Located on the border with Assam and covering an area of 862sq km, Pakke Tiger Reserve was formerly part of the Khellong Forest Division, and was declared a game sanctuary in 1977. The sanctuary was later declared a tiger reserve in 2002. For a number of years, this relatively new tiger reserve witnessed rampant poaching, but with the commendable initiatives of the forest department and the local communities, the situation has now improved a lot.

In September 2006, the heads of 16 villages within the reserve area passed a resolution that listed penalties for wildlife violations – a decision that was followed up with villagers helping the forest department in keeping strict vigil in the reserve. This innovative strategy, one of the first of its kind in India, is a marked departure from conventional top-down conservation practices. The emphasis here is on the local village chiefs, the gaon burahs (village elders), of the Nyishi tribe, who play an influential role in the protection of the jungle and its inhabitants as well as in persuading people to conserve forest resources.

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A dry creek bed in Pakke Tiger Reserve
A dry creek bed in Pakke Tiger Reserve

Pakke falls within the Eastern Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot, and is home to over 2,000 species of plants, 300 species of birds, and over 30 species each of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The vegetation here mainly comprises of lowland semi-evergreen, evergreen forests and Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests. Though Pakke and Kaziranga National Park are both at very low elevations, there is a stark difference in their vegetation, which leads to varied species dominating the bird population in the respective parks.

Pakke is the last stronghold of many varieties of globally endangered flora and fauna. Notably, it is home to the four hornbill species as well as the endangered white-winged wood duck. Other striking bird species that you are likely to spot on your birdwatching walks include the col-lared and long-tailed broadbills, white-browed shortwing, yellow-bellied flycatcher-warbler, crow-billed drongo, emerald cuckoo, ibisbill, and grey peacock-pheasant.

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A male elephant at Pakke Tiger Reserve
A male elephant at Pakke Tiger Reserve

The biggest draw amongst the mammals in Pakke is, of course, the tiger, but the reserve also supports a thriving population of leopards, leopard cats, Asiatic black bears, fishing cats, wild dogs, barking deer, elephants and sambar. Perhaps more so than many other reserves, Pakke has had a long, torrid history of poaching animals, but the reserve is now on its way to recovery. It is now considered one of the best performing tiger reserves in the Northeast. Camera trapping studies over the past few years have shown an increase in the reserve’s tiger population and a rise in the sightings of tuskers, which had been nearly decimated by poachers.

ORIENTATION

Nestled in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, Pakke Tiger Reserve is bounded to the north and west by the Kameng river, also known as Bhareli river, and to the east by Pakke river. The reserve shares its boundary with Nameri National Park, in Assam, to the south and southeast. The reserve’s elevation ranges from 100m to 2,000m above sea level. The northern part of the reserve features a rugged, mountainous terrain, while the south has narrow plains and sloping hill valleys.

Pakke can be accessed via the small village of Seijosa in the east, Bhalukpong in the west and Pakke Kessang in the north. Most tourists head for the Seijosa entrance, either to stay at the Forest Rest House in Khari, or to stay at the community-run Pakke Jungle Camp. Seijosa is well connected with Guwahati and Tezpur through the Soibari-Pakke Kessang Road. Note that there aren’t any signboards along the route to indicate if you’re heading the right way, and following the wrong route will take you towards Assam, so ask for directions often. The Bhalukpong entrance is connected through the Tezpur-Bomdila Road, and there is proper signage along the route. The entry point at Pakke Kesang can be reached via the Itanagar or Seppa route.

Entry ₹50 per day Vehicle Entry ₹500 per day Camera Still ₹100 Video ₹500

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A jungle trail flanked by lush foliage
A jungle trail flanked by lush foliage

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

With multi-hued skies that go from orange to bright blue to purple as the day passes; gurgling streams and rivers meandering through the area; and the constant chirruping of birds, Pakke makes a superb getaway from the hustle-bustle of city life. In addition to undertaking jeep safaris and engaging in birdwatching, visitors can simply sit back and unwind in the reserve’s beautiful surroundings. This might, in fact, be one of the most fulfilling parts of your stay in Pakke.

Birdwatching

The abundance of bird species in Pakke means that birdwatchers will never be left wanting – be it along a walking trail demarcated near an anti-poaching camp outside of the core area of the reserve, or deep inside the reserve. The buffer zone offers several convenient paths winding past tall trees and shrubs that are home to innumerable birds.

A 10km-long trek from Khari beat leads to Khari Lake, where rare white-winged wood ducks can often be seen. Be sure to carry a set of binoculars and a birdwatching guide on these walks.

Khari Base Camp offers wonderful views, with a platform overlooking the river. There is nothing better than looking out and seeing a large elephant herd fording the river below after a morning of intense birdwatching. In the after-noons, the trees around the camp are flush with birds of many hues and coos.

