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Arunachal: Where Elephants Roam at 10,000 feet

By STEPHEN ALTER
November 21, 2019 10:35 IST

'This is the only place on earth where Elephas maximus climbs to these heights.'
A fascinating excerpt from Stephen Alter's Wild Himalaya: A Natural History Of The Greatest Mountain Range On Earth.

IMAGE: A mahout walks with his elephant near Chowkham village on the road to the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Parth Sanyal/Reuters
 

At 4 am, as we set out on foot from camp, at the Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, the jungle is submerged in darkness.

Arunachal Pradesh means 'land of the dawn-lit mountains' and this region, once known as NEFA, lies at the eastern edge of the Himalaya.

Here the sun rises an hour earlier than it does in Kashmir, at the opposite end of the time zone.

Sensing a new day, even before the sky brightens, the birds have already risen.

IMAGE: A Bugun Liocichla rests on the branch of a tree at the Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Ramana Athreya/Reuters

IMAGE: The Himalayan Serow Pangolakha. Photograph: Kind courtesy Dibyendu Ash/Creative Commons

Eaglenest Sanctuary contains more than just birds.

Driving along the forest track, we turn a corner and come upon a male serow (Naemorhedus sumatraensis) in the middle of the road.

With a dark brown coat, prominent ears and short spiked horns, it looks like a cross between a donkey and a goat.

Usually a reclusive animal that stays hidden within the underbrush, this one seems unbothered by our presence and takes his time before climbing the hill out of sight.

Belonging to the same family as goral, these goat-antelopes are found throughout the Himalaya up to Kashmir, though serow are more plentiful in the east, ranging across Southeast Asia.

IMAGE: A red panda. Photograph: Kind courtesy Brunswyk/Creative Commons

Eaglenest is home to clouded leopards and golden cats as well as red pandas.

The other large mammal in these forests is the mithun, a cross-breed of wild gaur and domestic cattle that stands almost 2 metres at the shoulder.

Tribal communities raise semi-feral mithun and these massive animals are considered a measure of a man's wealth.

Wandering through the sanctuary, we encounter several mithun with dangerous-looking horns.

They seem docile enough, browsing in the forest, but could do a lot of damage if provoked.

IMAGE: The Mithun. Photograph: Kind courtesy balu/Creative Commons

The biggest surprise, however, is finding elephants at 3,000 metres above sea level.

This is the only place on earth where Elephas maximus climbs to these heights.

The forest is full of bamboo and wild bananas, but the terrain seems too steep and temperatures too cold for elephants.

Nevertheless, on one of our morning bird walks, we come upon recent prints in the mud as well as fresh clods of dung.

Less than 200 metres away, I can hear a herd in the jungle, breaking branches.

Not wanting to confront them on a narrow mountain trail, we leave the elephants alone.

 

IMAGE: A statue of Lord Buddha in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

Though Arunachal Pradesh is now an Indian state, China claims that most of this territory was once part of Tibet.

In 1962, the People's Liberation Army crossed over Bum La and took Indian forces by surprise.

During a brief border war, the Chinese penetrated as far as Bomdila, about 30 kilometres from Eaglenest sanctuary.

As the Indian Army regrouped and fought back, they positioned an artillery battery on the high point of the ridge at the centre of the sanctuary, facing Bomdila.

The guns have long since been removed, but Micah recalls collecting shell casings and other scrap metal from the site when he was a boy.

IMAGE: Eaglenest forest in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Kind courtesy Kalyanvarma/Creative Commons

The dense forests and rugged terrain were difficult to defend but, fortunately for India, the Chinese commanders realized that they had overextended themselves and retreated before snow fell on the high passes.

IMAGE: Indian soldiers march near an army base on India's Tezpur-Tawang highway, in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Frank Jack Daniel/Reuters

Since then, this mountainous frontier has been heavily militarised and new highways have been built up to the border.

Tensions continue and for many years Arunachal Pradesh was closed to tourists.

Even today, both foreign and Indian visitors are required to get a 'restricted area permit'.

Military installations are everywhere, with regiments from all across India stationed here to guard the border.

Though the army camps are neatly maintained and squads of soldiers pick up trash along the roadside, the environmental impact of militarisation is inevitable.

IMAGE: An Indian Army truck drives along India's Tezpur-Tawang highway. Photograph: Frank Jack Daniel/Reuters

Aside from the fact that Indian Army aesthetics seem to dictate that every rock should be painted white, the fences and fuel depots, lines of barracks and supply sheds are impossible to ignore, even when hidden under camouflage netting.

Convoys of trucks, carrying troops, equipment and rations, inch their way up the switchbacks, emitting clouds of diesel exhaust.

Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, Eaglenest has been spared from army occupation.

Had the old NEFA road been widened it would have certainly destroyed the Bugun liocichla's habitat and disturbed many other rare species in these forests.

Even the few short sections of the road that are being paved to provide easier access to the sanctuary are causing damage.

Though the original NEFA road leads down to the plains of Assam, only 40 kilometres away, we leave the mountains by a much longer, more circuitous route.

Micah and others have warned us that Bodo insurgents still operate at the foot of the hills below Eaglenest and it is better to avoid this region and travel to Guwahati by the military highway.

A few years back, a group of butterfly enthusiasts were kidnapped and held for ransom.

