This majestic hoolock gibbon seems to be telling the cameraman to take a good picture or else…
By N. Shiva Kumar
Namdhapa tropical rain forest in Arunchal Pradesh boasts such exotic wildlife as tiger, leopard and the rare hoolock gibbon, notes N. Shiva Kumar
The Himalayas were awesome with their snow decked peaks as I peeped through the aircraft's windows while flying into Dibrugarh airport in Assam. From Delhi, it was a long cramped flight, but seeing the mighty meandering Brahmaputra down below in so many twists and turns like liquid threads was equally breathtaking. As I deplaned my three friends were waiting and we took off for another adventure. Driving through lush manicured tea gardens, we encountered milestones with remarkable names like Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Digboi and Margherita, etc., some of which were branded by British in their heydays of colonial India.
After crossing Assam we moved into Arunachal Pradesh, one of India's least populated states and one of the most densely forested landscapes in the country. By the time we reached Miao circuit house, the destination for the night, it was delightfully dark even though it was just 7 p.m. Miao is pronounced as ‘meow', like the purr of a cat. Here it gets dark by 4.30 in the evening, a good two to three hours ahead of what we are used to back in Delhi.
Miao is on the very edge of Namdapha National Park, a dense, pristine and virgin tropical rainforest spread across 2000 sq km in Arunachal's Changlang district and running along the international border between India and Myanmar (Burma). I discovered it's the only national park in the world that is home to four species of big cat — tiger, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard. These jungles also have one of the rarest pine trees, unique orchids like the Blue Vanda and the Tarzan-like apes called hoolock gibbons which rarely step on to the ground. There are multitudes of birds with fluty songs in the concealed jungle growth. Not to speak of beautiful butterflies, reptiles, numerous insects and medicinal herbs.
Curiosity got the better of us, so we decided only to have a short tea break at Miao and drive to a forest rest-house deep in the forest at Deban, 25 km away. Driving in the darkness in all terrain jeeps, with only the star-studded sky as a guiding light was mesmerising. The piercing beams from headlights effectively dislodged the eeriness and meekly exposed the narrow rubble road that was almost overgrown with wild plants and creepers. We were in our element and already looking for that elusive wildlife armed with cameras and flashguns. It was as if we were lost in the thick jungles — and this is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Finally, the forest spirits seemed to take over and we got a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere. We were apprehensive but the jungle was generous and rewarded us for our genuine intentions. We espied the nocturnal and arboreal flying squirrels scrambling on a tall tree, their eyes glinting in our searchlights. We left immediately once the tyre was fixed and proceeded into more darkness to reach our two-storied circular guesthouse. It was midnight and outlandishly silent.
Buzz of insects
The next morning we woke up to a strange ringing of temple bells. Must be some tribal ritual in the forest, we thought, but the caretaker serving us piping hot tea in the cold morning, dispelled all such notions, informing us it was just the collective buzz of certain insects. Tin-tin-tin, trin-trin-trin, it went on and on with no perfect crescendo. The insects in question are hardly seen, even by the locals, but their resonance reverberates through the jungle most of the time. Looking out of the balcony of the guesthouse I spotted the Noa Dihing River in blue, glistening in the morning sun. After the last night's adventure, the jungles of Namdapha were finally visible, wonderfully decked in shades of green. The sea of foliage was soothing to the eye.
The river appears deceptively calm while walking along its banks, but try crossing it on a boat or elephant and you would feel the powerful tug of its current. Deban may have no mobile network, even electricity and tap water but it is in no short supply of crisp clean air, beautiful bright sunlight and clear waters. As passionate birdwatchers, we quickly polished off breakfast and packed some eats for an entire day out in the jungle, looking for those flying bundles of feathers.
The forest department had assigned two of their best men to guide us through the enchanting forest for the next three days. We went for a leisurely walk along the dried up river bed, precariously balancing over smooth stones and boulders. As there are no motorable roads one has to trek and camp to explore the rest of the vast wilderness. We were accompanied by a young male elephant to carry the heavy gear and paraphernalia.
We spent the days birding in and around Deban and went river rafting for short distances, enjoying the thrill of fast waters. As the rainforest is laid out in layers of leaves right up to the canopy, held together by branches and vines, we spotted numerous colourful birds, fleeting over the tall trees or hiding under the thick undergrowth. Visibility was reduced to less than three feet with the trees towering over us and shutting out the rays of the sun. Photography in such conditions was near impossible, but with digital cameras we managed to shoot some pictures. We crossed fast flowing streams with chilled waters flowing into the main river. Once in a while, a steep trek into the forest looking for flora and fauna was daunting.
This region is the home of the hoolock gibbon, one of the rarest apes on earth that swings from tree to tree. It is a creature of the upper canopy of the forest, eats fruits, flowers and insects, and sleeps on a bed of leaves and branches. Gibbons have no tail but extremely long arms and legs for agility in tree-to-tree travelling. Occasionally they descend to the ground and walk on two legs like a human being. We were fortunate to see a whole troop creating a ruckus on the treetops. One black male with pretty white brows was dangling, swinging and hooting loudly to a mate nearby. Hoolocks are largely territorial and fiercely monogamous and love their partners intensely. Infidelity is a strict no-no. We are no tree people but certainly fall short of the hoolock in the test of character!