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Part VII: Magic of the field

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!

Roads, urgency, and the need for money (5 July 2015)

Anyone who has worked for any amount of time in conservation knows that the welfare of the people on whose land the conservation is occurring is of paramount importance. This is especially true in impoverished areas. And this is even more especially important in tribal areas, where there are ethical and sociological considerations of indigenous culture above and beyond the relatively simple economic considerations. Much of Arunachal Pradesh is not suitable for cultivation, and most of the indigenous people live/lived off the forest. Hunting is an old way of life, and it is simply not possible to prevent by heavy-handed top-down action. This is especially true as, despite the fact that the indigenous people theoretically are subject to the same rules as every other citizen, all administrative roles are filled by them. As a result, there is very selective enforcement of laws pertaining to things like hunting, although this varies wildly from place to place. It is also true that the indigenous people of Arunachal have lived in balance with the wildlife of the region for centuries. It is only now, with external forces ‘developing’ and destroying habitat (especially through dams), climate change, and an abrupt surge in the population of Arunachal Pradesh (indigenous and especially non-indigenous) that hunting has become a non-sustainable drain on wildlife. Birds, being visible and tasty, are especially affected, with most people carrying around catapults and using them quite openly. However, given that hunting provides the majority of the nutrition in the most remote villages, it is very hard to balance the needs of wildlife and the needs of the people.

This is also true when it comes to the issue of roads. In Arunachal Pradesh, there is virtually no rail or air travel. Instead, it is all roads. Roads are how essential goods—kerosene and fuel, vegetables, medication—enter the state, and how people get from one place to another. Drivers are extremely important in Arunachal. Across most of the state, they eat for free at the ‘line hotels,’ little stalls serving basic food and refreshments, along the road. I depend heavily on roads to travel around the state, especially this year when most of my surveys are along roads. The BRO (Border Roads Organization) and GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force), both associated with the military, have in general done well to have any motorable roads whatsoever, given the challenges of topography and climate. Roads are the lifelines that make any kind of modern existence possible in Arunachal Pradesh.

Roads are also extremely hard on wildlife. I regularly find dead reptiles and amphibians on roads that have 20-30 vehicles a day travelling on them. They create gaps in the forest that can make life very difficult for arboreal animals such as Hoolock Gibbons. They also make larger areas of the forest more easily accessible to people, and that is not necessarily a good thing. The hardworking indigenous subsistence hunters do not require roads at all and very few places are inaccessible to them. However, roads make it easier for the less hardworking and more destructive sorts of hunters—more wealthy folks who hunt for sport, profit or both. They also require substantial disturbance to construct—a bulldozer has to cut a swath through the forest, followed by the road crews who lay down gravel and tar. In many places, boulders have to be blasted aside.

Birds tend to deal with roads somewhat better. Even Wren-babblers, tiny denizens of thick undergrowth that barely fly, flit across narrow roads readily. As a result, there are almost no hill forest birds that cannot be found in the immediate vicinity of roads, which makes roadside surveys feasible. In fact, the better sightlines afforded by roads, especially on the downslope side, can be an advantage. The upslope side is usually a steep bank that trees cannot find purchase in, and is therefore covered in thick undergrowth—excellent microhabitat for shy, skulky creatures like the Wren-babblers, who are generally far easier to find along roads than in dense primary forest.

In many areas, the existing roads are narrow (1-1.5 total lanes). They are also a few decades old, meaning that the wildlife has had plenty of time to recover from the initial disturbance. The bare earth left by the original road cuttings has been covered by thick undergrowth. This effectively creates a very narrow gap in the forest that is similar to what might be caused by a natural treefall, with intact closed-canopy forest on both sides. The road from Dirang to Mandala is like this, as is the road from Roing to Hunli and the track through Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. The roads are maintained irregularly, as needed, and are generally of decent quality. These roads might see 30 vehicles a day at the very most, and often far fewer, and so this is generally sufficient. This is the best possible balance—a road that is sufficient to serve the needs of the community, and is relatively mild in its effects on wildlife.