The extended detour offers us an opportunity to compare the forests along the highway with the protected jungles of the sanctuary.

It comes as no surprise that the motor road has caused widespread destruction.

Not only are there large military transit camps but also a number of temporary shanties for road crews, all of whom depend on the forest for firewood and bamboo.

IMAGE: A view of a landslide-affected mountain is seen near Wakro village on the road to the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph: Parth Sanyal/Reuters

More than anything, erosion is the most evident result of road building and it has a devastating effect on the forests.

At several points, where the slope is unstable, landslides have carried away most of the vegetation leaving huge lesions of mud and rock.

IMAGE: A bulldozer clears a landslide from the Tezpur-Tawang highway. Photograph: Frank Jack Daniel/Reuters

While the highway linking Tezpur with Tawang was initially constructed fifty years ago by the defence ministry's Border Roads Organisation, it remains in a perpetual state of disrepair, with JCB power shovels clearing rubble and dumping debris into streams and rivers.

Military planners, whose first priority is national security, require motorized access to border regions and they show little concern for ecology that gets in the way.

IMAGE: Troops, from the Indian Army's Red Horn division, on patrol in Kamrup district in Assam, August 8, 2001. Photograph: Reuters

Crossing the state border into Assam, we see a number of paramilitary camps set up to deal with Bodo insurgents.

Despite years of hostility and bloodshed, however, the region seems remarkably peaceful, at least on the surface.

Passing through a small roadside village, I notice a group of four women praying in front of a potted plant.

Only later, in an article by folklorist Faguna Barmahalia, do I learn that the Bodo people, who are animists by tradition, consider a flowering shrub, Euphorbia milii, a living symbol of their supreme deity, Bathoubrai.

Known locally as 'sijou' and as 'Christ thorn' or 'crown of thorns' in the West, this hardy, cactus-like spurge, with delicate pink flowers, is planted at Bodo altars and represents the resilience of life because it can grow under almost any conditions.

IMAGE: Kolia Bhomora Setu, a road bridge over the Brahmaputra river near Tezpur and Kaliabor in Assam. Photograph: Kind courtesy Kangkan Hazarika/Creative Commons

As we drive over a bridge spanning the Brahmaputra at Tezpur, the broad alluvial current stretches between forested hills and tea gardens.

IMAGE: A tea garden in Assam. Photograph: Kind courtesy Deeporaj/Creative Commons

It is a striking contrast to my memories of the Tsang Po in Tibet, where the river begins as a tiny rivulet near Mount Kailas.

The Himalaya are now an indistinct blur of blue ridges to the north and we have left behind the dense forests of Eaglenest with its multitude of birds.

A few egrets are wading in a rice paddy and an occasional myna flies overhead.

Along the highway, beyond Tezpur, I spot an Amur falcon perched on a power line.

Further east of here, in the hills of Nagaland, these tiny raptors, no larger than a pigeon, migrate in swarms, their graceful silhouettes filling the sky.

Several years ago this annual passage was threatened when local fishermen strung nets in the trees and caught hundreds of falcons to be sold as meat.

Fortunately, conservationists intervened and the migration of Amur falcons has become a popular tourist attraction, saving the birds before they could have been wiped out.

IMAGE: The Amur falcon. Photograph: Kind courtesy DrewHeath/Creative Commons

Though we leave Arunachal Pradesh with an indelible sense of nature's rampant diversity, our trip ends on a disturbing note.

Friends had recommended that we stop to see a flock of greater adjutant storks on the outskirts of Guwahati.

As the sun is setting through a haze of pollution over the city, we turn off the highway and ask for directions to the garbage dump.

After seven days in the pristine forests of the Eastern Himalaya, we suddenly find ourselves in a smouldering wasteland of accumulated filth with mountains of refuse ignited by spontaneous combustion.

IMAGE: Storks sitting on huge piles of rubbish on the outskirts of Guwahati. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yathin S Krishnappa/Creative Commons

Perched on these huge piles of burning rubbish are hundreds of storks, stooped like solemn hunchbacks with bald heads and heavy beaks.

Hanging under their throats is a loose pouch of skin that looks like a deflated balloon.

A few kites and crows circle through the smoke, but most of the birds are Leptopilos dubius, their charcoal black wings folded over legs as thin as sticks of bamboo.

Making hoarse, croaking noises they argue with each other and flap their wings.

Like the steppe eagles outside Dehradun, these flesh-eating birds feed on scraps of carrion brought here from butcher shops and road kills all over the city.

Mixed with the sour, charred odour of smoke is the putrid stench of decomposing flesh.

Worse still is the presence of ragpickers who live in hovels along the margins of the dump, scavenging whatever recyclable materials can be gleaned.

Children run about barefoot through streams of sewage and glaciers of broken glass, while the grim birds look like creatures out of an apocalyptic mirage.

Reminded of the giant man-eating birds of Sherdukpen folklore, I can't help feeling that this is how our world may end, a grotesque vision of a polluted land, populated by carnivorous storks, who squawk and squabble over rotting skin, entrails and bones.

 

Wild Himalaya: A Natural History Of The Greatest Mountain Range On Earth

Excerpted from Wild Himalaya: A Natural History Of The Greatest Mountain Range On Earth, by Stephen Alter, with the kind permission of the publishers, Aleph Book Company.

STEPHEN ALTER
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