Living in the northern part of the country, it was quite a surprise to find one’s self waking up to sunshine at 4:30 in the morning. Better still, if the alarm happened to be a highly vocal, greater racket-tailed drongo!
I was in a gibbon sanctuary, a small protected area of approximately 21 sq km near the town of Jorhat. The forest rest house where we stayed was right outside the forest, which is largely dominated by Hollong (Dipterocarpus artocarpus), the state tree. This has earned it the name Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary.
As the name indicates, the sanctuary is a stronghold for the western hoolock gibbon—the only species of non-human ape found in the country. They are not alone though. With rhesus macaques, the near-threatened Assam macaque, northern pig-tailed macaques, capped langurs, stump-tailed macaques and the slow loris, the Northeast’s only nocturnal primate, the sanctuary is unique for its high diversity of primates. It also presents insightful birding and botanical study opportunities. It was exactly the reason why we—like many others from around the world—found ourselves in this place, hoping to catch a glimpse of these species.
Joined by a young forest guard, we started our trail at around 8am. Monsoons really change the décor of a forest, with dense undergrowth and a multitude of greens. Although the trail was dry because it hadn’t rained in the past few days, the forest on both sides was submerged in water, making access difficult. A small group of rhesus macaques was our first primate sighting of the day. Four to five individuals happily scrambled and jumped from the trees to the huts, and back.
In a little over an hour, the sun was well above us. Although the forest looked brilliant with its interplay of sunrays and shadows, it had started to become too humid for aesthetic appreciation. However, a duo of capped langurs were spotted just a little ahead, brilliant golden-orange in the sunlight, and it was enough to bring us back on track. A few minutes further, we spotted another biggie—a Malayan giant squirrel. The large squirrel—sporting a black fur coat and a cream-coloured underbelly—was sitting high up on a branch. Interestingly, it was constantly looking down and letting out a metallic alarm call. Was there an animal hidden in the undergrowth, invisible to us from where we stood? A leopard, perhaps? We were, after all, standing next to where a relatively fresh civet kill rotted away. Was the large carnivore waiting for us to leave? We weren’t sure, but moved on from the area nonetheless. The squirrel, however, continued its loud call. This was also the first time (and angle) from where I could observe and appreciate its unusually thick and bushy tail. Seemingly larger than the body, it draped down the branch, I couldn’t help but wonder how the squirrel managed to carry it around.
By then, another forest guard heading for duty on his cycle excitedly pedalled back towards our group. He had just noticed a troop of stump-tailed macaques, and was wondering if we would like a glimpse. We walked quickly, ignoring everything around us. While my friend Abir, and the young forest guard, and I hastened our pace, Suma, another wildlife enthusiast, took a passenger seat ride with the other guard. In spite of moving in big troops (anywhere between 40–200 in each), the stump-tailed macaques are extremely shy and are said to vanish in the blink of an eye. And that is precisely what happened to us. It was crazy how an animal—and so many of them—could be so swiftly engulfed by the forest. Unless you were actually standing at the location where they had gathered moments earlier, it was difficult to comprehend how the effortless disappearance.
But nature does have a way of surprising you, for right there, we came across a family of the star of the sanctuary—the hoolock gibbons. A small black acrobat, the male hoolock gibbon, with its jet-black body and white eyebrows, elegantly negotiated its way through the upper boughs of a tree. It seemed familiar with every branch, stem and leaf. We seemed to fall in love with them the moment we met their overly inquisitive eyes. With its nonchalance to our presence, we assumed that it felt safe around us as it went about its usual routine, swinging from branch to branch, stopping now and then to take a bite of a preferred fruit. Given the humidity, we appreciated their evolutionary choice—with long arms and hooked hands—to remain in the shade of the forest’s high-reaching canopy.
While returning to the rest house after this particularly lucky day, we received our parting gift—a small group of pig-tailed macaques. Seven to eight of these creatures foraged amidst the greenery and watched us with their dark, almost mascara-lined eyes. Their small tails drooped down as they sat on a branch. Straining our necks, we observed them for a good amount of time, as they played, ate, rested, and—every now and then—watched out for us. After a while, they began to cross over to the other side of the sanctuary via overhanging branches. These connections across the different levels in the canopy were important for several of these arboreal (tree-dwelling) species to travel from one patch to another.
If you think primates were all that was in our platter, then think again. The small patch of green, with a train passing by every now and then, plays host to about 200 species of birds. Birders regularly flock here to try their luck at witnessing birds like the red-headed trogon, the Oriental dwarf and blue-eared kingfishers, tesias, cupwings, and flycatchers. Although we didn’t spot them, we did get to see Abbott’s babbler—a species spread across the Northeast, along the Himalaya, and a small disjunct population in northeastern Andhra Pradesh. A momentary sight, but there was no mistaking the small brown bird with its white throat and broad bill. We also came across a species of snake, the common mock viper (Psammodynastes pulverulentus). Earlier mistaking it for a dry twig, we were surprised to see the reptile’s mimicry of not just the twig, but also of true vipers. Although non-venomous, the mock viper mimics the real ones in its defensive coils and strikes to ward off against threats and potential predators. A report from Thailand also mentions how it has the ability to change the shape of its pupil—otherwise round— to resemble a viper.
Although we didn’t get a look at the stump-tailed macaques or the slow loris, the teeming biodiversity in this tiny patch of wilderness sure stumped us, and we returned with many memories. Imperilled by fragmentation from railways and human activities, these small verdant stretches nonetheless act as refugia for a great diversity of species.
The Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary is 21 kilometres from Jorhat, the nearest airport. It offers connecting flights from major Indian cities via Kolkata. However, Guwahati may have better air connectivity. The nearest railhead is Mariani Junction. The five-kilometre journey to the sanctuary gate is through village roads, with a view of farms and tea gardens.
WHERE TO STAY
The forest department inspection bungalow (from `800 per night) is right beside the sanctuary gate. Gibbon Resort (from `3,000 for double beds, plus meals; +91-99544 03770) has a homely atmosphere. Jorhat and Mariani have other stay options, but do book a vehicle for commute during early mornings. It’s when animal activity peaks.
WHAT TO DO
>Wake up and hit the forest trail as early as possible. There are no strict entry and exit timings.
>Dress in full pants, long-sleeved shirts and shoes with good grip, for protection against insects. Dull-coloured clothes are better while inside the forest.
>Explore tea gardens around the jungle. They can be haunts for leopards and elephants, so do go with a local guide or forest guard.