However, with the burgeoning non-indigenous population in the larger towns, and the sudden increase in ‘development’ projects, these roads are increasingly being seen as inadequate. For example, a large dam project on the Dibang River (which in and of itself could be catastrophic in its effect on wildlife) is being accompanied by a broadening of the road from Roing up into the hills. While it will stop short of the altitude occupied by the endangered, endemic Mishmi Wren-babbler, it is still a calamity for lower-altitude species such as Hodgson’s Frogmouth and Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler. Creating a four-lane road requires monumental amounts of land to be moved (along with the vegetation that stood atop it) and boulders to be exploded. To make matter worse, a road cutting of that width creates enormous banks of bare earth, several stories high. This virtually guarantees landslides during the monsoon, in the absence of roots to hold the soil together—and those landslides will require still more disturbance and construction to fix, until the next one a day…or week…or year later.

There are two roads that lead to Yingkiong from Pasighat. One of them, the road through Boleng, is of the old, generally narrow sort, although the bit about occasional maintenance seems to have been skipped. This was the terror road I took on the way to Yingkiong. The other road, through Maryang, is shorter but was blocked in multiple places on the day I made the trip. We decided to return that way, as we had received word that it was now clear. The Maryang road is of far better quality but is currently under construction. The construction, turning another narrow road into a four-lane behemoth, has carved, and is carving, an enormous gash through the eastern slope of the Siang Valley. Apart from a few disturbance tolerant birds (some Drongos, Bulbuls, little else), there was almost no bird activity whatsoever. Many of the banks of earth were crumbling, and most of the road was thick mud—it had apparently not occurred to the constructors to pave one section before cutting the next. At several places, we were stopped while bulldozers removed enormous quantities of soil and vegetation. At one place, an earthmover ripped out an entire young tree in front of our eyes. The destruction is wanton and unnecessary—simply adequately maintaining the existing roads would be sufficient. I suspect that this is being done to enable further ‘development’, which is to say further destruction. None of it is being done by the indigenous people, who do not stand to gain monetarily from any of this.

This, then, is the urgency of the situation. The forest is being cleared before our eyes, before we can do anything to combat it, before we know what we stand to lose. Some of the local forest department officials have done their best to stop it; others are complicit. This is why we, why I, cannot wait.

At the moment, I’m estimating that my total costs for this summer will run to about $6500. Of this, $3000 has been covered by a grant from the Mohammad Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. I am trying to raise the rest with the help of Global Wildlife Conservation, an Austin-based NGO that does sterling work around the globe. Ideally, I’d have been able to wait until the funding was secured to visit Arunachal…but we cannot wait. So I’m spending money out of my own pocket, hoping that I will be able to recoup it later. This isn’t the first year I’ve had to do this either – both of my previous trips to Arunachal involved significant personal expenditure.

So why do I do what I do, then? It’s clearly not for the money. One does not get rich by trying to work in conservation; one does not get rich being an academic. It’s not for the fame. For every Sir David Attenborough, there are hundreds of equally brilliant men and women around the globe, toiling in complete anonymity, taking enormous risks. I do hope to turn some of this data into a Ph.D. but that’s not it, either. There are far less arduous and dangerous, and less expensive, ways to get one of those. While all Ph.Ds require immense amounts of work, they usually don’t involve the severe mental and physical strain that accompanies fieldwork in remote places.

I do what I do, people like me do what we do, because it has to be done. Now. Not tomorrow, not some other day, but right away, yesterday in fact, last year, 20 years ago, but all the time we have is now and that’s not nearly enough time. But we have to try. Try to save what we can. Try to understand what we have, what we’re losing, what we stand to lose. The richness of the world we inhabit is the keystone of the human experience, and losing that richness—losing, permanently, a thing in the world that existed and could be experienced—impoverishes us all. It impoverishes our existence. It makes the world a less interesting place.

