such guided boating tours – we were lucky to spot the lesser adjutant stork, great grebe, purple heron, open-bill stork, large whistling teal, greylag goose, common pintail, pochard, ruddy shelduck, bar-headed goose, mallard, and wagtails, and the pheasant-tailed jacana.

It’s a lovely way to spend the evening – on a boat constantly appeased by the gurgling river, surrounded by myriad species of birds, listening to cacophony of calls and chirps, with the redness of the sun no more harsh, just drop-dead gorgeous, for company. We were deciding to head back when something caught our attention. Towards the forest – two wild buffaloes bathing, suddenly stood up and walked away after glaring at us incessantly. And there – right behind these beautiful beasts were the feral horses. Introduced in the 1940s by the British during World War 2, these feral horses are quite a rare sight. With its striking mane dancing to the wind, was a handsome stallion, accompanied by a foal with its mother! These horses wondrously retain the aura of yesteryears with their very presence, untamed and free, full of spunk. They quite clearly owned the land!

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Closer to the sanctuary residing amidst estates is a small population of hoolock gibbons. Yes, we were quite surprised too, but that’s the case. No points for guessing that the land originally belonged to the gibbons several eons ago. It’s us humans who have encroached upon their habitat and today these gibbons live amidst people, and yet in their own bizarre way are still wild. What’s the irony here? The locals make money off it. If you want to watch these gibbons, you have to pay the owner (s) of the land. We were greeted by the iconic shrill ‘ouus ouus’. The particular family we spotted looked quite comfortable around humans – the male especially.

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The female with a young one remained more guarded, frequently admonishing the carefree male to move away from the crowd. After a few failed attempts, she furiously swayed away, forcing him to tail. Though we watched them up-close, we walked away feeling defeated. This manicured habitat is nothing like their home, and yet, they survive – swinging with the tide.

Male hoolock gobbon copy

If you love birding – then this sanctuary is your abode. Unfortunately, we couldn’t travel further due to time constraints. And seriously, just Namdapha and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh need over a month to explore…

The darts are ready, the map flaps and the forest calls….

The article was published in The Alternative

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