(First published in Akhon Aranyak, May-June 2019)
Have you ever waked up from your nap with the high pitched calls of Hornbills? It actually happens at Namdapha. Some call it an enigma, I call it a dream. Apart from being the most mysterious forest of all times, it is the dreamiest forest I have ever been through. Given an opportunity, I will frame, each and every moment that I have spent in this mystic world. Yes, it is a world in itself and nothing in this forest is ordinary. Namdapha, the “Mother of all Forests”, happens to be the Northernmost Tropical Forest of the world. With an area of 1985 sq km, it is huge, but entirely unexplored. The huge variation in elevation (200 m to 4571 m above mean sea level) offers the wilderness with a broad range of habitats, which includes tropical rainforests at the lower elevations, subtropical and temperate montane forests at the medium elevations and moist alpine scrub forests at the highest elevations. While the highest patches are permanently snow clad, the lower reaches have dense vegetation, thick undergrowth and skyscraping canopies. Such huge variation makes it the home for approximately 70% of all the species found in the subcontinent. With headquarters at Miao, it was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1972 and subsequently a Tiger Reserve in 1983.
THE GREATEST WILDERNESS
The reserve gets its name from a river which originates from the glacial heights of Dapha massif. It is essentially coined from two Shingpo words – ‘Nam’ means water or river and ‘Dapha’ is the name of the hill on the name of the tribe. Till now 1713 faunal species have been recorded at Namdapha. It is home to approximately 90 species of mammals which include 9 species of cats, 7 species of primates and over 15 species of civets and mongooses. It is probably the only forest on earth which harbours the four big cats. Primates like Hoolock Gibbons, Capped Langurs, Asamese Macaques and Stumped tailed macaques dominate the higher reaches of the mighty tree trunks. Various squirrels, deers, takins, bamboo rats, hog badgers and wild dog add to the faunal plethora in the lower reaches. 491 species of birds have been spotted in Namdapaha National Park including few globally threatened species like White Bellied Heron and White Winged Wood Duck. An immense diversity of insects, fish, amphibians and reptiles also inhabit the forests and waters of Namdapha. 92 medicinal plants and 186 plants of ethno-botanical importance have been identified in the forest. I have probably never heard about, or witnessed such wilderness, ever before. The forest is as pristine as it can ever be. Even the forest guards are merely able to patrol the buffer zone. The Core area remains a mystery. The vegetation over there is so dense that there are instances where forest guards or the tribal people have ventured inside and was unable to come out ever. The highest peak of the Dapha hills is called Dapha Bum. Even with a mere height of 4571 m, the peak still remains unconquered.
Namdapha witnesses the first sunrise of the entire subcontinent. It is located in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh and is bordered in the North by Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary, in the East and South by Myanmar and in the west by other parts of the district. A narrow stretch and a moderately maintained road connect it to Dibrugarh and further to India. The western boundary is demarcated by the villages of Singpho, Tangsa and Chakma tribes. The eastern boundary overlooks unclassified state forest, claimed by the Lisu tribe. The region receives an average annual rainfall of 2500-3500mm which makes it ideal for nurturing life in every form. Everything in this densely vegetated area seems to be untouched. The morning ray of sun makes everything sparkle on whatever it touches. The alarming calls of the Hoolock Gibbons and the cacophony of the chirping wingers, announce the beginning of another glorious day. The continuously flowing Noa-Dihing river, adds on to the music. And this is probably the best environment where we can wake up from our sound sleep.
The forest is so thick and the canopies are so tall, that hardly any sunlight is able to reach the forest floor. With such dense and dark environment, spotting and photographing fauna was the biggest challenge. I was able to hear the calls just next to me but my eyes kept on hunting because of the thick vegetation. The intricacy was multiplied with the shyness and restlessness of the inhabitants. What I was able to do was more of observing than photography.
