Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Assam and the north East - the end of transmissions


The most unexpected part of my trip (and unplanned) was on arrival in Guwahati to find myself driving off east to Megalaya, a state that I always felt, with such a wonderfully evocative name must have lots of mysteries and adventures for the unwary traveller, and this was to be the case for me.

As we drove out of the hot plains that are the vast flat landscapes of Assam, we headed into the undulating hills of Megalaya, once one of India's most remote regions along with other small states in this region like Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. We were hoping to see some of the remaining forests in this area, where the North East, being remote and relatively untouched by the uncompromising development in the rest of India, should mean that this 'world hotspot' of global biodiversity should be wrapped up and cocooned for the health of the planet, so many invaluable medicinal plants and trees, and such extraordinary wildlife diversity exists. Here two the great Brahmaputra river flows carrying huge quantities of life giving nutrients for the yearly flooded soils and deluges of water to its neighbouring peoples including Bangladesh and even China next door.

Sadly what we got instead was fire. Fires and smoke choked the hills, burning whole landscapes to a cinder, a ghastly blackness that scoured the hills all around. It's actually practiced in the name of 'shifting' cultivation or 'Jhum' something they have practiced for centuries, but today, as opposed to small plots it is now being done over ever increasing areas or indeed whole hillsides, and its like looking into the final abyss when you see the jet blackened remains of tree stumps, the very forests that just a few days before we arrived would have been the very lungs of Megalaya. What is making it worst is that its now principally for timber and wood, rather than as a cultivated and important staple food source. Also departing in this inferno are the forest inhabitants including the gorgeous and only ape species in India, The Hoorlock gibbon, whose haunting pante hoots calls in the early mornings are mesmerising, but so too the Tigers, elephants, binutong (nest making bear like creature) gaur, sambhar, the huge hornbills, parakeets and you name it - almost everything else in this scorched earth policy. Never has the scene affected me so badly, so much so that I got angry and went and spent half an hour putting out one of the fires untended on a steep hillside. That night the fires raged across the hills in front of our resthouse and besides the few remaining patches of fragmented forest we wanted to visit.

What is worse is the changing climate here, with increasingly dry conditions and no rain for six months, and a grizzly haze setting in all day, through which the sun burns in a post atomic soup, and its sure as hell does not lift your spirits. We infact walked into one of the last remaining patches of forest, of Notrek National park, and this for a moist deciduous forest was also very dry and all the creatures one would hope to see and hear like butterflies and birdcalls - seemed hauntingly absent and quiet in the early morning. Thankfully a small group of Hoorlocks started up across a ridge opposite to help raise my spirit.

We did infact visit one project of the Wildlife Trust of India, backed by the British Embassy in Delhi, a community forest project, and they are seeking to try to join up the fragmented forests to create corridors for wildlife and primates. Here we revelled in the fabulous dexterity of the Hoorlock Gibbon's branch swinging or 'brachiation' as it is called with their hugely long arms and grappling hands. The male is particularily handsome, pure black coat and face with enormous white eyebrows, that reminded me of my step father's, so you could just make out a round head with two huge eyebrows through your binoculars. The female unusually is a completely different colour, a mass of golden coat. They mate for life too - so they are like watching lovers in a park - all over each other a lot of the time when not feeding! The headman of the village invited us back to his lovely longhouse and gave us a very dangerous but rather delicious rice wine, which perked up our spirits somewhat.

Driving in India is a very dangerous occupation, but it still can't rank alongside being a passenger. More passengers are attached to the outside of vehicles than occupy the inside, and that packed like a box of toy soldiers. Not only are they on the roof but they are often on the door sills, infact we counted 6 on the back of one Mahindra jeep, all happily with one foot on the back door sill and one hand attached to the roofrack to ensure they remain attached the vehicle as it swings wildly from one side to another. One 10 hour journey from Megalaya back into Assam highlight this to me as I sat in the hot seat, the front passenger seat. From this unenviable position one tried to predict the movements in pitch darkness of a combination of drunken bicyclists without headlights or reflectors, holy cows, goats with no road sense, overladed trucks with dodgy brakes and bald types, mangy dogs mating, huge potholes left by negligent road maintenance, and just about anything else you could think to stick either on or beside a road - all whilst travelling at 70kms, and only because your once gleaming car can now do this speed in India!

Manas used to be an extraordinary place, its not only got the 'Big Five' animals but we could say the 'Big Seven' adding Black Bears and Wild cows or 'Gaurs' to the mix. Swamp and hogdeers used to live in herd of thousands, and the park at only 400 square kilometers has one and a half time more bird species than the whole of the UK. That was before the Bodo tribes decided they did not like being controlled by a Central Government an 'age' away from them, and started an insurgency campaign 20 years ago, which now not only succeeded to get an 'autonomous state of Bodoland' but also managed to eliminate most of the wildlife in the park.

Last time I was here in 2005, I had been guided round the park with the ex Head Commander of the Insurgents, now inappropriately the new head of Ecotourism, accompanied by two soldiers with their hand made muskets! Today its wildlife is thankfully returning and I predict - if they can protect it properly and get some investment here - it will become one of the best wildlife destinations in India in the next ten years, especially if you can drive through to Bhutan on its northern boundary. In one game drive we saw 50 elephant, a small herd of wild buffalo, and a number of huge male bulls, with vast curving horns whose tips must have been at least 2 meters apart, the prehistoric armour plated one horn rhino, the most curious Jurassic like creature still left on our planet, tiger pugmarks, small herds of hog deer, and a cacophony of bird songs the like of which I have never heard before. My job was to look at the Western part of the Manas area and though its potentially as good a habitat, will require a lot of work and infrastructure and an attitudinal change in the depressing practice of burning everything each year for better grazing and easier wood collecting!

Onto Kaziranga with its huge rhino herds in its tall grasslands and the corridors that connect this park to other forests often through large famous tea estates on its southern boundaries. Again the sceptre of fire haunted the landscapes, with the grasslands burned each February to ensure good grazing, the shifting cultivation on the hills, and the burning of the rice paddy fields, all before the first of the pre monsoonal rains starts coming in from the North East in April. Smoke choked the air and clouded out the sweeping views. We did though have a fabulous walk in a bordering forest in which we saw the Great Hornbill, a magnificient 1.2 metre bird with an enormous flat orange casque on its head, which must have been the inspiration for most Buddhists priests head gear! Mum was sitting in her tree hollow, a beedy eye watching us from her walled in maternal prison, while he fed her through the crack, made purposely just wide enough to fit his beak through. A lonely Hoorlocks gibbon, mateless after his partner dies last month, hooted mournfully from the trees, in answer to our forest guides very good mimicry. I was concerned about the effect of this conversation on the poor creatures heartstrings!!

Finally like Bodoland, Karbi Anglong is another autonomous state up here, an ancient kingdom of Thai people, who migrated here in 1228, and who were overly keen to have ecotourism investment in this poor state. We saw it at the worst possible time, when a pea souper smog had arrived and flights into and out of the capital of Assam had been cancelled for days. We can only hope that this condition caused by all the burning will eventually change the attitude of its people to the incessant burning, that is having such a devastating effect on its forests and the wildlife in the area, with an incalculable cost in terms of both biological and human health.

My journey in Assam was the most depressing in terms of the sheer and stark visual imagery that it engendered. Here was the stark evidence of the collapsing forests we are so often bombarded with by International panels on climate change and biodiversity loss. If this is the so called cost of development and westernisation - then I want to catch a different type of bus home.

This was the end of my Tiger Trail.

20th March 2009
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