Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A day with the Great hornbills and their great protectors!

Its not any day that one begins in a crowded city like Bangalore and sleeps the night in Arunachal Pradesh! And its even rarer to sleep the same night in a wildlife sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh! One day in September, I reached Guwahati by 11 in the morning after a two and a half hour flight and then travelled on a four-wheeler to Tezpur, then on to Seijosa to finally reach the Pakke Jungle camp at about 10 pm. This camp is run by Help Tourism and the local Ghora Aabhe Society, and is supported by the Forest Department and the Nature Conservation Foundation. I stayed in a modest bamboo house on stilts and slipped into a restful sleep with the lullaby-hum of a river closeby.

The morning in Pakke began with the familiar calls of the hyperactive Great Barbets. The cicadas too were already calling tirelessly and the swifts were collecting their breakfast from a mid-air buffet. It had rained all night and the morning seem to begin only lazily, but finally at about 7 am the sun did pierce through the clouds. With all this happening, the feeling that I was indeed in Arunachal was still only slowly seeping in.

Aparajita Datta was travelling to the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary for a meeting of the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme and I had accompanied her. The programme, initiated in January 2012, aims to protect hornbill nests around Pakke by forming a unique collaboration between the Nature Conservation Foundation, Nyishi tribal headsmen from villages around the Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary who identify and protect nests, the State Forest Department and urban citizens who fund the programme. In the meeting, a summary of the 2012-13 programme success was provided, the next years activities were discussed and the nest protectors were gifted t-shirts with a Great Hornbill embroidery. It was heartening to see that the local Nyishi protectors were also taking lot of interest in the initiative. Below they all got together for a group photo. The first photo was a serious one and then the old man in the bottom right wearing the hornbill t-shirt said something funny and everybody laughed!

In the evening it was time to see the hornbills! We visited the Kameng river and were treated to a view of twin rainbows with the sanctuary in the background.

The other side of the river was beautiful too, it was a collage of clouds.

Just before sunset one can catch a glimpse of Wreathed Hornbills flying to their roost sites for the night. While we waited there for about 45 minutes we saw more than 15 hornbills, some in pairs and some in groups of three or more crossing the Kameng river to reach their roost sites.

Interestingly the hornbills roost in the night at the edge of the sanctuary where deforestation is relatively high and where they are also vulnerable to hunting by the locals. But for now, it seemed like the hornbills were safe due to the efforts of the Forest Department spearheaded by the Divisional Forest Officer Tana Tapi. Mr. Tana Tapi has been awarded several awards such as the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award 2010, the Earth Hero Award, 2010 and the WWF-Bagh Mitra award, 2011 for his efforts in Pakke. The day ended with an acute sense of hope for the hornbills in Pakke owing to the relentless efforts of the likes of Tana Tapi, Aparajita Datta and others at Pakke. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Memories of Garo hills

In the year 2006, I had applied for a job in South Garo hills, Meghalaya and having got the job I was really excited to move to north-east India from Bangalore. I have always lived with my parents and had never been away from home for more than a week. But here I was, a home-made South-Indian coffee-drinking vegetarian relocating to a site in north-east India, that is relatively far from home, where coffee was unavailable and vegetarian food often tastes bland! But hey, I was excited and motivated and that was the most important thing. Often, the lack of these is the reason one cannot enjoy situations one is not accustomed to.

After an overnight journey from Guwahati, morning had begun in West Garo hills. The long winding road passed through a swathe of thick forests pockmarked with betel nut, cashew nut, orange plantations and shifting cultivation patches. I had visited parts of north-east earlier, but I had a little idea of what to expect from South Garo hills. By the time I reached Baghmara, the headquarter of South Garo hills district, I was delighted to see the Simsang river, sandy beds along the river, forested hills on the other side of the river and to hear gibbons calling from the forests was an icing on the cake.

I settled in quite quickly. I was shown the room in the office where I would stay and then I met the cook in the kitchen whose expertise was Alu parathas for breakfast! The thing was that in Garo hills, the Garos eat only two meals a day; one heavy breakfast and one heavy dinner. In between, they eat a snack of boiled tapioca or yam or oranges or bananas or anything that they often grow locally. The job that I took up involved field work in the community forests around the villages in the landscape for at least half the month. So, during field work, I would eat two meals a day in spite of the hard physical work of walking around the hills in South Garo hills and while I was in Baghmara, not doing much of physical work other than the walks I used to take around the town, I used to eat three meals, since three meals were cooked by our cook. So after a month or so I decided that it wasn't working, I shifted to two relatively big meals a day. Thus adapted, even today I can eat just two meals a day. Its also a good practice since then you really look forward to the meal and enjoy the food too.

The problem of being vegetarian wasn't a big one since in the office in Baghmara, we had a cook. But during field work in the villages in the region, I had found it difficult to cope. On one occasion, after a whole day's walk along the forests around a village, we bought some vegetables to take to a home who would cook for us a meal. Since I had eaten only a single meal in the day, I really looked forward to that meal. The food came while I was stuck in a thought about why the kitchen was smelling so different, and I had even nailed down what it could have been, rotten fish! I started eating my food and realised that my field assistant had bought some dried fish to spike our food with protein. For a vegetarian to eat meat or fish when he is starving is one thing, but eating dried fish without any initiation is completely different! I hardly ate even the gravy since the entire dish raked of the smell. Thankfully, there were bananas, I ate lots of them and slipped off into a well-earned sleep.

By the end of the six months in Garo hills, I had turned into a non-vegetarian with no exceptions. But dried fish I only started eating a year ago, and in fact enjoy it too. A South Garo hills delicacy was the eel curry. Cooked in its blood, I still don't remember eating fish that tasty after seven years now. My field assistant and I were also on rare occasions treated with the local chicken at some villages.

After about three months living in the office in Baghmara, I decided to have my own home. It was by the Simsang river, the sandy shore began after my window and the wind and the view were overwhelming. A minor issue was the cooking! For the first time in my life I was going to cook for myself and by the end of the three months living by myself I had learnt quite a bit. I even brewed my own filter coffee! Milk came from a milkmaid can and cheese cracker biscuits were often the breakfast. All in all, those times in Baghmara were a precursor to my times in the north-east later. I will always be fond of those memories and will always consider Baghmara as a stepping stone to my experiences in other parts of north-east India.

PS: I was lucky to have a film camera then, am posting here scanned pictures from the times spent there.
Garo kids enjoying a game of football on the banks of Simsang river
South Garo hills is twined with several streams. During tiring field work along the streams, the best break was to take a dip!
A view of the bridge over Simsang river from the office. During tiring desk work, the best break was to climb up the hill we were on and take in the view.
A Garo kid in Panda village adjoining the Indo-Bangladesh border
Friends from Garo hills, Fernando to my left and Ericstone to my right, yes his name was Ericstone, he also had a friend called Rolling Stone!
This was my room with a view for three months in Baghmara