IN SEARCH OF A NEAR MYTHICAL BIRD
My main aim of this expedition was to capture evidences of the critically endangered White Bellied Heron and to plan for future endeavors to camera trap the most elusive big cat of the world. But what I witnessed throughout my journey, left me awestruck. The entire expedition involved trekking and traversing along the hills and jungles for approximately 100 odd kilometers over a span of 14 days. I camped along the river banks and under thick canopies. I crossed high speed mountain streams on boats, makeshift bridges and at times on foot - thus utterly risking my gears and equipments. My initial days were directed towards tracking and photographing White Bellied Herons. With less than 250 matured individuals in the wild, it is a critically endangered bird. Unlike other herons, it is extremely shy and my mere appearance was ought to make it fly away. I had to cross several waist deep jet-streams to create possibilities of a mere glimpse. At the end what I was able to achieve was a document shot. But that was more than a prize. White Bellied Herons are found particularly in this patch of the entire globe. No other reported habitat exists. Sadly the habitat is decreasing day by day. A proper census was never carried out in this densely forested part of the world because of its inaccessibility as well as lack of adequate awareness and initiative. The actual population is estimated to be less than 50. That brings it to the brink of extinction. White Bellied Herons are the second largest herons in the world with size ranging from 125 – 130 cm. Its royal size and elegant appearance earns it the name of Imperial Heron. It’s a treat to watch one in the wild in its perfect grandeur. Their thin population has forced them to pair for life. With the increase in hunting activities they have developed a constant sense of fear and anxiety. Even in the last few years, two of them were reportedly seen to flock together. But this year I found only and only one. Sources reported that most probably the other one was hunted down, couple of months back. To add on to the agony, the natural breeding process of White Bellied Herons has failed in the last few years due to various natural causes. Torrential rain and flooding of rivers have destroyed their well prepared nests many a times. Breeding in captivity seems to be a far-fetched reality. The Lisus have born and grown up in an environment, where they understand that hunting is the only way of collecting food. Recently they have started cardamom cultivation which, too, was opposed by the forest department due to deforestation. Ecotourism and wildlife tourism appears to be the only and first step towards creating hope for the White Bellied Herons.
DEEPER INTO THE WOODS
The second phase of my expedition took me inside the denser part of the forest. This part was equally alive in the days as well as in the nights. While the days were occupied by the noisy Hoolock Gibbons, the nights were ruled by stealthy moving cats and glittering flying squirrels. When I saw it for the first time, I was surprised to see a pair of glowing torches moving from one branch to another in the most restless manner. Later on I realized that those were the eyes of the most beautiful Flying Squirrels. They are soft targets for the lethally equipped raptors. Their nocturnal behavior and swift movement save them from becoming an easy prey. However the same behavior poses the greatest challenge for photographing them.
The Hoolock Gibbons have their monopoly during day. They are the only Apes found in this subcontinent. I am unable to fathom how they are able to manage so much of energy in their vocal cords. Their resounding calls carry for miles. Contrary to the monkeys, these apes lack a tail and have immense strength in their forearms compared to their hind legs. Even their arms are actually their legs which help them to swing and fly across branches. They are the direct ancestors of the human beings.
THE KINGDOM OF HORNBILLS
Apart from the Hoolock Gibbons, the trees were crowned by numerous lifers. The trekking route led me to a place called Hornbill Camp. I camped over there for a couple of days and what a place it was! Doing justice to it’s name, the area was surrounded by tall fruiting trees, making it the perfect abode of five species of Hornbills. It was incredible to see Wreathed Hornbills, Rufous-necked Hornbills and Great Hornbills all in the same vicinity. Hornbills are probably one of the most beautiful as well as large bird species I have ever seen. In flight, their large wings flutter to make a loud wooshing sound which can be easily confused with the military helicopter that commutes between Miao and Vijaynagar. They are more popularly known as the seed dispersers of the forest. Even though Great Hornbill happens to be the state bird of Arunachal Pradesh, they are hunted rampantly by the locals. Their huge size makes them visible rather easily thus facilitating the hunting process. Their harsh calls reveal their presence thus turning them into easy targets. The vulnerability increases manifold when the nesting process is in vogue. They adopt a very peculiar method of nesting, in which the male bird completely encloses the female and her flightless chicks within the nest and leaves a very small opening. They are unable to come out of their own. This saves the female and her chicks from the predators. During this period, the entire family depends on the male hornbill with their lives, as he is responsible for bringing and regurgitating food for the female and her chicks. If he is killed during this period, the entire family starves to death.
