The 8th primate in the forest

Features Issue 133 Nov, 2012

The small Hoollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary (21 is surrounded by tea estates in NE India’s state of Assam. It is entered on foot along a narrow lane. We arrived in a group of ten early in the morning, the best time for spotting gibbons. It was the last day of our tour group’s nearly three week adventure across Bhutan and down on to the plains of Assam. At the sanctuary we were not disappointed. The gibbons were there, a family of them close to the forest road but high in the upper canopy. A black male with his intriguing white eyebrows, and a brown female with her baby.

Hoollongapar is the only wildlife sanctuary in India named after a primate, the Western Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock), an endangered species, and the only ape in India (they are more common in Burma and Thailand.) We spent a half hour quietly observing and photographing them in this special refuge while the family of frugivores breakfasted on ficus (fig) leaves and fruit. We were thrilled; they were so near and so clear.
Successful gibbon spotting comes to those who are early and extremely quiet, for they are shy and flee quickly from noise. And all the while, as we peered high into the trees and clicked photos, leeches crawled silently up our boots from the muddy track, wet from a pre-dawn shower.

The sanctuary forester, Mr. Shankar Nag, a Bengali, stood beside me, gun in hand, giving me a whispered commentary on the park. As he became more animated he got louder, so I moved with him on up the road to keep from frightening the gibbons.

Besides gibbons, he said, “There are 261 species of birds here.” Just then, one of the most exotic, a greater racket-tailed drongo, flew overhead. Others on the sanctuary list are yellownapes, flamebacks, hornbills, barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodpeckers, cuckoos, coucals, jacanas, eagles, cormorants, minivets, niltavas, flycatchers, and more. The same birds are also found nearby in the much larger Kaziranga National Park, and all across the northern subcontinent into Nepal. I jotted the names down, with a tick-mark by those to add to my personal world life list.

The most experienced ornithologist in our group told us that there are two ways to keep track of new birds. The best method is by ‘CID’ – ‘Confirmed IDentification’. With good binoculars (his cost over a thousand Euros), the serious watcher personally confirms each bird’s key identifying characteristics, checking size, song, and colors on crown, bill, back, rump, vent, tail, and so forth. The alternative method is by ‘IYSS’ – ‘If You Say So’. It depends on the naturalist for identification. Jintu, the guide from our resort, was well-informed and knew the birds by sight and by sound, so we trusted his ‘say so’.

Jintu also told us a bit of Assam history and his family background. He is descended from the Thai-Ahom kings who ruled Assam for about 600 years before the British colonials arrived in the 1800s. The Thai language is still spoken in several Assamese villages, he said.

Meanwhile, the sanctuary guard droned on about animals in the forest: “Python and other snakes, and common monitor lizard,” he said. Common to him, I thought, but not to us.

“And leopard, tiger, civet cat, pangolin, wild boar and Indian giant squirrel,” he went on. That giant squirrel is big, with a body length of up to 40 cm (16 inches) a tail up to 60 cm. (2 feet) long. We saw one, black and light brown colored, scurrying along a high tree branch.

Then Mr. Nag added, with emphasis: “We also have wild Asiatic elephants. Elephants! − very dangerous!”
“But you are safe,” he assured me, raising his shotgun (unloaded) to show me he could protect us. He carried the shells in his uniform pocket, but to what effect? A single-shot 16-gauge is great for plinking at pigeons and squirrels perhaps, but would it stop a rampaging wild elephant? Certainly not.

“Mr. Nag, besides gibbons, what other primates are in the sanctuary?” I asked.

He lowered the empty shotgun and, with an authoritative tone, said: “Ah, yes. Good you ask. We have seven primates. First is Hoolock gibbon − very rare in India; here are 26 families, over 105 numbers. Also eastern Assamese macaque, Rhesus macaque, stump-tailed macaque and northern pig-tailed macaque. And slow loris and capped langur.”

“But Mr. Nag,” I said as he paused at the end of the list, “there is an 8th primate in the forest, the most dangerous one of all. You see one each morning in the mirror!”

He stopped still to comprehend what I’d said, then replied: “Yes, yes,” he said, knowingly, “but we have permit!”
Oh my, I thought, the inevitable entry permit! Paid for, stamped and signed by a uniformed officer and shown at the gate. But does that necessary bit of bureaucratic paperwork makes us any less dangerous? I wonder.

