Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Between rice and millet beer

This time I had reached the entrance to the northernmost national park in the north-east, the Mouling National park. Mouling in local Adi means red blood that signifies one of the tree species found in the park that has red latex. The villagers and department officials have horrid stories of people being bitten by poisonous snakes, chased by pythons, etc. etc. and I was getting more and more excited! The park is remote and few surveys have been undertaken by the Forest Department and a single herpetofaunal survey in 2002 by Samrat Pawar. However the two days I spent were outside the national park discussing with the villagers about shifting cultivation. A hunting festival was on in the village during my visit; each Adi (the local tribe) hunts as many animals as he can and gifts the meat to his in-laws. During an evening rice-beer session with the Adis, the village leader invited me over to his house for some millet beer, so went, happily. Soon as I got to his home, I saw skulls of many wild animals, amongst the ones I could recognize; few monkeys, few barking deers and many wild boar. Then I was offered millet beer and was slightly tipsy already!

Then, the gaam leader brought a monkey and kept it in front of me; I was startled but quickly gathered myself and tried to identify the species. I was hoping it wasn’t one of the rarer species such as pig-tailed, stump-tailed or assamese macaques and was glad it wasn’t one of them. It was a rhesus macaque male. The next thing the Miok (the leader, in Adi) dunked the body in fire and slowly roasted the monkey part by part. I was shocked but was trying to remain calm and kept swigging the beer. I soon figured I was invited actually to taste the meat and I admittedly told the leader that I can’t eat it because it looks too much like a human and he obliged me by not forcing further.

Later we got back to the ramsing camp and cooked our meal and slept. This memory will remain fresh in my mind. This trip was made without a camera but for me it didn’t seem like I need one!

Friday, 2 November 2007

High on low-pani!

This morning in Nafra, Arunachal started with a bone-racking top-of-the-sumo ride till the place called Rurang, 12 km away, where I was headed to see some abandoned jhum fields. The first thing we did there was to have a mug each of local corn beer called 'lao pani'. My field assistant cum friend Nigam was carrying his gun, for him it was a business-as-usual trip. Everyday of all my field days, I have hoped to see animals and many of them, but this day I was hoping we just see only signs of life such as footprints, scat, dung and feeding signs. Earlier, in a place called Buragaon my field assistant brought along a sling shot and within an hour he brought down two birds; a red tailed minla and a brown cheeked fulvetta.

This time, I tried to tell Nigam him that we need not hunt as we go along but he didnt care. He went along an animal-path and with his first shot got back some feathers of a dead bird and said that the meat was spoilt due to the gun shot. the second shot a bird escaped and I was mentally smiling. Then along the path we saw footprints of wild boar and muntjac. Then we walked into a local jhum-home and we were offered a mug each of lao-pani and some roasted corn and colocasia. It was a meal I thoroughly enjoyed. Another Miji local passed by and sat with us and with a shout told his mother in a home below to cook something for us to eat. We walked into the next house and another two mugs of corn beer and local eggs, boiled, were offered to us. We then went into the next house and we were offered raw salted ginger and a mug of corn beer! In return, all I did for all these Mijis was to take their photographs and will develop them and give them a copy in my next trip to Rurang.

Each of these houses were made of bamboo, the fuel being used was wood, food was stuff grown in plots nearby, tobacco too and beer was made from corn. There was nothing that had to be 'manufactured' and then I was thinking; At first look the hills look deprived of forests in small patches; 2-3 ha per family and therefore these families were destroying the forests, but overall what was their ecological footprint and what was mine. Even sitting here logging this I am using up electricity, computers, internet and what-not. I promised myself to be careful before pointing fingers at others; at least in this respect.

But definitely the worst combination is brewed when people in remote villages have access to towns with guns, bleaching powder, snares, etc. The day after visiting Rurang, I headed to a hamlet close to Nafra called Nakhu and locals there were boasting that they caught about 20 kgs of fish with just 1 kilo of bleaching powder. In other places too I had heard of other methods to catch fish; with a bomb or with a live electric wire.

In my trip to Upper siang, a local Adi person obliged me by letting me join him in one of his trips to check rodent-snare traps. My friend Takeng had laid about 25-30 traps and laid some jobs tear millet as bait. In the morning I was with him the traps had caught 15 rodents, all of the same common Indian species, the bandicoot.

Therefore in the north-east, it seems impossible to completely stop hunting due to its links to tradition and culture. But by spreading awareness, it may be possible to convince the locals to use less destructive hunting and fishing methods and spare the rare species and give them time to recuperate.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The real netherworld

‘Zhili bili’, as SJ Gould substituted for the dull phrase ‘Once upon a time’, the grandmother of the lord Thunder wanted to change the course of the Someshwari river, now called the Simsang river and she picked up a huge boulder from an area notified now as the Balpakram National Park. She wanted to block the river and divert the waters to make the land fertile for agriculture. Tired as she was, she went on slowly when suddenly a cock crowed and Thunder was awakened. In fear she deposited the boulder in what forms now the Chutmang peak and scurried away. Now the Garos say that the Chutmang peak is the exact shape of the valley upturned and have kept the story alive for many generations. Both the pictures below are at the same scale on google earth. Doesn’t seem like a good fit!

Chutmang peak forms the north-western part of the Balpakram national park which is spread over an area of about 300 sq. km. About three months earlier when I visited the peak, we did find tiger pug marks close to the peak near a cave. The park is unique because it was actually bought from the communities by the Forest Department in an effort to protect the wildlife of the region. I had been working with the group ‘Samrakshan’ for about five months and was waiting for an opportunity to get to the park. Such a fortune knocked at my door when Dr. Kashmira, Dr. Christy Williams and Nandini from Valparai came by to Baghmara to do just the same. Christy had earlier done a study on elephants in the region about a decade ago and was very excited to be there.

