While in Assam, I find myself in a dense forest scattered with broken branches, wild plants, and towering Hollong trees that are said to be the tallest trees in the state (said to grow as tall as a 150 feet). Sunlight streams through the canopy of leaves, forming patterns on the mud pathway. I have to stop and catch my breath as butterflies flutter near me, a myriad of colors shimmering in the sun.
The hilly northeast is a treasure trove of flora and fauna owing to its geographical location as well as sensitivity towards wildlife conservation. Assam has quite a reputation for its conservation efforts towards the famed one-horned rhino that’s indigenous to the tall grasslands and forests of these Himalayan plains. Now, only 2,000 remain in all of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and India combined. And in Assam, you can see the urgency with which their conservation is taking place in the Kaziranga National Park, the Manas National Park, the Pobitora reserve forest, the Orang National Park, and the Laokhowa reserve forest.
But even though the spotlight shines on this majestic beast, there’s a 20sq km area close to the town of Jorhat that’s home to another endangered species – the Hoolock Gibbon. The only apes in the country, the eastern Hoolock Gibbons are also found in Arunachal Pradesh, southern China and north-east Myanmar. Being a wildlife enthusiast, I thought it would be disrespectful to leave without a visit to this fairly unknown sanctuary that’s hidden amidst Kaziranga’s fame and Jorhat’s bustle.
As soon as I step into the forest premises, I am greeted with loud shrill calls from what felt like a fair height. My guide, Deepak Bordoloy, the Beat Officer at the forest, has two words for me: Hoolock Gibbon. We waste no time in rushing into the thick(et) of it all. A few narrow streams and narrower escapes from bee hives later, we arrive at the source of the noise. And there’s a gibbon family, well camouflaged by the trees.
A black and brown pair on the edge of the Hollong’s highest branch stare down at us curiously. “Aha! There’s the baby,” exclaims Bordoloy pointing to a flash of black swing from one branch to the next. These gibbons are arboreal and you have to crane your neck to spot the restless apes. With a life expectancy of about 25 years, they form monogamous pairs that remain together. Females give birth every 2-3 years and the offspring remains within the family group for 7-10 years before leaving the group to find a mate. There are 160 gibbons at Hollongapar.
After balancing across a branch onto a more solid pathway, I’m introduced to the Butterfly trail where clusters of multi-coloured butterflies hover close to the ground, feeding on the nectar of fallen jackfruit or soaking in the sunlight. We spot the Common Pierrot, Tiger Hopper, Dark Velvet Bob, and the Unbroken Sergeant and Constables. A spider lurks, not too far away; at the end of a two-hour walk, I’ve probably spotted twenty.
Walking through the sanctuary, I keep my eyes peeled for the other residents, the stump-tailed macaque, the northern pig-tailed macaque, the eastern Assamese macaque, the rhesus macaque, the capped langur, and even the slow-loris. The last is perhaps the most difficult to spot, coming out only when familiar humans visit.
Bordoloy tells me that elephants too pass through the sanctuary, which is part of the elephant corridor leading to the Dissoi Valley Reserve Forest and onward to neighboring Nagaland. “The elephants give us right of way, and recognise our voice. If you respect their space, they are bound to respect yours,” says Bordoloy, adding that he has guided many lost elephants from the villages back into the sanctuary in the 15 years that he’s worked here. Bordoloy’s only advice: “Never venture near a lone elephant, they often have a mind of their own.”
The afternoon sun is burning down as I make my way out of the forest. My mind is swimming with thoughts about how a sanctuary that lies so close to a city, holds such a significant portion of our fauna. It makes you gain perspective on the amount of land we have taken over for our own use, leaving only patches for other beings.