And so that’s why I hope I am able to secure the funding I needed to do the work I’m doing, even after the fact. It’s not about the money. It’s about trying to preserve the world as it is, to keep every little bit of its glorious natural richness intact. It’s about making sure that future generations can have the same experiences that we have. And making sure that we at least understand the stakes, what we stand to lose. So if we do lose it, we may at least mourn its passing.

An adorable baby elephant, alarmed by the sound of the boat's diesel engine in D'Ering Wildlife Sanctuary. Large and irritable mother not pictured. (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

An adorable baby elephant, alarmed by the sound of the boat’s diesel engine in D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary. Large and irritable mother not pictured. (Photo by Gautam S. Surya)

D’Ering (7 July 2015)

The very last days of surveying, and things went mostly right for a change. It’s always a surprise when things work out the way they’re supposed to in Arunachal Pradesh—a pleasant surprise, but definitely a surprise. After a couple of weeks where things didn’t really go as planned, it was a relief.

D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary, my last field site for this year, is a group of islands in the middle of the Siang River accessible only by boat, about an hour from Pasighat. The habitat is tall, dense lowland grassland, a habitat type that is barely found in Arunachal Pradesh, but is more common in neighbouring Assam. It is also a habitat type that is severely threatened by human activity, as the floodplains it is found on are also some of the best land available for cultivation. There are a few threatened, severely range-restricted species present in the general region that occupy such habitat—Bengal Florican; Slender-billed, Marsh and Jerdon’s Babblers; Black-breasted Parrotbill; Swamp Prinia; and Swamp Francolin. One of these, the endangered Bengal Florican, is known to occur in D’Ering, and some work has been done on this species. However, very little ornithological work has been done in D’Ering. My goal was to confirm the presence of at least one of the other six species.

We got to the camp at the sanctuary boundary in Borguli on the morning of the 6th, after spending some time in the surrounding lowland forest along the way. When we got to the sanctuary, we were glad to be informed that a few days of dry weather had dropped the water levels in the river, meaning that the sanctuary could actually be visited. There were a few things that needed to be arranged first—a few additional staff needed to be called up, and we needed to buy some diesel for the boat’s engine. While these preparations were being made, we climbed up the watchtower in the camp. While we whiled away the time watching egrets, bitterns, cormorants and pelicans fly back and forth along the river, my assistant Binanda suddenly stiffened, held up his hand, then beamed and announced “Black-breasted Parrotbill!” Sure enough, we could hear one faintly across the river. Mission accomplished!

Once we’d eaten some lunch and the staff had made their appearance, we set out on the rather rickety wooden boat. Its diesel engine averaged a robust seven miles per hour with the current, and a thrilling two to three against it, but that was quite enough to cover a decent amount of ground. We first crossed the river in front of camp, to where we’d heard the Parrotbill, and played its song, whereupon it immediately flew to within six feet of us. I told Binanda to play the songs of the other species as well, to see if there was any response. He tried Jerdon’s Babbler—and one immediately responded right in front of us! Two down!

We moved downstream a little ways, next to a small heronry in the reeds, and started playing calls again. Another Parrotbill immediately responded, and so did another Jerdon’s Babbler. Binanda then played Swamp Prinia, a bird that to my knowledge has not been seen globally since 2011, but got no response. As he started playing Slender-billed Babbler, I thought I heard a Swamp Prinia faintly, but it only sang once, and as Binanda (who has far more experience than I with grassland birds) didn’t react I figured I must have imagined it. We tried the other species without success, and then turned to go back to the boat…and Binanda stiffened again. We listened intently for a few seconds, at which point he yelled “Swamp Prinia!” We hurried over and played the song again, and the bird briefly emerged—Binanda was also able to get recordings of this extremely rare and threatened species. Three down! Binanda later told me that when he’d heard the song, the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. He was responsible for some of the last records of the species, in 2010, and had never expected to find the species here.