The smaller birds were no less in taking my breath away. I spotted many a species which are endemic to North Eastern India only. White Crowned Forktails are the largest but rarest of all the forktails found in India. Spotting one is only possible in Arunachal Pradesh, especially in Namdapha. I will not forget those meditating hours which I spent by the stream to get one single frame of the crowned beauty. Red Headed Trogons and Silver Eared Mesias are few of the most colourful birds I have ever seen. Rusty Fronted Barwings made a speedy entrance and a hurried exit only to show how it has earned it’s name. White Browed Piculets are one of the tiniest and most restless birds. But capturing it in a frame was worth the sweat that drained.
THE FORGOTTEN VILLAGE
Even though I was overjoyed with the wildlife around, I was sad to learn about the innocent Lisus of Namdapha. Lisus are most closely associated and dependent on Namdapha. They were a migratory and nomadic tribe who were practicing ‘shifting cultivation’ in an area astride the Northern borders of present Myanmar. They settled in the Gandhigram-Vijaynagar region in early 1930s. After the demarcation of the Indo-Myanmar border in 1972, they earned Indian citizenship but were deprived from the status of Scheduled Tribe. This made lives of Lisus miserable, compared to other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh on the conduit of modernization and job opportunities. Till date, little or no infrastructure has reached this unexplored corner. This is definitely a boon for the wildlife but a bane for the tribal community. A 157 km long road passes along the edges of this forest which is actually no road at all. It follows the course of the Noa-Dihing river and only the western stretch of 17 Km form Miao to Deban is motorable. It appears more as a frame of reference than as a legitimate path. The so called road leads to Gandhigram and finally Vijaynagar - the last settlement of the country with a considerable population of Lisus and an Indian Army outpost. I saw a Hepatitis affected Lisu tribal, completely wrapped in a quilt, to walk along that 157 km road for seven days to reach the nearest medical facility at the rather undistinguished town of Miao. Many are not strong enough to do so and breathe their last at the village itself.
RAY OF HOPE
Proliferation of ecotourism and wildlife tourism emerges as the only, immediate and viable solution for conserving the flora and fauna of Namdapha and at the same time safeguarding the socio-economic requirements of the tribal communities living around it. The opportunities arising out of incredible biodiversity can be best exploited as tourist attractions, which will not only minimize the legacy of hunting, but also will generate revenues to provide alternative livelihood for the deprived tribal communities. Conservation ethics can be fostered within the communities by imparting suitable education and at the same time channelizing their livelihood towards professions which are dependent on conservation.
In spite of holding so much of energy, Namdapha remains the most unpredictable and mysterious forest ever. The pattern that I observed this year is sure to change in the next year. That is what nature is all about. It keeps on surprising us at every bend. In this expedition to the untouched, I was able to photograph only a meager of what I actually saw, heard or experienced. But that does not call for any regrets. Photographs are ultimately another form of experience. And the difficulty of negotiating these jungles is probably the safest bet for the wildlife teeming inside it. It is one of the last truly wild places left on earth. It is a Global Biodiversity Hotspot, where rich biodiversity and endemism is concentrated as a result of exceptional habitat loss in its surrounding regions. After spending a fortnight inside a different world, I can very well imagine that at some point of time, the entire subcontinent was like this where numerous species used to fly and run around us. But our anthropogenic activities have shrunk it to a much smaller haven named Namdapha, where we can still experience how the actual world should have looked like.