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Exploring the wild world of the Eastern Himalayas: A Q&A with Gautam Surya

GWC associate conservation scientist Gautam Surya is headed into the forests of Indian state Arunachal Pradesh to conduct one of the first ever and most comprehensive bird surveys in the Eastern Himalayas, the second-most biodiverse place in the world. We caught up with Gautam ahead of his trip to find out what he hopes to find—and why this work is so important to global biodiversity.

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We’ll periodically be posting updates from Gautam in the field here on this blog over the next two months, so be sure to check back.

Stripe-throated Yuhina (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

Stripe-throated Yuhina (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

1) What’s the goal of your field work?

The goal of the upcoming field season is to conduct a thorough survey across the state of Arunachal Pradesh, in order to better understand the distribution of bird species across the region. This in turn allows us to assess how well the existing system of protected areas actually protects the birdlife of the region, and also allows us to prioritize areas for future conservation action.

2) Why is this work important?

I work in the second-most biodiverse place on the planet, the Eastern Himalayas. Unfortunately, rapid population growth and climate change are likely to cause severe disturbances to the region in the upcoming few decades. On the plus side, large tracts of the area are still pristine forest. Therefore, this area offers a combination of high diversity, conservation opportunity and immediate need that is arguably unparalleled globally. Additionally, the entire area is underexplored and there are many undescribed species. Protecting land will offer the opportunity for a more leisurely cataloging of the biodiversity present there.

Rhacophorus (photo by Gautam S. Surya)

Rhacophorus (photo by Gautam S. Surya)

3) What does the world stand to lose if you don’t do this work?

Where to begin? There are something like 10 cat species inhabit this little corner of the world, and 4 bears, 600 or so bird species, unknown numbers of reptiles and amphibians, countless invertebrates and plants. We have barely categorized the large, conspicuous things, and that is hardly scratching the surface of the overall diversity of the region. The loss would be incalculable.

4) What makes Arunachal Pradesh so special?

To begin with, the variety of habitats—an altitudinal gradient that stretches from the plains, at close to sea level, up over 22,000 feet creates an incredible diversity of places that animals and plants call home. You go from grasslands on the banks of broad rivers, through humid dense foothill forests, through evergreen subtropical rainforest with stands of bamboo, to the scrubbier oak-dominated vegetation higher up, and through a belt of coniferous forests up above the treeline. And the area above the treeline has its own diversity—rhododendron scrub, alpine meadows and grasslands, scree, dwarf conifers…the list goes on. It’s also extremely seasonal, with the monsoon rains from June until August, making it one of the rainiest places on Earth. And again, there’s the incredible diversity.

Snake

5) Are you going on your own or with a team?

I am the only researcher, but I will be traveling with a field assistant and a driver. My field assistant is a person from a lower caste, which still means something in rural India—he grew up in extreme poverty. He has worked for an ecotourism group, and has trained himself to become an excellent birder who is as familiar as anyone with the areas I will be visiting.

6) Do you have any personal connection to this area of the world?

As a kid growing up in India, the Northeast was always a mysterious and far-away place that I always wanted to visit. I was also a birdwatcher, and when I got my first field guide, I flipped through it eagerly – and found that most of the coolest birds were only found there. I’ve been wanting to work in Arunachal Pradesh since I was about 11 – and now I am!

(Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

(Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

7) What was it like the first time you stepped foot in Arunachal Pradesh?

First time in the forest was amazing, unbelievable. Couldn’t believe I was actually there. I got to camp in the evening, and almost the first thing I heard was a male elephant roaring (they roar!) in the valley below. The next day, I was so excited I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and started birding just before sunrise (which is 3:50-ish). One of the very first birds I saw was the Bugun Liocichla, discovered at that very camp in 1998 and first described in 2005. It is critically endangered, and despite my best efforts, we have found it nowhere else.

When I got to the inner camp, even more remote, two days later, I did the same thing. Not 30 yards out from camp, I looked down into the ravine I was walking along—and looking back at me, at point-blank range, was a gorgeous male Blyth’s Tragopan. It was so close, I knew I had no chance to get a photo as the movement would spook it, so we both froze for about a minute and stared at each other. I tried to slide my camera out, and it slipped away. It was 3:59 a.m.—the notes from that encounter (Blyth’s Tragopan is very rare) are the first notes I took in the field doing this project. It’s still the only one I’ve seen.

Mishmi Wren Babbler (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

Mishmi Wren Babbler (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

8) What’s the coolest animal you’ve seen there?

Hard to narrow down to one. Seeing Bugun Liocichla, an endemic, was excellent. Ditto the also-endemic Mishmi Wren-babbler, first discovered in 1947 and then rediscovered in 2004—the first time I saw the species was at the rediscovery site. Other than that, Asiatic Black Bear was pretty cool. I’ve also seen a couple of undescribed snakes. Finally, Rhacophorus translineatus (no common name) is an incredible-looking frog.

9) How are you in developing a conservation plan for this area?

The major challenge facing us in the Eastern Himalayas is that we simply do not understand where species are located, and therefore it is almost impossible to do any meaningful conservation work. Once we better understand the distribution of threatened species, we can start prioritizing areas for conservation action.

Himalayan Cutia (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

Himalayan Cutia (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

10) Why do biodiversity surveys matter?

Biodiversity surveys matter because we simply don’t understand where to place reserves. It also matters because we don’t really know much about the taxonomy and classification of species (other than birds and some other vertebrates, and perhaps some butterflies and beetles) in this region. Finally, biodiversity surveys allow us to have a detailed baseline that can then be used to monitor the effects of climate change.

About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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