Encountering Assam
Our tour group had arrived in Assam after completing a spectacular overland tour of Bhutan, Drukyul, the Dragon Kingdom. For 12 days we had been enriched by the cultures of the mountain-cool kingdom, the land of ‘Gross National Happiness’ where a Bhutan tourist bureau leaflet declares that ‘Happiness is a Place’. We were impressed by traditional Drukpa lifestyle, men wearing the knee length gho and women dressed in long colorful kiras. And with the numerous centuries-old dzongs (fortresses) and Buddhist gombas (temples and monasteries). And, not least, ample Himalayan wildlife and birds to view. Bhutan can easily wear out a camera!

And now we were concluding our cross-country adventure in not-quite-so-happy India, a much hotter and far more densely populated place. We were enjoying the wildlife-rich lowland jungle surrounded by miles of tea plantations for which Assam is justifiably famous. On our first full day we toured Assam’s 430 sq. km (166 sq. mile) Kaziranga National Park, and on our second day the gibbon sanctuary. Kaziranga was first gazetted in 1905 as a protected area for the Indian one-horned rhinoceros. It became a National Park in 1974, and a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site a decade later. The gibbon sanctuary started as a reserved forest much earlier, in 1881 (for logging). It became a proper wildlife sanctuary only in 1997, to save the apes.

On the first morning we rode elephants across Kaziranga’s immense grasslands, and took a long open-jeep safari in the afternoon. Out on the savannah we got close to swamp and hog deer, to rhinos and many birds, and within telephoto range of the more aggressive wild water buffalo and Asiatic elephants. From a watch tower we counted 20 rhinos in a single eyeful, as well as a river otter cavorting on a sandbank, a flock of bar-headed geese feeding, and such riverine birds as Pallas’s fish eagles and pied kingfishers. Our digital cameras clicked and whirred. Late in the afternoon we were lucky to see a rare Bengal florican. This critically endangered black bustard, found both in Assam and Nepal, has declined dramatically in recent years and now survives as highly fragmented populations only in protected areas.

The following day the park was closed, for which the resort management and our naturalist apologized. “It’s the rhino census,” they said. It was time for 200 park staff, foresters and local villagers, with 30 elephants, to conduct the count. The following week they announced documenting a total of 2,290 rhinos, up from 2,048 in 2009. But we wondered why the authorities hadn’t waited just three weeks when the park would be closed for the rainy season (May-October). By shutting it down unexpectedly early for the census they upset a lot of vacationers’ plans.

Visiting the gibbon sanctuary was our compensation, followed (after a tiresome drive) by a river boat ride on the Brahmaputra. The Brahmaputra is one of the great rivers of Asia. This  2900 km (1800 mile) long river originates in Tibet where it called Tsangpo, then cuts its way dramatically through the Himalayas to spill out across the broad flat Assam plain where it is known for its periodic devastating floods. Brahmaputra means ‘son of Brahma’, the Creator, one of the three great Hindu gods alongside Lord Shiva and Vishnu.
We hoped to see the rare river dolphin on the river, but no such luck. Instead, we were overwhelmed by a sudden wild thunderstorm and by the time returned to our resort we were drenched. The rain storm was an unexpected and rather humbling conclusion to our otherwise amazing adventures. The next day, we rode six hours to the Guwahati airport to fly home.

Game parks compared: Assam & Nepal
Our wildlife-spotting sojourn coupled with earlier visits to game parks in Nepal allows me to compare game park experiences, at Assam’s Kazaranga and Nepal’s Chitwan National Parks (see the table).
The table doesn’t tell all, of course, for individual personal impressions of each park’s attractions and services vary greatly. Each destination has its special appeal, along with a few inevitable irritations.

Wildlife spotting. If you want large displays of wildlife − rhinos and deer up close, and wild elephants and buffalo within telephoto distance − Kaziranga is a good choice. It also has tall watchtowers for enhanced viewing. Getting there, however, is problematic. It is a long ways from the airport in Gawahati, over sometimes narrow, dangerous and crowded roads. And although the roadway is being widened, there are many rough stretches to endure.

