They spent the night in the circuit house at Wakro in Lohit district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. They hated it. They were indignant at the cages in which they found themselves trapped. How would they have known they were temporary? The family of gibbons woke up often at night, hooting angrily before going back to sleep. By 4 am, the sun had risen over the Mishimi hills, revealing the impossibly green rainforests on its slopes — a glorious morning at the end of October. The three gibbons, now fully awake, unaware that they had just been saved from certain death, continued their raucous protest.
The young (sub-adult) female gibbon was the most disgruntled. She calmed down only after her cage was placed between her parents. Her parents, though confused, were quieter as they made their way towards the forest in a battered jeep, accompanied by a team from the forest department and the Wildlife Trust of India. The family of gibbons was found stranded a few days ago in the lower reaches of Wakro village, away from the protected forest.
The only apes in India, Hoolock Gibbons are completely arboreal, monogamous and rarely venture out of the highest canopy of trees. While their long arms allow them to swing from one tree to another with remarkable precision; on the ground they’re slow and clumsy, becoming easy prey for predators — both human and animal.
The gibbons — an adult male, his female mate, who was pregnant, and the young sub-adult female — needed to be moved to a secure place. The plan was to release them deep within the adjacent Kamlang wildlife sanctuary. Surrounded by misty peaks, bordered by the mighty Lohit river on one side and a steep slope covered with evergreen trees, it is almost impossible to imagine that the animals might be threatened here.
Once, the Hoolock Gibbon’s high-pitched hoots and calls were as inevitable a part of life in Wakro as the sun rising. But things are changing. Some of the changes are lethal for the gibbons.
The story of their rescue begins with two friends: S Hakung, an engineer, and Jeevan, an educationist. Now in their thirties, the two belong to the Idu Mishimi tribe and have known each other since high school. “I heard from a friend that a family of gibbons was stranded in the lower parts of Wakro. I came down to find out what had happened. It turns out that the gibbons had been living on private land. Like so many other farmers, the landowners decided to cut the forest to grow crops,” said Hakung. And the gibbons lost their home.
Hakung got in touch with Jeevan, who lived closer to Wakro. A friend put Jeevan in touch with the forest department and the Wildlife Trust of India, a Delhi-based NGO which has been rescuing gibbons in the state in association with the department.
Key to the survival of gibbons is the contiguity of forests. After a devastating earthquake in the 1950s, the Dibang valley district saw massive migration of people to low-lying fertile lands. Previously under forest cover, vast tracts of land were cleared of trees for agriculture.
The villages in the area were inhabited by the Idu Mishimi tribes, who followed a strict code of hunting passed down from their ancestors and their “first priest”, the Naba Sineroo. For instance, it is taboo to hunt and kill tigers, gibbons, deer, bears, monkeys and certain birds. But as other communities from Nepal, Bihar, Assam and Manipur moved in and settled here, the wild animals were increasingly hunted for meat. Some other tribes also believed that certain animal parts had medicinal properties.
When Jeevan reached the spot where the three gibbons were stranded, it was clear that the threat was real. Signs of the recent deforestation that had exposed the gibbon family were abundant. A section of the forest had been converted, within days, into cultivable land and only a few bamboo groves remained. A few houses stood amid acres of flat mustard fields and tea gardens. “The local residents told me that every day people would come there to hunt animals. They were outsiders. We don’t kill gibbons,” said Jeevan.
The Hoolock Gibbon, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was found in all forested patches in northeastern India till about 30 years ago, but their population has dwindled to 2,600. “Many small forests report only one or a few gibbon groups. Small and restricted groups may not be viable because of genetic and demographic instabilities and because they are more affected by hunting pressure and habitat loss. They also have limited chances of surviving more than a few generations without translocation,” says IUCN.
With such high stakes, both the Arunachal Pradesh forest department and their partners, the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) knew that their work is key to saving India’s last primates. As early as 2006, the forest department began translocating gibbons in the state. By the time they came to the family in Wakro, they had rescued 27 individuals in nine families. The Wakro family would be their 10th and the first in the area. The female gibbon was pregnant. There was no room for error.
The first day of the rescue was spent in reconnaissance and securing the area, minimising interference from the local population and ensuring the safety of the animals. The rescue operation follows a flexible pattern: trained climbers ascend the trees on which the gibbons are perched, driving them from tree to tree, and on to more isolated branches until they finally land on the ground. A team moves in swiftly to trap them with bamboo baskets, while the vet tranquilises them to minimise stress. Blood, DNA, hair follicles are taken for examination and the individuals are microchipped to track the movements of the animals, aid in surveillance and, most importantly, add to the little research that has been done on the lives of one of India’s most mysterious primates.
