Ever wondered why the name Silent Valley National Park? Turns out, many years ago, the national park was indeed silent because of the absence of cicadas. With the increase in temperature, the cicadas turned up and the then silent forest ceased to remain a quiet sanctuary. As Thiru, our guide, filled me with the information, I looked around and saw a vast expanse of forest, a birdcall here and a cicada song there. A loud screech broke my reverie. "That's Rocky. We'll go meet him in a while", said Thiru. I was at the erstwhile Rangapahar Wildlife Sanctuary and present-day Nagaland Zoological Park.
"How does a wildlife sanctuary become a zoo?", I asked.
Before the zoo's inauguration on August 28, 2008, the sanctuary was struggling with human encroachment. With the wildlife in danger, necessary measures had to be taken leading to the formation of Nagaland Zoological Park. This naturally regulated zoo is unlike any other. I was quite pleased to see the open exhibits that allowed the zoo to retain the look and feel of a peaceful natural habitat for its residents, safe from harmful human activities. The forest remained and only moats and high fences separated the animals from us.
We were not there to simply take a tour of the zoo that afternoon. I was there with my small team–a group of four bikers from Nagaland Motorcycle Club. I had come across a post on social media about the re-discovery of freshwater black softshell turtles in Wozhu Tsophow wetlands in Old Akuk village, Wokha district (these turtles were once declared extinct from the wild). This news was enough to make me travel to Nagaland all the way from Delhi. During monsoon, roads threaten to disappear even after a short spell of rain. Thus taking motorcycles was the only sane option. After two long months of waiting and co-ordinating with Steve Odyuo, a wildlife enthusiast and Chief of Natural Nagas–an NGO in Wokha district actively working towards wildlife conservation, and Lansothung Lotha, a ranger at Nagaland Forest Department, I was on my way to Dimapur to meet the newly-relocated turtles. Little did I know that this search was going to raise the curtains to the wildlife scene in Nagaland that we speak so little of. We decided to take the most common route, that is, Dimapur–Khonoma–Kohima–Wokha–Akuk.
Back at the zoo, Thiru took us to the reception area which doubled as the temporary holding pen for freshwater black soft shell turtle hatchlings. The young turtles were kept in troughs and closely monitored till they would be healthy enough to be let loose in the zoo's wetlands. The hatchlings had circular patterns on their soft shells, probably because of which they are also called peacock soft shell turtles. To know that IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) had declared them extinct from the wild while they were still found in the jungles of Nagaland; that these turtles were once largely hunted by the villagers to be sold in the local markets; that their existence went unnoticed for so long, spoke volumes. Upon their discovery, the wildlife conservators took up the task of educating the locals about the need to save this species.
As we walked away from the reception, and quite a distance it was, we stopped at the first exhibit that had stump-tailed macaques. Since these were open exhibits, we had to wait patiently for the macaques to show up. Thiru called them out and threw berries across the moat. Somewhat coyly, from behind the thick shrubs a female and a male macaque came out to snack. We walked further down the path and Thiru called out "Frank! Frank! Here boy!" Frank the leopard cat. The shy cat made a very brief appearance after which we decided not to call him out of his hiding place.
Most of the zoo's residents are the natives of the erstwhile Rangapahar Wildlife Sanctuary while some rescued from the wild. That loud screeching noise came again and we had to check it out. It was coming from the hoolock gibbon exhibit. Rocky and Jonny sure were excited to see us. Because it was either excitement or annoyance that made them scream at us. [Note: Hoolock gibbons are native to northeast India and one of the most endangered primate species in the world. Even with Indian (Wildlife) Protection Act 1972 behind them, these primates have very less chancesare of survival in the wild, unless stricter forest regulations against hunting and poaching are implemented). Bidding a very noisy adieu to Rocky and Jonny, we headed towards the wetlands with hopes to finally catch a glimpse of the rescued adult black soft shell turtle. At the wetland (though not allowed to public) we stopped by a resting Burmese mountain tortoise, also known as Asian forest tortoise. These are the fourth-largest species of tortoises in the world, weighing upto 45-50 kgs. A short distance away was the swamp where the rescued turtle was kept. The entire time we waited patiently, hoping to see the turtle, it only made its presence known to us by moving under the thick layer of water hyacinth. We decided to leave it be and also because it was time for us to move on to our next destination–Khonoma. But not without visiting the zoo's most popular exhibit–the hornbill exhibit. Though extinct from the wild in Nagaland, hornbills have found a home in Nagaland Zoological Park which is also the only zoo in India that has all five species of hornbills found in northeast India–brown hornbill, oriental pied hornbill, rufous-necked hornbill, wreathed hornbill and the great Indian hornbill. Did you know the yellow beak in hornbills is the result of secretion of preening oil?
Meeting the animals at the Nagaland Zoo was a great learning experience. Lack of adequate knowledge about a place does confine us to just the done-to-death attractions. Nagaland is beyond Hornbill Festival and headhunters.
We still had to visit the Tsophow wetlands. We headed towards out next destination–Khonoma. It was monsoon that forced us to opt for riding but we were starting to see that it was slowly becoming a wildlife trail. Our route took us farther away from the city roads, for we had started to ride alongside thick woods. Before reaching Khonoma we decided to halt for the night as we heard storm approaching. An offroad route took us to Shalom Resort in Gaili, Peren district. There were too many bumps on the road to make any sense for an offroading first-timer. It was sheer determination to reach the wetlands that made me ride despite the physical discomforts. The five-hour ride to Shalom resort is any offroader's dream. Five of us–Bendangliba Longkumer, Sanen Jamir, Tangmong Lushing, Abe Achumi and I called it a day and mentally and physically prepared for the next day's ride to Khonoma.
