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Part II: Renewal in the mountains

GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam S. Surya has been in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas conducting a survey of birds since May 25 to better understand the distributions of bird species here. Arunachal Pradesh has the second-highest terrestrial biodiversity on the planet, making it a bona fide biodiversity hotspot. With poetry, humor and intellect, Surya is capturing his adventures in a series of blog posts and photos. Follow along!

If you’re interested in supporting Suyra’s work and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, please consider making a donation through our Wild World Indiegogo campaign. Our goal is to raise $3,500 and any size donation will make a big difference!

(More) Reflections on Mandala (1 June 2015)

Leaving Mandala is always difficult. I always wonder whether I’ll be back, and if so, when it might be. I’ve managed to come back for three years so far, and I hope that frequency will continue.

I didn’t find any sign of the Bugun Liocichla on this trip, nor on any previous one. I didn’t really expect to, either, not because the habitat is unsuitable, but simply because I think the bird is truly that rare. Arunachal Pradesh has started to become quite popular among hardcore birdwatchers and photographers, many of whom would give a lot to claim credit for finding a new population of the species. Additionally, many of the birders (especially foreigners) who visit come with packaged tours. If finding the Bugun Liocichla in a new location is a feather in one’s cap for any birdwatcher, it is a much larger feather—and an enormous financial windfall—for a tour operator. The lack of any reports, even sketchy secondhand reports, is telling.

Leaving Mandala is also often difficult because of the connections we make during fieldwork. The first year I visited, I stayed in the house of a lady who charged a (relatively) exorbitant amount for the privilege of sleeping on her floor and eating very little indeed. The next year, I stayed in Dirang, 20 miles away, but ate lunch at her house every day. She remembered me quite well. Apparently I couldn’t quite get enough of the boiled rice and flavorless wild mushrooms. My team of a driver and a field assistant, both locals, disagreed, contenting themselves with instant noodles after the first day.

I still do not know this lady’s name. I called her either ‘Ama’ or ‘Didi,’ both honorifics for an older (but not old) lady in the local dialect and in Hindi, respectively. She doesn’t know my name either. Yet I can recall every detail of her house, and the patterns of the bowls she would serve food in.

The connections we make. The connections we don’t.

This year, when I reached the little hamlet at the pass, it was in dense fog—and my recollection of the exterior of her house wasn’t quite as good as the interior. I could hardly knock on each door asking for ‘Ama.’ So instead I made a guess and went inside one tiny little house/shop/teastall.

It wasn’t the ‘right’ one, but the lady living there was equally willing to make food for the stranger from New Delhi and his little entourage, in this case my sister and the driver. Wonderfully, she had some actual vegetables—a few green beans, some old potatoes—and some dal. She was also an excellent cook, accompanying this fare with a chutney made from a fermented legume that grows in the jungle, mashed together with copious amounts of chilis. I ate lunch in her house for four days. She was a sweet lady who looked far too young to be the mother of five grown children she claimed to be. She clearly didn’t understand why two seemingly prosperous-looking strangers from far-off Delhi would visit her remote little hamlet during the monsoon, but she decided that it was her duty to make sure we were well fed.

I do not know her name either, and she doesn’t know mine. Another ‘Didi.’ I do know that when I said goodbye on my last visit there, I was genuinely sad. I had paid her the (absurdly small) sum that she had requested for the food, and I knew that leaving her a tip would offend her pride—and that any larger gesture might invite jealousy from the people I had not patronized. So I said goodbye, turned away, and headed back down toward Dirang to the survey points I had intended to visit that afternoon.

When I wonder if I’ve been to Mandala for the last time, it isn’t only the wildlife and the forest that I’m thinking about.

Perceptions of wildlife, and conservation’s bubble

While heading from Dirang to my next stop, the hamlet of Sanghe, something caught my eye on the side of the road. Two girls, one about 12 or so, the other 4-5 years younger, were wandering along together close to a tiny settlement. They looked like sisters. This in itself is hardly unusual or worth a second glance. What was unusual, however, is that the older child had a string in her hand, the other end of which was tied around the neck of a subadult monkey. While I only caught a quick glimpse, the monkey seemed to be an Arunachal Macaque, a species described only very recently in 2005.

Conservation can be a bubble. This is neither necessarily a good thing, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. It simply is, and it is an important thing to remember. Practically everyone who works in conservation, upon seeing an Arunachal Macaque, would have similar thoughts. They would think about the fact that it is recently described, and still very little known. They would think, in particular, about the lack of information regarding its distribution and population status, and how that makes conservation decisions so very difficult. People more familiar with the Arunachal Macaque might also be familiar with the taxonomic questions regarding this particular population of monkeys, and whether it should in fact be considered a separate species—and what the conservation implications of that might be. To sum up, the reaction within the conservation bubble would be ‘Oooh, cool rare monkey! Wonder how it’s doing?’ And this would be much the same reaction, perhaps minus the second part, from practically any field zoologist or ecologist.

If the person in the bubble chanced to see what I saw, the monkey tied to a string, they’d also have a rather predictable reaction. They’d think about how rare the species is, and how recently it was described, and how humans are negatively affecting it. They’d think about all the species that we don’t even know exist, and that we are losing as I write this. They’d lament the loss of something that was gone before we could ever truly appreciate it.

