An inexplicable ‘kook, kook’ rips through the silence of the night. I am at forest guard Ananto Bohrah’s house, one of the ten that make up a small village in the periphery of Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, upper Assam. I am here to see the western hoolock gibbon, a graceful and long-limbed arboreal ape that’s native to Northeast India, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, which categorises the primate as endangered, estimates that only 2,600 western hoolock gibbons are left in India, of which about 2,000 are in Assam.
My travel companion and I had arrived at the sanctuary that evening, having hired an SUV (a Scorpio) and a driver for the 300 km journey from Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh to Mariani, a small Assamese town near the forest reserve. We drove through unpaved mud roads on dried river beds. Where there were no roads, we (along with the SUV) were ferried across the Brahmaputra river, the lifeline of the people of Assam. At Mariani, we resumed our road trip, this time through dirt paths across tea estates that were twinkling with fireflies under the darkening summer sky.
When I finally reach the sanctuary, I am told that the only lodging option, the forest house, has been booked. The officials are polite, but there is no way around the fact that a training programme on the conservation of western hoolock gibbons is underway; 20 forest guards from all over the region are stationed in the only two rooms available for guests.
Fortunately, the western hoolock gibbon—not to be confused with the eastern hoolock gibbon that’s found in Arunachal Pradesh—is not as elusive. Next morning, around seven o’clock, when the sun’s rays are slowly warming the tea plantations on the periphery of the sanctuary in Bohrah’s village, we drive along mud-roads that lead to the thickets. In less than 30 minutes, the forest guard shushes me. Gesticulating with his hands, he instructs my companion and me to get out of the SUV and walk into the forest. We follow him noisily as he clears shrubs and bushes from our path, our shoes crunching the bed of leaves and twigs.
Hollong trees, the state tree of Assam from which the sanctuary takes its name, rise above the forest canopy. And there, on one such tree, I spot a slender jet black, long-limbed gibbon. He hangs from his arms tentatively. After having spotted us inching closer to the tree, he swings from branch to branch in a dance-like movement called brachiation. A tuft of white hair around his eyebrows confirms that he is a male western hoolock gibbon. A few trees ahead, a female, her coat a tanned copper unlike the male’s black, looks down at us. She, too, has a white eyebrow band.
Western hoolock gibbons are some of the smallest apes in the world and weigh only 7 kg with little variation between males and females. They can be 20 times smaller than a great ape like a gorilla, which can weigh up to 140 kg.
According to Sharma, the second-most important threat comes from tribals who depend on the forest for subsistence. A penchant for hunting among the tribes severely affects the gibbon population. Though they are hunted for meat, in some places the apes are also hunted for medicinal purposes. Women in Ngopa village adjacent to the Lengteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Mizoram, for instance, wear gibbon bones on their feet. They believe the bone of the gibbon can cure gout and other inflammatory problems.
India’s northeast has the highest primate diversity in the country and is home to as many as 11 of a total of 22 species. The Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary has seven primate species including the slow loris, stump-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, northern pig-tailed macaque, capped langur, and the western hoolock gibbon . Bohrah, who turns out to be an excellent spotter with a keen ear for animal calls, helps me identify some of these primates. I follow him down a pathway colonised by wild forest plants crowned with soft blue flowers on each side. In this wild and remote part of India, the forest guard in his khaki garb—and armed with a gun—is a symbol of authority. We see Malayan giant squirrels feasting on fruit, sitting on tree branches, their furry tails hanging like black brushes.
As the soft, early morning sun slowly becomes harsher, raising the humidity level in the air a notch higher, we bump into Bohrah’s colleague who is on his morning patrol. “Show them the pig-tailed macaques,” he says, after spotting a pack a few feet away. We take a slight diversion into a tertiary path and walk deeper into the forest to see the pack of pig-tailed macaques. True to their moniker, their stubby tails look like they belong to a pig’s body, but arching backward. A baby in the pack looks down at us before sprinting further up the tree.
In a particularly melancholic post on the Nature Conservation Foundation India blog, Sharma writes about how a railway track permanently estranged a female stump-tailed macaque from her pack: “She saw two long ‘poles’ lying parallel to each other on a raised platform all along the clearing as far as her eyes could see. Their forest was neatly sliced into two unequal parts. She would never forget the day when a moving beast whizzed past her with a deafening sound, leaving a trail of black smoke hovering over the forest.”
As we walk further down the track, we run into the training party of forest guards who are recording the sightings of primates. The week-long residential training, conducted by the Assam-based environmental NGO Aaranyak is titled ‘Training of Forest Guards for the Conservation of Hoolock Gibbon in Assam’. The 20 participants, forest guards from various regions in Assam, are being trained on topics with special reference to gibbon conservation. These include population estimation, habitat characteristics and restoration, habitat monitoring, rescue and rehabilitation, the use of global positioning systems (GPS), wildlife laws and their application and the role of local communities in conservation.
I strike up a conversation with the guards, and keep pace with them as they mark the GPS coordinates of every primate that they spot. I see another juvenile male hoolock gibbon, swinging on a tree, from branch to slender branch. “This little fellow is lonely because his prospective bride is on the other side of the track. And he cannot cross over the tracks because he is arboreal,” says Jeevan Bohra, an associate with Aaranyak who is accompanying the forest guards on the training programme.
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(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)