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 passion, 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!
The Siang Valley and the meaning of the word jugaad (1 July 2015)
In Arunachal Pradesh, there are five main rivers. From west to east, they are the Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Dibang and Lohit. Each of these rivers cuts a valley through the Himalayas, and of the few roads in the region, most run along one or other of these rivers. Over the last three summers that I have worked here, including this one, I have surveyed altitudinal transects in four of these five valleys. The only one I had not yet visited was the Siang Valley.
That has now changed, as I am currently in Yingkiong, the district headquarters of the Upper Siang district, in the heart of the Siang Valley drainage. Getting here from Tinsukia was quite an adventure. To begin with, the vehicle repairs that were needed turned out to be rather more than minor. After taking a quick look at the brakes, the mechanic asked incredulously: “You came out of the hills like this? How did you get here alive?” In characteristic Indian fashion, my driver Kalu chose that moment to inform me that yes, sir, he had a sense that the brakes were almost nonfunctional too, but he didn’t want to tell me because, well, he was managing fine, wasn’t he? The Hindi word for manage, jugaad, is often used when the seemingly inexplicable is made to look like a matter of course. That absurdly overloaded bus never, ever crashes? Jugaad! People drive like lunatics, obeying no consistent or coherent set of principles, and yet somehow don’t die in horrible accidents? Jugaad! Driving a hundred or so miles on narrow, twisting roads with steep drops and no guardrails, without brakes, and making this seem like an everyday occurrence rather than the definitive proof of divine interference in human affairs? Jugaad!
With a set of fully functional brakes, we then drove to Pasighat (headquarters of the East Siang district) on June 30, crossing a rather swollen Brahmaputra River at the Bogibeel ferry. For those American readers who are imagining something like the ferry between Port Bolivar and Galveston on the Texas coast, with their massive, unsinkable boats each carrying dozens of cars at a time, put those thoughts out of your mind. Imagine instead a set of ramshackle wooden structures, brightly painted, each exactly as wide as a car is long. Precisely four cars can fit onto each of these things, parked so close together that the mirrors need to be folded in. On either side of the parking space, there is a small platform, with some seating on top of it and also underneath. This is crammed full of people. Needless to say, there are no lifejackets—it is doubtful that anyone has heard of a lifejacket. In India, the number of major catastrophes that occur is stunningly small, given that barely anyone seemed to be batting an eyelid at this spectacle or the many others like it across the country. Jugaad strikes again!
The Siang Valley is home to two protected areas—Mouling National Park and the D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary. For whatever reason, there is precious little information that is easily accessible as to precisely where these things are (never mind trail maps or anything as advanced as that). As such, our first stop was with the Divisional Forest Officer in charge of D’Ering, who is located in Pasighat. This gentleman is one of the more impressive, knowledgeable and dedicated Forest Department employees I have had the privilege of meeting. He regretfully pointed out that D’Ering is in fact a set of islands in the middle of the Siang, which was now flooded, making the sanctuary inaccessible. He was kind enough to give us directions to Mouling, which turned out to be a full day’s journey away upriver from Pasighat, on the west bank of the Siang. Instead of going straight to Mouling, we decided to go first to Yingkiong, about 10 miles away from Mouling on the east bank of the Siang and 100 miles from Pasighat. We had vaguely heard that there was some reasonably intact forest around the town, and wanted to find out if that were true.
The drive to Yingkiong today turned out to be one of the most nerve-wracking journeys I have ever done in Arunachal Pradesh (and that includes the one two years ago where my driver stopped for lunch, then promptly smoked a joint and downed three shots before getting back behind the wheel). The road was absolutely appalling. Kalu really earned his keep with a brilliant, nine-hour effort with almost no breaks on completely unfamiliar roads—and yes, it took nine hours to drive 100 miles. At one point, a large metal piece broke off the underside of the car. Kalu announced that it was the “fifth patti,” whatever that meant, and that it was unnecessary, which seemed rather unlikely as most cars are not known for having redundant pieces of metal four inches wide and a foot long attached to the undercarriage. Once again, the power of jugaad protected us.
About 90 percent of the way there, there was a baby landslide that had blocked the road. Because there were no helpful GREF crews around, and the block was minor, we cleared it ourselves, along with the occupants of another vehicle that were travelling right in front of us. It quickly became apparent that the landslide wasn’t so much in the past as it was in the present, a fact that was underscored by the constant shower of pebbles and mud from above. This in itself wasn’t so bad; however, the three occasions where a basketball-sized chunk of rock came careening down from 75 feet above weren’t nearly as pleasant, and sent us scrambling for our literal lives. Fortunately we had had the foresight to detail someone on “rock watch,” and they were able to warn us each time. Once we thought we’d cleared a way through, the first car tried to dash across, and promptly got stuck in a small patch of sticky mud we’d overlooked. Between Kalu, Binanda, one of the passengers in that vehicle and me, we managed to push it out, terrified the whole time of getting clobbered by a boulder as that particular spot was next to an overhang and obscured our line of sight to the cliff above. That vehicle was nice enough to hang around, which turned out to be a good thing as we got stuck in that exact same mud patch and needed their help to get out. It was a relief to complete the last 10 miles with no more untoward incidents.