What we sometimes forget is that this isn’t necessarily the dominant reaction. We forget that the ‘we’ in the previous paragraph is actually a very small subset of people, who happen to form a closely knit community largely held together by a very similar worldview. We forget that the girl doesn’t think of her monkey as a taxonomic riddle, or as a candidate for IUCN listing, or even as the Arunachal Macaque. She thinks of it as her pet, and its kind as something perhaps familiar and everyday—perhaps a pest, perhaps a nuisance, perhaps not, but certainly not with the same connotations that arise in our minds when we see the monkey ourselves.

It is this essential difference in the way that wildlife is perceived that is often the biggest barrier to conservation efforts. It inarguably takes the support, if not the full commitment and effort, of local people in order to achieve tangible conservation goals. Yet this difference in perception effectively means that the local people either do not realize the need for a given species-specific conservation effort, or else do not consider it worth the effort at all. In other words, they do not necessarily believe that the diversity surrounding them has any intrinsic worth, outside of their ability to exploit it. The switch between these perspectives is difficult to achieve, but it is necessary. This is where the true value of ecotourism as a solution worldwide comes through, as it creates a value for the diversity that then encourages efforts to protect it, for the financial benefits alone. This is hopefully an intermediate step toward appreciating the diversity for how amazing it is, and continuing to protect it for that reason.

Another intermediate step is to install a sense of connection between the people and the wildlife, beyond the one-way exploitation. The communities in question may not necessarily realize that the species surrounding them are found nowhere else on Earth. A realization of that uniqueness can foster a sense of pride, of ownership. It is their monkey, their bird, that people come from all over the world to see. And so it would be improper to kill our monkey, our bird – as opposed to simply the monkey, the bird.

This is one of the reasons that I attempt to talk to locals wherever I work, and explain to them that the reason I come there, as opposed to anywhere else, is that the wildlife they live with is completely unique. Hopefully, these small efforts, and those being made by many other researchers, eventually bear fruit.

The spectacular and cooperative Grandala let Surya and his sister walk up to handshaking distnace at Sela Pass.

High Altitude (4 June 2015)

“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”
–Anatoli Boukreev

The late, great Anatoli Boukreev states my feelings about working in high altitudes far better than I ever could. While bird diversity is much higher lower down, it is my surveys at high altitude that I enjoy the most. I think that it is the clean-ness of it all that appeals to me. The air is clean and clear. Habitation is far behind, and there is not a speck of plastic to be seen. There are no biting insects or leeches, only a few hardy bumblebees. The cold and snow that envelopes the region in winter preserves and purifies the land, and it emerges in the spring stronger and more pristine than before.

Tawang, in the Northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, is something of a tourist destination; it is also the place the Dalai Lama first fled to in 1959. The main road from Bhalukpong to Tawang reaches its highest point at the Sela Pass, at 13,700 feet. At the pass, there is a lake that is a popular tourist photo op for Indians travelling from the hot, dusty plains; in winter, people crowd here to see the snow and ice. As such, the area around Sela isn’t quite as pristine.

However, once you leave the immediate environs of the road, you enter a gorgeous landscape, even more so if you climb up from the pass, as I did, up to about 14,500 feet. Even in early June, it is near freezing, and there are patches of snow and ice on the ground. It is well above the tree line, and the habitat consists of patches of rhododendron interspersed with rocky slopes and scree. The birds here are few and far between, but those that are present are spectacular: the rare and enigmatic Gould’s Shortwing, an assortment of Rosefinches, and the incredible Himalayan Monal.

Unfortunately, high-altitude habitat like this is very likely to change rapidly in the coming years due to climate change. The exact effects are unknown, but by getting a sense of the current habitat requirements of high-altitude species, we can attempt to predict where they will end up under given climate change scenarios. This was the purpose of my trip to this area—to survey this area and try to understand the requirements of the species here.

I spent three days surveying the area, which were fairly successful. I missed out only on Blood Pheasant, of the species I was expecting to find, but was able to record almost everything else of interest that would be expected here. I also looked for the Bugun Liocichla further down, in decent-looking habitat below the hamlet of Sanghe, but failed to get a response.

My favorite moment of the last few days came at the pass proper. While stopped there for lunch, I saw a bird land along the shores of the lake, a hundred feet or so below and about 500 feet away. When I looked through my binoculars, I realized that it was a male Grandala, one of the most beautiful birds in India. On a whim, I asked my sister if she wanted to try and hike out toward it, to get a better look. And so we did.

When we got within 50 yards or so, I told her to take a few pictures, in case it didn’t let us get any closer. I said the same thing at 30 yards. And 20. And 10. And 5. And when it flew away, it wasn’t because of us, but another male Grandala that chased it away, then flew around in a loop and landed five feet away from us as we stared disbelievingly.

This concludes my work in Western Arunachal Pradesh for this year, terrain that has been reasonably well covered by researchers and where it seems increasingly unlikely that we will find a new population of the Bugun Liocichla. Over the next few days, I will be heading over toward the Mishmi Hills and Eastern Arunachal Pradesh, looking for the Liocichla as ever, but also surveying for the endemic, and equally little-known, Mishmi Wren-babbler. Stay tuned!

Link to other parts of this series:

Part I: The Magic of Mandala

Part III: In search of the Mishmi Wren-babbler

Part IV: Snakes, potatoes and bandhs

Part V: Realities of the field

Part VI: Landslides and jugaad

Part VII: Magic of the field

About the Author

Gautam Surya

Gautam Surya

Gautam S. Surya was born in the United States and grew up in India, before returning to the United States for college. He completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology at Tufts University in 2011, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour Department at the University of Texas. His major interest is birds; he has worked for three field seasons in Northeast India, attempting to catalogue and map the avian biodiversity there, and hopes to do so for many more years to come.