Comparatively, if you like surprises and want to see less docile big mammals in the wild, in both grassland and jungle, a Chitwan elephant safari is a good choice. Chitwan also has more mammal and bird species, many that are rare and endangered. And it is relatively easy to reach Chitwan from Kathmandu by road or a short airline ride.

At Kaziranga, seeing vast herds of animals on the open grasslands is impressive, but I personally prefer the sudden surprise encounters in Chitwan’s jungles. And at Chitwan, elephant passengers ride in a wooden howdah, straddling a corner post so your legs dangle freely. At Kaziranga, the howdah is out and, instead, two to three passengers sit facing forward astride a padded saddle, with legs spread uncomfortably wide on each side, to accommodate the elephant’s great girth. There are also a few side-saddles. After a two-hour ride, it took me a few minutes to walk comfortably while the pain went away.

Accommodations. Some folks rate their jungle adventures by the quality of accommodations and services. I’ll admit outright that I’ve had only one (somewhat troublesome) lodge experience at Kaziranga. All accommodations there are outside the park, sometimes at a distance, while at Chitwan there are lodges both outside and inside the park (though those on the inside are expected to move out soon).

‘Luxury’ is not an issue for me. I have stayed at high-end resorts, medium-priced lodges and low-end backpacker guesthouses. What’s far more important than luxury or price is a pleasant and honest staff, along with cleanliness and comfort, good food and drink.

Near Kaziranga we stayed at the Wild Grass Resort. After a good look around, I scribbled two words in my journal that evening: “faux Colonial.” There’s nothing wrong with a colonial ambiance, if it is true or realistic. A colonial motif is common to many tourist resorts in India. But Wild Grass only appears to be colonial, as if restored from the 19th century. Actually, it was built and opened only in 1991. The wall decorations and furniture were cheap knock-offs and, rather incongruously for a game reserve, there were hunters’ trophies high up on the dining room wall, Sambhar heads with big antlers.

The food at Wild Grass was okay. And drinks? The famous Assam tea was superb!, but the instant coffee? − ugh! We were also served canned juices and soft drinks, and ‘He-man’ brand beer from the bar. (I’ve had better). The absence of hard liquor was not a problem for us, until our private bottle of Johnny Walker scotch went missing. When I pointed this out to the staff I was met with averted eyes (guilt?). And when I spoke to the manager he shrugged his shoulders. No, he couldn’t compensate us since they served no hard liquor, he said. When I suggested some free beer instead, he reluctantly agreed, but at the end of the evening I was handed the bill. Chalk it up to experience: win some/lose some.

At Chitwan ‘colonial’ is not an issue, since Nepal was never colonized. Instead, each Chitwan lodge where I have stayed makes no pretense of being anything other than a comfortably rustic jungle abode. No historic knock-offs; no hunters’ trophies. No faux. The meals were also better, and most lodges have a cash bar, soft and hard, with free munchies. Different rules and better service.

The overall feeling of Chitwan National Park is friendlier, generally more relaxed and less restrictive. Besides the standard elephant safaris and jeep rides (which are most of what you can do at Kaziranga), Chitwan resorts also feature guided nature hikes and dugout canoe rides on the river, and bicycle tours along the forest tracks.

Relations with local ethnic groups are also closer at Chitwan, with many of the villagers on resort staff. There are also opportunities for visitors to observe the local fisherfolk (the Boté) throwing their hand-made nets on the rivers. At Kaziranga we had to look hard to see the Mishmi fisherfolk, and though we passed a few Mishmi houses near the Brahmaputra we never saw them fishing.

Looking back. To conclude, and to be fair, Kaziranga and Chitwan each have their unique highlights and special attractions. (Forget the minor irritations; they are short-lived and survivable.) I have enjoyed the main features of each park, and would like to go back again.

A friend once suggested that as visitors to the subcontinent we should not expect India or Nepal to conform to foreign standards and expectations. Rather, it is up to us as visitors to conform to the good and the bad, the comfortable and uncomfortable, the inevitable ups and downs and lures and lore of each place.

When a few in our group complained of something, I quietly suggested that we should all be more flexible and accommodating. Savor the overall experience, I said; enjoy the birds and wildlife, the people and their cultures, marvel at the scenery, take lots of pictures. Then we, as the eighth primate in the forest (with our mandatory permit, of course) return home happy, with great photos and sharply etched memories of a remarkable adventure.