“When we began rescuing the animals, there was no protocol in place for capturing gibbons since it had never been done before. We have been changing and creating a protocol as we go along, on the basis of what we observe about their behaviour,” said Ipra Mekola, wildlife advisory member, Arunachal Pradesh.
Within a few hours, the three gibbons had been captured, sedated and microchipped. Dr Shamshul Ali, a veterinary surgeon with the Wildlife Trust, confirmed that the female gibbon was pregnant. “We had observed that she was eating more and showed other signs of pregnancy. This is great news, because we have not only ensured the survival of these three but also of another generation. There are two sub-species of Hoolock Gibbons in India — the Western Hoolock Gibbon and the Eastern Hoolock Gibbon. These appear to be the former, but only DNA tests can confirm that,” he said.
The rescued animals were then moved to the circuit house in Wakro. Its aged caretaker, Santosh Kumar, had gone out early in the morning, soon after the team had gone to the local market to get bananas. “They told me that they might rescue the gibbons. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to catch them. But now that they have managed the impossible, I am glad I got these jungli kelas,” he says.
Santosh had moved here from Bihar soon after the war with China in 1962. After decades of living in Wakro, he had nearly forgotten how to speak in Hindi — till the migrants moved in. “Earlier, there were fewer people from outside and that meant that old ways were respected. When I started working in this guest house years ago, there were no tourists. The only people who came were government officials. Earlier, all the locals were farmers. Traditional farms and methods are giving way. Earlier, trees would be cleared with an axe. Now, with bulldozers, a forest becomes a farm within a few hours. Where will the gibbons go?” he said.
Jeevan was not so anxious about old ways being abandoned. His home consists of a traditional bamboo and cane hut on stilts. Next to it is a concrete building. “There is change. No one can deny that. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is letting go of their traditions or culture. Everyone now speaks Hindi and even Assamese, but they still worship the same gods and have the same culture,” he said.
Dusk descended and by 5pm, it was completely dark. At the centre of Jeevan’s hut, a fire raged. A kettle hung over the fire supplied numerous cups of tea. Lining one wall were scores of mounted skulls from animal sacrifices made by the family since generations. Mattresses had been spread around the fire and after a traditional dinner, the wildlife officers discuss the plan to release the gibbons. “Our biologist has studied the site where they will be let out. It is an ideal habitat for the species. Moreover, there are no other gibbons in the area, so there won’t be any turf war,” said Sunil Kyarong, WTI, regional head, Arunachal Pradesh. Back at the circuit house, the gibbons, usually diurnal creatures, sleep uneasily, waking up often with an irritated hoot. Dr Ali has a fitful rest in the same room, occasionally getting up to ensure they are fine.
Their new home is about 16km north of Wakro along the banks of the Lohit river. District forest officer (Kamlang) Koj Tasser says, “The forest here is undisturbed all the way till the international borders with China and Myanmar. Once released here, the gibbons will be completely free. We don’t have many cases of poaching or illegal hunting here and we don’t know of the gibbons being natural prey for any animals in the region. So they should thrive,” he said.
The site where the animals would be set free was about a kilometre uphill. With no visible paths, the team moved gingerly through the dense forest, occasionally stopping to avoid thorny trees and large stones that rolled down dangerously. The gibbons, now fully awake, screamed angrily with each step from inside the cages. As they entered denser areas of the forests, their shrill cries grew louder.
Finally, a clearing was chosen. A tree, laden with citrus fruit, sealed the deal. One by one, the gibbons were released: first the pregnant female, then the sub-adult and finally the grumpy male.
As soon as the cage was opened, the animals leaped out. They jumped on to the tree and swung from branch to branch with unbelievable speed. Within seconds, they were nowhere to be seen, lost in the green canopy overhead.
But as the team began their journey downhill, they could hear the excited hoots of the gibbons overhead. Jeevan smiled. “It’s good to hear the Hoolocks again in Wakro”, he said.
Know the Hoolock:
*Conservation status: Endangered
*Native to eastern Bangladesh, northeast India and southwest China
*Young hoolocks are born after a seven-month gestation period; life expectancy in the wild is about 25 years
*Species has declined by at least
*50% over the past 40 years (three generations) due to hunting and habitat loss
*Decline likely to reach similar proportions due to continuing habitat loss
*The Hoolock Gibbon is a forest dweller; it inhabits different types of forest — rainforest, tropical ever green and semi-ever green — and lives on a diet consisting of 60% fruit