Nimesh from Samrakshan and the rest of us reached the Mahadeo guest house by about 2 pm and later we went to the famous helipad within the national park, yes a helipad inaugurated by none other than the late Shri Rajiv Gandhi. From there we saw a little less grand canyon. Christy told us that no one had explored the depths of the valley and I thought that for once I did see virgin forests in my life, so that’s a life not wasted! We returned to the Mahadeo camp and took a walk into the park in the evening and the first sighting that excited us was a tusker that Christy claims he had seen earlier during his study. Here is the picture of the big-guy.
Later in the night we took another walk in the forest looking for nocturnal mammals and Nandini had promised us she would show us flying squirrels. But we walked for almost an hour and didn’t see any and we got back to the camp and dozed off into a pleasant sleep. Morning me and Nandini started our walk at 530 am and in the next 15 minutes spotted two Himalayan yellow-throated martens. It was a misty morning and photography was not an option. By the time I ran back to the camp and called Christy and Kashmira, the martens had scooted, and we carried on our walk ahead looking for other mammals and birds.

Later in the day, Kashmira told us about hoolock gibbons, whom she had studied for her PhD. She told us that gibbons start calling late in the morning after they have fed for a while and she imitated the calls to perfection as well. Later in the day we saw a Malayan giant squirrel, up close since the guy was habituated to people and lived close to the forest department quarters.
In the evening we decided to get back since Kashmira and others had to leave the next day. But on the way we got off the vehicles and walked in Baghmara reserve forest which was dominated by Sal trees. After walking for more than an hour looking for squirrels, we found a loris, it was my first sighting of the slow loris, so I was ecstatic.

So, for a trip that lasted only about two days we had quite a few sightings! In fact it seems that in the land where souls of people and not people reside do support a lot of wildlife!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The trip to zuko, zuko...

‘Have cool, will travel’ was the motto of that trip in the year 2005, obviously picked up from a Megadeth’s song, who picked it up from where? I will let images speak louder than words, but to give you the general sequence of things…

Me and a good friend from Manipur, Bobby and his friends met at Kohima in July 2005, to get to Dzukou valley. We spent an evening buying supplies, with the adventurous thought of living up in a cave, trying to feel nostalgic about what homosapiens did thousands of years ago. Apart from that, more importantly, we wanted to see the valley half submerged in pink with the mass-flowering of the endemic lily, Lilium chitrangadae.

Thats Jakhama, the place (12 km away from Kohima) the trek begins from. The walk from Jakhama to the valley took us through a gradient of disturbed evergreen forests; initially up heavily human-modified forests and later into rhododendron patches and then down to the valley. Bro, our friend, who likes to be called nothing else but 'Bro', told us we need to keep shouting "Juko juko", if I could post an audio clip on the blog, I could tell you phonetically!

The walk was a bit tiring, amateur trekkers that we were; the walk took us six hours, I think the valley is about 10 km, not counting the angle-effort from Jakhama. We reached, and lo the valley was breathtaking, take a look...Mount Iso from Manipur is hiding behind the clouds.

Once we saw the valley, everything was relaxed and it was as if we just switched in to a zone where time stands still! We walked on and on looking for caves to stay. The ones nearby were all taken since July is the prime season when local kids visit the valley too. Here and there small shrubs were in bloom some white, some yellow and most pink, for the lily was in bloom. Everybody we met seemed happy; it was as if in the tranquility of the valley everyone was at peace. We moved on and found a small cave, enough for four of us and we parked. Heres the cave we booked for two days!

Next what, we needed a bath, enough to override the fact that the water was chilling. We braved in and bliss drowned us. Don’t we look happy? That’s me and bro.

The night was full of stars and we saw three satellites moving together in a triangular shape, and we couldn’t believe it was happening. Bro had taken some smoke before and we were wondering if we were affected too! We cooked noodles and in the small fire we made, bro dumped in the corn we bought. It was only then I realized that corn, when put into fire without peeling gets boiled and not roasted. We had forgotten chillies, but in the cave somebody had left salt, some masala and chilles in a cover(for us?). After the corn was ready with the dao our local friend ‘Pashchata’ carried we cut in strips of corn into the maggi and it was a sumptuous meal. We did not tell the maggi company otherwise they would have patented this recipe!

Morning was full of walks around the valley. We did see the lily up close and its looks subtly beautiful, check it out.

And in the gently undulated grassy slopes, Bobby was occasionally meditating, the person in the picture is bobby and not a girl!

We spent another two days in the valley, meeting and greeting people and occasionally grabbing a bath from the nearby dzukou river. The river freezes in winter and me and bobby promised we would be back some winter of our lives; that hasn’t happened yet. As the convention goes whatever we could not finish, like food and goods we left in the cave for the next batch that would live in the cave, just the way somebody left chillies for us!

Here are some of the conservation problems in the valley. As it happens, there might be few places on earth un-affected by the destructive ways we humans adopt.
* Everybody who comes to the valley writes in their names on the rocks, take a look at the cave picture. If there was a way to prevent this, the valley can retain its natural state.
* People dump covers all over the valley and these look definitely out of place.
* The locals burn the rhododendrons and once the trees are leafless, call it dead wood and use the same for fuel wood. There must be something the Forest Department can do about this. Afterall there could be an alternative of less conservation value for fuelwood than rhododendrons.

Me and Bobby also promised we have something to give back to the valley, a campaign to follow up the above, hasn’t happened yet and these thoughts are indeed cached in our head and hearts somewhere and we will return to follow up on the cause.

Cheers to other wander-lusty people.