Such journeys are tolerable if the reward is good forest and abundant birdlife. However, it seems that the Siang, like the Lohit, is suffering greatly from jhoom (slash-and-burn) agriculture. Most of the lower slopes are denuded, the forest replaced with terraced fields. While these terraces are admittedly picturesque, and must require a Herculean effort to construct and maintain, the loss of habitat is well-nigh irreparable. There is still seemingly some intact forest on the higher slopes, but it is more or less inaccessible at this time of year. Tomorrow we’ll try to explore a little more and see if we can find some accessible, intact forest. If we do, we’ll spend a couple days here, and then try our luck in Mouling. Hopefully we can find some good birds before returning to Pasighat on the 6th.
Yingkiong Days and Nights (4 July 2015)
Yingkiong has given me quite an interesting few days. On our first day, July 2, we explored a few back roads, and soon realized that there wasn’t a great deal of intact forest that would be easily accessible. We therefore drove over to the headquarters of the Mouling National Park in nearby Jingging (“nearby” being relative, the 15-ish mile drive took about an hour). Unfortunately, the forest officer in charge of the park was not present, and his head assistant informed us that the park was closed for the season. Apparently there is no vehicle access, which bodes well for the state of the forest, but as a result it is completely inaccessible during the monsoon. Additionally, it would be impossible to hire any of the local indigenous people as assistants, as none of them would agree to work in the park in this season. The head assistant told us that there were plenty of birds and wildlife in the park, but didn’t seem to be especially knowledgeable.
Late in the evening of the 2nd, there was a knock at our door, and four policemen along with some form of officer in civilian clothes came in. They politely asked to see our permits, which I showed them. My driver Kalu, being from Arunachal Pradesh, didn’t need a permit; however, Binanda and I needed permission to simply enter Arunachal Pradesh. Our documents were perfectly in order. However, because Kalu is “non-tribal” (he is Nepali in origin), the police decided that he in fact needed a permit—a situation neither he nor I had ever encountered anywhere in Arunachal. I started to get quite worried, as I had no cell phone network in Yingkiong and if they had decided to haul Kalu off to jail (which they threatened to do), I’m not sure how I would have proceeded. While I was sweating bullets and concentrating on important words (like “jail” and “non-tribal” and “where is his permit”), I apparently missed the mention that of course, if we just handed over 1000 rupees (15-ish dollars), everything would be fine. Binanda, fortunately, caught this and asked me to “give them some money for chai.” While I understood that this was code for a bribe, I have very little firsthand experience with these sort of dealings and therefore had no idea how much one was supposed to give. I was close to handing over Rs. 100 (about $1.50), which is a reasonable price for five cups of tea but which would have probably had Kalu go straight to jail, do not pass Go and definitely do not collect $200, and could probably have gotten us all beaten up as well. Luckily, Binanda sensed my confusion and incipient panic and said “Give them a thousand,” which I immediately handed over to one of the policemen (I initially offered it to the head pestilence who refused to sully his fingers with such dirty money). Once I had done that, they immediately became very friendly, told us that we would have no problems as long as we were in Yingkiong, and wished us luck in our work.
We continued our efforts on the 3rd and finally found some reasonable forest. Unfortunately, it was too low in elevation to have any birds of real interest, but even negative data is data. It was also nice to find some birds that are normally shy and fond of thick forest, such as the Red-faced Liocichla—some evidence that the bird community is relatively intact away from cultivation.
We returned in the evening, to be informed that a local “ladka” (youth) had come by thrice, looking for us. I have had some experience dealing with such ladkas, and it isn’t generally positive. We spent most of the evening on tenterhooks, waiting for the ladka and his friend to show up, while I played through several different scenarios in my mind. Eventually, there was a polite knock. I opened the door, to find a middle-aged gentleman about 5’0”, who asked me if I was the researcher working on a sericulture project. I told him that I was not, and he apologized for disturbing me. The relief was acute. Arunachal has a tendency to devolve into farce on occasion.
We decided to spend one more day around Yingkiong, and then return to Pasighat a day earlier than planned. We spent most of today, the 4th, visiting some of the spots we had found the day before, while wondering what Yingkiong was going to throw up tonight. Fortunately, nothing of any note has occurred. We will be heading back to Pasighat tomorrow (and I am not looking forward to that journey!), and hopefully the waters of the Siang have subsided a bit so we can visit D’Ering. I’m coming to the end of the season (my last day of surveys will be July 7), and it would be great to end it on a high.