When a man shot a hoolock gibbon in Arunachal Pradesh’s Arongo village in 2008, it created an uproar. In Arongo, occupied primarily by the hunting Idu Mishmi tribe, the gibbon, or the Aame Epaan, is sacred. To kill one is a sin there is little reprieve from.
That evening, eleven years ago, a Panchayat was called, the matter discussed, and the accused — who belonged to the neighbouring Adi community — was let off, surprisingly with just a warning. And that was that.
But not many were happy with the decision — for a young Anoko Mega, who woke up to a gibbon’s cry every morning in the nearby Koronu village, the incident was very distressing. He had heard how gibbons — arboreal creatures who rarely came down to the ground — were fast disappearing due to the loss of green canopy.
What if there came a day when the Aame Epaan disappeared from the Mishmi Hills altogether? Something must be done, thought the 24-year-old.
A decade later Mega — now a filmmaker, wildlife photographer and conservationist — has embarked on an ambitious project: he’s planting a corridor of trees connecting one gibbon habitat to another so that his favourite Aame Epaan can swing freely from tree to tree.
Gibbons are totem animals for many communities in the Northeast: the Garos in Meghalaya, the Meities in Manipur and in Arunachal Pradesh, the Idu Mishmis believe they descended from the arboreal ape.
Mega, since 2014, has been calling his community members to protect the rich diversity of the Mishmi Hills, where his village is located. While his tribe, the Idu Mishmis comprise accomplished hunters, ritual taboos prevent them from killing certain animals — the gibbon one of them.
“The main threat for gibbons in this area is not hunting but fragmentation of habitat,” says Mega, 35. As gibbons are mainly arboreal creatures, loss of tall green cover restricts their movement from one patch to another. In recent years, their habitat outside the protected Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary (located in Lower Dibang Valley district) has seriously fragmented due to deforestation, commercial logging and agricultural activities like palm oil cultivation.
A rite of passage
Categorised vulnerable, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), estimates of the eastern hoolock gibbon population in India are at 170 — most found in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In the latter, they are mainly concentrated in the Mishmi Hills, and are now commonly known as Mishmi Hills gibbons.
The classification, however, is still subject to debate. While the IUCN categories these gibbons, found in Mishmi Hills and some parts of Sadiya in Assam, as the eastern hoolock gibbon, renowned conservationist Anwaruddin Choudhury identified them as a sub-species of the western hoolock gibbon in 2013.
When two years back, Mega received a grant from Sanctuary Asia under ‘Mud on Boot Project’ he decided to work on the gibbons.
“The loss of habitat prohibits one gibbon family from reaching out to another living in a different patch. So, the gibbons have to cross-breed within the family leading to genetic complications,” says Mega, explaining that gibbons are particularly vulnerable when they come to the ground. “So, my aim is to plant trees which will give them food as well as their habitat,” he says.
Three years back, Guwahati-based organization Environ unsuccessfully tried to connect trees with jute ropes so that gibbons can have easy passage. “So, I thought that the key was to grow the natural forest cover and connect their habitat,” he says.
To do so, Mega is trying to convince local landowners to donate a strip of land to the gibbons. The first to donate — after almost a year of persuasion — was a subsistence farmer, Eketo Mendo from Abongo village. “I later realised that the gibbons are here on my land since the days of my father. They have become an integral part of our lives. In fact, if we don’t hear them howl for a few days, we get worried and start looking for them,” he says.
Translocation of gibbons
Before Mega started his project, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) along with the state forest department tried to translocate the gibbons, many of which were marooned on isolated patches of forest. When they tried to descend on land and move out, they were attacked by dogs. It is then that the WTI decided to step in.
Some gibbons were translocated from Injuno, a small village adjoining Abongo. Nandlal Chetry, a villager from Injuno says, “People from WTI would pay us money to catch and bring the gibbons to them.”
However, the villagers were not happy with the translocation. Eketo Mendo says, “Some were translocated to Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary but we believe they are now captive in the Itanagar Zoo.”
Others were placed in Tiwarygaon, a village located in the hills. As the gibbons came from the plains, they couldn’t adapt to the cold and died.
“Translocation should be the last resort in conservation. Hoolock gibbons are territorial animals. So, when they are relocated to another area, they have problems in adapting. We should try to preserve them in their natural habitat by engaging local communities,” says Narayan Sharma, HOD i/c of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Science at Cotton College State University.
Mega’s project, in that sense, is ideal.
Mega is aware that unless the project was financially rewarding, not many farmers would step forward. So, he joined hands with Jibi Pulu, owner of Mishmi Hill Camp, a popular eco-camp in Roing, the district headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley. The idea is to also promote the tree patch in Abongo for tourists.
“There are more patches of forests in nearby villages and hills with families of gibbons. If Mendo start earning money from this project, we can convince others to lend their land. This winter, we will advertise this place on our website and tell other tour operators to do the same,” says Pulu.
Experts believe that the idea has potential.
Dilip Chetry, Programme Head of Primate Research & Conservation Initiatives at the Guwahati-based Aaranyak says “In the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Jorhat, gibbons are the primary attraction for tourists. Many visit Barekuri village in Tinsukia, famous for its resident population of gibbons. After all they are very unique creatures, being the only ape found in India.”
Not just the landowners, if this initiative is successful, it can provide employment to the local youths as well.
So far, Mega has been able to convince only one farmer — Mendo — to donate. It’s far from easy but he remains optimistic.
His plans are grand: A gibbon hotspot, an entry point demarcated by signboards and a visitor’s room. “By next year, the tourists will flock in; our boys can earn money by acting as tourist guides. And the gibbons will be happy— in their own homes.”
The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45
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