The morning greeted us with a thunderstorm because of which we started late but realised that, given the state of roads ahead, we couldn't risk reaching Khonoma late. With the storm not showing any sign of retreating, we made the decision to ride through it, hoping it would stop eventually. The rain did stop but so did we. Before reaching Khonoma, we had an unexpected delay at Lalmati, a landslide-prone area. The fact that there was an ongoing road construction just made it worse because the road had turned into a slush and had the longest traffic jam I had seen till date. As if it was not enough, Abe's Royal Enfield had a breakdown–in the middle of that slush on the road. After an hour of pushing and pulling it, we located the nearest gas station. We lost a good four hours of daylight before we could finally head to Khonoma. We had to take the shortcut out of the fear of another thunderstorm hitting us. After an hour of Google Maps leading us astray, we finally reached Khonoma close to midnight. Our generous host at Dovipie Inn, Neikedolie Hiekha, received us with a steaming cup of tea and the much-needed dinner of rice and boiled local chicken. Since we lost the greater part of the day, we cancelled our visit to Pulie Badze Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the state bird Blythe's Tragopan.
It was my first visit to Khonoma. I had heard a lot about the place from friends who had attended the annual Hornbill Festival, but always as 'that neighbouring village'. I learned from Neikedolie Hiekha about Khonoma's history, its rich culture and tradition and the community's impressive sense of responsibility towards nature and its conservation. From a hunting village, the present-day Khonoma had transformed into a No-Hunting and Deforestation Zone. A walk around the village took us to the ceremonial gates, morungs (traditional Naga huts) and totems that told us stories of their forefathers. Just a few kilometres away from Khonoma village was Dzuleke village–a 100% organic village kept going by community based eco tourism. As we rode towards Dzuleke, Neikedolie showed us the community-protected forest. The woods were so rich in flora and fauna, rhododendrons grew aplenty and jungle fowls casually flitted past us. Though it was only for a split second, but while riding we were lucky enough to spot the vulnerable (IUCN Red List) Blythe's Tragopan. Dzuleke village was a gem. The tiny picturesque village with 30-plus households sure stood out as the first community-based eco-tourism destination in Nagaland. Dzuleke is a haven for nature and adventure enthusiasts with picture perfect trekking and hiking routes that will take you to beautiful birding and butterfly spots. The place gets its name from the Dzuleke river. After our lunch provided by the village head, we headed towards Kohima to finally go to Wokha district.
The ride from Dzuleke to Kohima was uneventful and our bikes even got the much needed smooth stretch of road. Then rain decided to join us and this time with gusto. Enroute Wokha the potholes became larger, engulfing entire sections of the road. One would expect state highways that connected the capital to one of the major districts to be in good condition. But such was not the case here. We rode non-stop through the rain to reach Hammock Resort late at night. Our place of stay for the night was located a bit far from Wokha main town (if you are travelling to Mokokchung or even to a remote village Akuk like we were, Hammock Resort is probably the only and best option). Lansothung paid us a visit before we called it a day and gave us a small insight into how we were going to go forward with our turtle trail. Come morning, Steve Odyuo and Surrenthung (a research scholar) joined us as our guide to Akuk village. The riders were told to expect the worst of roads (much to their joy!) and I jumped at the offer to ride with Steve on his 4-wheeler truck, fondly named 'Opongo the Bull'. After an hour's drive from Hammock Resort, we stopped on our way hoping to see wild elephants in the forest down in the valley. The region has a healthy number of wild elephants, which also meant they were in constant territory battle with humans. Through the viewfinder of our binocular and camera's zoom lens, we were able to spot fresh elephant tracks made in the hill soil made loose by the rains. An hour's wait and no elephants later we were again on our way to Akuk. Enroute came Doyang valley, the famous roosting site of the migratory amur falcons. After a particular tough stretch of road that got the best of our truck and a few slip and fall incidents from our riders, we finally reached Akuk after four days. The village headman welcomed us into his residence and over hot tea and dinner we discussed the possibility of trekking down to the Tsophow wetlands. I was told during the interaction about the freshwater black soft shell turtles and how they were far from being extinct from the wild. Before anything like that even made news, the locals used to regularly hunt these turtles–their source of livelihood in one season. Earlier the wetland used to be a lake but after human settlements, the lake got reduced to a wetland thus affecting the turtle population. Now they see around 30-50 hatchlings per season (July-August) which is alarmingly low. After their status was made known to the locals, it dawned upon them that Akuk was the only black soft shell turtles' surviving natural habitat (in parts of Bangladesh, Assam and Tripura, freshwater black soft shell turtles are found only in temple ponds).
The next morning it was all over the radio–Cyclone Mora was fast approaching and was expected to hit northeast that afternoon. We had to call off our trek and get out of Akuk while we could. We couldn't see the turtles but it felt rewarding to know that now at least people were aware. In times when animals are fast becoming extinct (for example, the West African black rhinoceros), every small step towards the conservation of nature is an important step.
Everybody did ask us "why visit Akuk during monsoon?". I couldn't possibly think of a better time than the mating season (April-May). A rain-spell was not a reason strong enough to cancel our plan, but Cyclone Mora definitely was. Nevertheless, the search of turtles gave me the much-needed insight into the wild side of Nagaland.