We moved onto a third location, and before we could do anything, a Marsh Babbler called! Four down! Incredible! Unbelievable! I’d said before we got to D’Ering that I’d take just one species, even if it was the Florican that we already knew was there. To get four others was beyond anything I’d hoped for. Binanda and I could only grin at each other, we were completely speechless.

We searched D’Ering for the rest of the afternoon, and most of the day on the 7th as well. We didn’t get any of the other species. In particular, I was hoping to get Slender-billed Babbler, but we’d gotten plenty. Black-breasted Parrotbill turned out to be absurdly common and conspicuous. This species is quite rare at grasslands sites in Assam, with only a few individuals usually being present. We found them at 13 different sites, each of which had multiple individuals present. We also found two more Swamp Prinia sites, and at one of which there were three individuals calling to each other. And we found more Marsh Babblers as well. They are normally shy and skulky, but one of them came right up to us and perched out in the open for a fantastic look.

Only one thing went wrong. When we got to our third site, the one where we found our first Marsh Babbler, I got a little too excited and took an incautious step out of the boat into what I thought was knee-deep water. Instead, it turned out to be a five-foot deep hole and I fell headlong into the Siang along with my camera. I immediately took out the battery, but the lens had filled with water and was nonfunctional. It’s a shame, as I’d have liked to get a few documentary shots of the rare grassland species we found.

The last pictures I took, then, for the field season, were of a mother and calf elephant that were on the bank as we passed them by on the boat. As a last image for a field season, one could do far worse—a gorgeous blue sky, lush green grassland, the river, Black-breasted Parrotbills calling from everywhere, nesting waterbirds flying around, and charismatic megafauna still maintaining a foothold in an increasingly human-dominated landscape. With the commitment of the entire staff at D’Ering, they should do so far into the future.

The host’s return [10 July 2015]

Home again. I am back in Delhi, and as usual, that causes a lot of conflicting emotions. Relief, first and foremost, that I have made it back without serious injury. Sadness, as I do love fieldwork and miss it during the year. I find that I do my best thinking when surrounded by wilderness. I love beginning every day not knowing what I will find, but knowing that it’ll probably be something cool and interesting. But there’s also happiness, as I also like being in my own comfortable home. Seven weeks is a long time to shuttle from field site to field site, camp to forest rest house to alleged hotel, eating two inadequate meals a day, doing without electricity and running water and access to the outside world.

The long road home from Pasighat was a journey that encapsulated the Northeast—equal parts maddening, chaotic, catastrophic, hilarious and exhilarating. To tell the whole tale would take a small novel. It involved a lost gold chain (a wedding gift from my parents and the equivalent of a wedding ring), car problems, an imbecilic mechanic, a desperate race against the clock, and a death-defying bus ride. And an incredibly honest man who returned the chain a day later and 300 miles away, and initially refused to accept a reward. That’s quite typical of the Northeast too—finding good people when you least expect it. Many of them are in the Forest Department too, and in places it is through the efforts of these few good folks that we may yet succeed in our conservation goals.

In the last seven weeks, I was able to record 375+ species of breeding bird, of which at least 15 are thought to be of conservation concern. This included the Mishmi Wren-babbler, a species that is endemic to Arunachal Pradesh and known from a single forest area. It took a few thousand miles of driving and a few hundred miles of walking and a few thousand dollars. It took a great deal of effort and perseverance and blood and sweat, but no tears because it was always a labour of love. People are always the biggest threat in the field, more so than even the most dangerous wildlife, and it took plenty of people skills, from patience and trust to cajoling and the occasional sharp threat, to make sure that everything went roughly to plan. It’s over for the season now.

The work is never over, though. And the field never leaves you. All of the experiences, both good and bad—all of the amazing birdlife, but also all of the destroyed habitat. None of it is easily forgotten; none of it will be forgotten. It stays fresh in my mind even as I struggle to remember where I put my keys a few minutes ago.

Hopefully, next summer, I’ll get to do it all over again.

Part I: The Magic of Mandala

Part II: Renewal in the mountains

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

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.