Namdapha, Haven of Biodiversity (2010)

Namdapha, Haven of Biodiversity (2010)

The mahout cuts a humungous green bamboo pole from a thicket, and with four neat slashes, transforms it into a step-ladder for us to alight from the elephant. We’re now on the forest floor, piled high with sodden leaves and buzzing with butterflies and insects. The jungle is deep and dark and sunlight filters in slender shafts, rather reluctantly through the chinks in the forest canopy. We step gingerly so as not to disturb the pulsating life all around. A coppery pink snake slithers underfoot and disappears into the foliage.  A woodpecker stops its hammering to watch the intruders with interest.

We’re in Namdapha Game Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, a four- hour drive from Digboi. It is a beautiful drive through the tea gardens of upper Assam past towns with romantic names like Margharita, Ledo and Lekapani. The first town in Arunachal is Miau, known for its carpet factory. En route we come across a bevy of local girls ferrying water on their heads.

Home of the Snow Leopard

Namdapha, the 2000 square kilometer expanse of unspoilt tropical jungle is an official tiger reserve and is said to host all four varieties of the big cat – leopard, snow leopard, tiger and clouded leopard. Throughout our stay at Deban, the forest lodge, the cats, being shy creatures, remain elusive, but we have hoolock gibbons for company. You awaken to their strident and insistent calls and catch a tantalizing glimpse of their simian acrobatics as they leap from one tree to another, always at the canopy level. Once you’ve heard a hoolock, their plaintive calls haunt you for a long long time.

Deban is perched on the banks of the Noa Dihing river, yet another tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra, and you can stay in thatched cottages raised on stilts right on the pebbled beach of the river. At night you have the soothing gurgle of the river to put you to sleep while a myriad avian fauna join the gibbons in their chorus at dawn. The whole forest is veiled in seductive mist which lifts only reluctantly as the sun sails up the horizon.

Feast for the Senses

Namdapha is a feast for the senses. The giant trees festooned with wild orchids, the almost unseemly fecundity of the wild bananas, the bright russet and gold of the tree tops whose very leaves seem to have metamorphosed into a flaming floral symphony,  the army of butterflies that seduce you with a flap of their flourescent wings, the forest  is truly a visual delight. The gentle fragrance of the orchid blossoms is smothered by the heady assault of ripening bananas. Your guide plucks wild sweet berries for you to taste even as you are serenaded by the distant calls of a wild sambhar or the low rumble of a herd of elephants somewhere far away.

At dawn, we set out on elephant back across the river. Deceptively calm and crystal clear from a distance, the river reveals its rapids and eddies under the surface. It is not very deep here and the river bed is visible as if through a clear glass. Your pachyderm tries to balance its sturdy feet on the pebbles some of which crunch ominously. It takes three quarters of an hour to cross the river and then begins the foray into a universe darkened by stately trees and pulsating with the denizens of a tropical biosphere. The deafening silence is rent by an occasional bird call. Flying squirrels spread out their membrane impressively and dart through the foliage, sunlight diffusing through their translucent wings. All the while, you’re mobbed by multi-coloured butterflies.

Rush Hour in the Canopy

Soon it is rush hour in the highways of the forest canopy. There is frenzied movement of apes, not just the gibbon, but also macaques and the more common langurs all flying, leaping, gliding and swinging across branches in search of ripe figs or bananas. Food is in profusion here no doubt, but the choice pickings seem to be concentrated, inciting a bit of a stampede and frayed tempers. This is one repast which the avians will share reluctantly with the simians.

Our guide, a young lad of the Lisu tribe, like all his kinsmen, is perfectly in tune with his environment. He points to the numerous bird species that populate the branches, explaining their feeding and breeding habits in his broken Hindi. He can speak English and a smattering of German as well. The park is said to host 500 species of birds including the magnificent hornbills, blue barbets, snowy-throated babblers, white-bellied herons and many other species which you won’t encounter in any other part of India.  The Lisus, Singhpho and Tangsa, the main tribes of this region are primarily hunter-gatherers, but in recent years, have been slowly encroaching into the forest, practising shifting cultivation, but such is the pressure on land in this part of the world.

Namdapha is a trekkers’ paradise. Our trek takes us through a narrow pathway hemmed in by very tall trees covered in cobweb-like parasitic creepers. If you keep going for a whole week, you’ll reach Vijayanagar on the Myanmar border, we’re told. “Do people actually walk that far?” I ask in astonishment. Of course they do, if they have to. There are few options for those living in these outposts. There is a weekly helicopter service, but that is chancy and expensive and most people here have learnt to rely on their own two sturdy feet to carry them anywhere. A group of British hikers who will be arriving at Deban the next week plans to do precisely that. With the help of an able guide and enough provisioning, tent and other equipment, they will explore the forest for the next one week, something I would love to do someday. For the present, I have to be satisfied with this brief peek into this tropical paradise.

(Published in The Tribune on Feb 27, 2011)


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