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The hornbill, Pakke’s most famous avian species
The hornbill, Pakke’s most famous avian species

If you decide to stay at Pakke Jungle Camp, do ask to be taken for a walk to the trees by the river, where dozens of hornbills can be seen at dusk. If you are visiting in the winter months, you are likely to see the spectacular ibisbill swoop down and then up again by the waters. The Pakke river is the the natural boundary between the core area of the reserve and the buffer zone and, if you look closely enough as you walk along the banks, you could also spot pug marks of tigers that might have stopped by just the night before. It is one of the many thrilling experiences here.

The Iconic Hornbill

The Northeast has been the home of the hornbill for a long time, but with hunting and the loss of habitat, most hornbill species lead a threatened existence. In this context, Pakke has stood apart as a haven for the hornbill. It may take a day, or two, but the wait for the tiger is only matched by the wait to see a flock of hornbills for which Pakke is rightfully known.

The reserve is home to four species of hornbills: the Oriental pied hornbill, wreathed hornbill, the rufous-necked hornbill and the great hornbill. Of these, the wreathed and rufous-necked hornbills are considered vulnerable, while the great hornbill has a near-threatened status.

For over a decade now, the Nyishi tribe living around Pakke has come together with the Forest Department to protect hornbills and their habitats. The tribe has traditionally used the upper beak (or casque) of the great or the rufous-necked hornbill as part of their traditional headgear. They use the fat of the hornbill for its supposed medicinal properties, and consume its meat, which is considered a delicacy.

Nyishi women performing a dance at the Nyokum Festival
Nyishi women performing a dance at the Nyokum Festival

As part of its conservation efforts to save the hornbill from extinction, the Nyishi community protects hornbill nests, imposes hefty fines against hunting, as well as against cutting down of trees where hornbills nest. In fact, the members of the community now use artificial fibre-glass hornbill casques for adorning their headgear. There are especially heavy fines for those who hunt hornbills during the breeding season, which extends from March to August. This is because the death of the male mostly results in the death of the female and the children in the nest, in the tree cavity, since they are dependent on the male for their food supply.

In 2011, the Nature Conservation Foundation, the Forest Department and the Ghore Aabhe Society set up the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme, which engages, trains and employs members of the Nyishi tribe in the surrounding villages in finding, monitoring and protecting hornbill nests and roosts. Any interested individual or organization can become a ‘Hornbill Parent’ by paying a yearly donation, which is in turn utilised for paying salaries to the nest protectors and for arranging field equipment. Through this programme, the participating organizations have not just been successful at protecting hornbill nests and increasing their count, but have also been able to engage both locals as well as people from across the country and the world to become part of the programme.

Jeep Safari

Pakke is best explored aboard a jeep safari that covers most of the core area of the reserve. Visitors can hire a jeep or 4WD with prior permission from the Forest Department. A 13-km jeep ride leads to the Khari Camp and then beyond to another anti-poaching camp, manned by forest guards, who rough it out in the wild to track and protect animals from poachers.

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Dining area at the Pakke Jungle Camp
Dining area at the Pakke Jungle Camp

A jeep ride through the forest, or even exploring one of the walking trails, can, however, be somewhat disappointing when you are away from the river. This is owing to the thick foliage throughout Pakke that does not permit visibility of more than 10m at any given point. There may be deer, or scarier to consider, bears and elephants, some 100m away from the path, but there is simply no way of seeing them. This is, in many ways, one of the banes of Pakke in terms of its tourism potential, but seen in another light, it is the perfect antidote to the more touristy Kaziranga National Park that sees large crowds every season.

Nature Interpretation Centre

In December 2014, a Nature Inter-pretation Centre was set up near the Seijosa entry gate, with the support of Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) Wild Aid division, to help promote and spread awareness about the bio-diversity of Pakke Tiger Reserve. This beautifully laid out, meticulously explained and informative centre includes infographics, posters and interactive quizzes, all of which make for an enriching experience.

The wealth of information on display at this centre provides an insight into the rich biodiversity that the reserve protects, as well as the conservation efforts by the forest department and various NGOs.

Village Visits and Festivals

Pakke is undoubtedly a haven for nature lovers and has plenty to offer to culture enthusiasts as well. It is a good idea to plan a trip to the reserve in such a way that it coincides with some local festivities in the village, and one is able to gain a holistic experience of the local customs and traditions of the tribes living here.

Towards the end of February, the Nyishis celebrate a three-day-long harvest festival known as Nyokum Yullo. During the festival, the mithun (a semi-wild bovid), which is of great economic and cultural significance to the tribe, is sacrificed and offered to the Nyokum goddess.

The festival is celebrated with several cultural performances, ceremonial processions and lavish feasts. In the first week of April, the Galo Adhi tribe in Bhalukpong celebrate Mopin, a harvest festival, which sees the ritual sacrifice of the mithun (a species of cow) and elaborate dance performances by locals dressed up in traditional costumes. Similarly, the Miji community of the Tipi area celebrate the festival of Chindang in the middle of October.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Pakke Jungle Camp (Tariff: ₹3,500 for two) is a community-based tourism initiative implemented by the local tribal self-help conservation group, Ghora Aabhe, along with Help Tourism (Kolkata Tel: 033-24550917, 24549719, Cell: 09733000442/ 443; Email: info@helptourism.com). This tourism project is supported by the Forest Department and the Nature Conservation Foundation, a Bengaluru-based NGO. The emphasis of the project is on promoting conservation efforts as well as community ownership.

Located around 12km past the Seijosa checkpoint, the jungle camp boasts a picturesque forest setting. The camp consists of 8 double-occupancy huts – all on stilts – and are designed and constructed by local artisans, using eco-friendly materials such as bamboo, thatch, wood and cane breaks. Each hut has an attached bathroom and a small verandah.

The spacious dining area is a great place to relax over a cup of tea and watch birds and butterflies fluttering about in the vicinity. The camp serves authentic local cuisine, and is just what you need after a tiring day of birdwatching and jeep safaris.

Guests can choose from several trekking routes around the camps, which provide ample chance for birdwatching. The organisers at Pakke Jungle Camp provide a lovely wilderness experience.

The tariff is inclusive of all meals and activities. Contact the Managing Director of Pakke Jungle Camp, Suresh Pait (Cell: 09402037005; email: sureshpait@gmail.com) for more details. Another alternative is to stay at the Forest Rest House, at the Khari Base Camp. It offers rooms for upto four people.

Around Pakke Tiger Reserve

Nestled in the Himalayan foothills of West Kameng District, the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the Kameng Elephant Reserve. Spread over an area of over 217sq km, the sanctuary conjoins the Pakke Tiger Reserve to the east and the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary to the northeast.

The park’s vegetation is made up of tropical, subtropical and temperate forests. The sanctuary is part of the Kameng Protected Area Complex, the largest contiguous forest area in Arunachal Pradesh, which includes Pakke, Sessa, Nameri and Sonai Rupai sanctuaries and the forest blocks associated with them.

Eaglenest is one of the best birding sites in the country, with nearly 450 recorded species, amongst which are cormorants, herons, black storks, nightjars, hornbills, fairy-bluebirds, Old World flycatchers, warblers and flowerpeckers. Besides birds, the sanctuary is home to 15 species of mammals, including the Bengal tiger.

Till the sanctuary was established, the forests were used by the local Bugun tribe. The creation of the sanctuary led to the area becoming off-limits for them.

Today, the Bugun Welfare Society (Tel: 03782-273359; Email: aati_tours@vsnl.net) not just organises bird tours in the sanctuary, but also promotes environment awareness amongst locals. The society has camps in the sanctuary and Bugun youth have been trained to lead the tours.  

Inputs by Shreya Sarkar

FAST FACTS

When to Go The best time to visit

Pakke is between November and March. However, if you are a butterfly enthusiast, monsoon is the ideal time, during the months of May and October

Tourist Offices

Divisional Forest Office, Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary & Tiger Reserve Seijosa, East Kameng District,

Tel: 03778-200016, 200014

Chairperson, Ghora Aabhe Society & Pakke Tour and Travel Management Committee, Cell: 09436200628 (Mr. Takam Nabum), STD code 03778

GETTING THERE

State Arunachal Pradesh

Location Across the Assam-Arunachal state border

Distances 65km NE of Tezpur; 136km W of Itangar

Route to Seijosa from Tezpur via Itakhola-Seijosa Rd or the Soibari-Pakke Kessang Road

Air Nearest Airport: Tezpur (50km) and Guwahati (approx. 280km) from Seijosa or Bhalukpong

Rail Nearest Railhead: Soibari (36km), Rangapara (60km) from Seijosa or Bhalukpong. However, the most well-connected railway station is in Tezpur (65km/ 2hrs)

Road The Seijosa checkpoint can be approached via the Soibari-Pakke Kessang Road, while the Bhalukpong one is accessible through the Tezpur- Bomdila road. A jeep or 4WD is im­perative to drive through the forest, and the park authorities may not always have one available for tourists, so it is advisable to hire one at Guwahati or Tezpur itself Bus Arunachal Pradesh State Transport (APST) as well as private buses ply to Seijosa from Tezpur. The state buses are not particularly reliable, and private buses might also be erratic in service (and speed), so plan accordingly. Bha­lukpong enjoys better connectivity, with regular services from Tezpur, Rangapara, Guwahati and Bomdila through APST