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Primate Bay
A national park known for some of the best opportunities for the photography of primates, Gibbon Wildlife anctuary (WLS), now the Hoollongapar Wildlife Sanctuary, takes us back in time
Text and images : Ujjal Ghosh

The jungles of the Northeast were a challenge in the monsoon. That was given. But there were also fairly tempting factors that tilted the scales in our favour. First, the Gibbon WLS is one of the few sanctuaries open to visitors during the monsoon. Second, the sanctuary covers a small area (around 21 sq km). Third, there is a higher density and variation of wild fauna here. Fourth, it’s well connected by road and railway and last, you can stay in the sanctuary.

Hoolock gibbons are India’s only ape species and the second-largest of all gibbons.They are unique in their sexual dimorphism. Males are black with remarkably white brows, while females (shown here have grey-brown fur, which is darker at the chest and neckt

Assam has fairly good roads and we started early, at 5am, from Coochbehar, and drove nine hours to Kaziranga National Park(which was closed for the season) and went on to Mariani, a small township 20 km away from Jorhat. it was almost dark at 6pm when we reached the Forest Rest House of the sanctuary under Mariani Forest Range.

Gibbon WLS is surrounded by tea gardens and villages. Human activity in these gardens poses a serious threat to the primate habitat of the sanctuary

The sanctuary has unique floral diversity consisting of Assam plains alluvial semi-evergreen forests with pockets of wetevergreen covering a compact area of only 20.98 sq km. The top canopy of the forest comprises Hollong (Dipterocarpus nacrocarpus), Sam Kathal (Artocarpus chaplasha), Bhelu (Tetrameles nudiflora), Amari (Amoora wallichii); the middle tier consists of Nahar (Mesua ferrea), Agar (Aquilaria agollocha), Bhomora (Terminalia bellirica) and the lower tier is mainly shrubs, bamboos and canes.

Our photo-trip began a little late the next morning due to the heavy rains through the night. We couldn’t resist venturing into the dense jungle with our guide, Sri Deben Bora, a very senior and vastly experienced forest guard. After hearing a gibbon’s call, we set off for the eastern corner of the sanctuary and after a hectic hour, we found a pair of the rare Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) and watched them from a distance, which was regrettably too far for good photography.

Strictly nocturnal and very slow in its movements, the Bengal slow loris (Nycticebus bengalensis) is known to employ toxins for its protection. When threatened, it freezes to avoid detection

 

Another half hour later, we spotted a family with a baby gibbon almost in the centre of the park. We were so excited in photographing the family that we didn’t even register the leech attack. The Hoolock gibbon is a rare primate and the only species of ape in the Indian sub-continent, protected under Schedule-I of Wildlife (Protection) 1972 Act and is listed as ‘Endangered’ by IUCN. It is an arboreal animal and lives in dense evergreen and semi-evergreen forest in plains, foothills and hills. The population of this rare primate has declined in many parts of the Northeast due to illegal hunting and severe habitat destruction. It is difficult to spot it; it flees as soon as it senses human presence. The range of the Hoolock gibbon is restricted to the north-east of India, mainly Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and some parts of Bangladesh. It feeds mainly on ripe fruits, flowers and shoots of specific plants.

Almost 60 per cent of the Capped langur’s diet consists of leaves from different wild tree species. Sometimes, the monkey may also visit water-logged areas to feed on the fleshy, nutritional stalks of aquatic plants

 

While returning from our first morning excursion, we spotted a Northern pig-tailed macaque on a wild mango tree adjacent to the Forest Rest House. The lone male was eating a ripe mango fruit and gave us ample opportunity to photograph it. This species of primate is another speciality of the Gibbon WLS. In appearance, it is quite similar to the widely found Rhesus macaque, except for a distinctive short tail resembling that of a pig, and dark brown or black fur on the top of their heads that looks like a depression in the centre of their heads. The species is currently assigned a globally-threatened status, however it can easily be spotted feeding in fruit-bearing trees of the Gibbon sanctuary where its population is at an increasing trend. Pig-tailed macaques are frugivorous, but they also consume a wide variety of other foods including insects, seeds, young leaves, leaf stems and fungus.

Pig-tailed macaques are primarily frugivorous, with 74 per cent of their diet consisting of fruits. They prefer undisturbed forest tracts to live in, but are adept at raiding orchards and croplands bordering the forests as well

On the same mango tree, we spotted a Malayan giant squirrel (Ratufa bicolour) feeding on a mango. The afternoon sun didn’t allow us a decent capture of this tree-dwelling mammal. The next day, however, gave us many opportunities to shoot it. The black giant squirrel or Malayan giant squirrel is a large tree squirrel in the genus Ratufa, native to the Indo-Malayan zootope, a diurnal, canopy-dwelling mammalian species, commonly found in evergreen and semi-evergreen broad-leaved forests of the Northeast and West Bengal. This squirrel is fond of fruits, leaves and seeds and is rarely seen on the forest floor. It is identified by its deep brown to black body, buff underparts and a large black tail; and is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN due to loss of habitat and hunting.

Day two in the forest began with a photo-shoot of the same Pig-tailed macaque on the same mango tree followed by a hectic jungle trek in search of other primates. We desperately tried to find the colony of the Stump-tailed macaque , which has the largest population among the primates in the sanctuary. The Stump-tailed macaque, also called the Bear macaque, is a species of macaque found in South Asia. In India, it is found south of the Brahmaputra River, in the northeastern part of the country. Its range extends from Assam and Meghalaya to eastern Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura. Though these primates are primarily frugivorous, they also eat many types of vegetation, such as seeds, leaves and roots, and hunt freshwater crabs, frogs, bird eggs and insects. The calls of the Hoolock gibbon failed to distract us from our search of the Stump-tailed macaques. The quest of these macaques finally ended in vain, but led us to chance encounter with another primate across a railway line passing through the forest. Our guide spotted a pair of Capped langurs from a considerable distance. It was almost 11am and very humid.

Small and isolated, the Hoollongapar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to as many as seven different species of primates and a horde of other wildlife

 

As we approached, we found a large colony of Capped langur consisting 30-35 individuals, including five to six babies! The Capped langur belongs to the Cercopithecidae family and is one of the cutest primates. It is mainly found in sub-tropical or tropical dry forests of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, India, and Myanmar. Though currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN (from habitat loss), this sanctuary has seen rising numbers, making sightings easier. Some of the adult and sub-adult Capped langurs were feeding on aquatic plants on nearby water-logged areas while others were sitting idle on trees giving us ample scope to photograph them.

Other than the primates, the sanctuary is also a habitat for leopards (Panthera pardus), Pangolins (Manis crassicaudata), Indian tent turtles (Kachuga tecta tecta) and Common monitor (Varanus bengalensis). Some important avifauna residing here are Great Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Osprey, Hill Myna, Kalij Pheasant and the rare White-winged Wood Duck.

The journey to the primate-dominated forests of Gibbon WLS was indeed a memorable one, made more so by simply understanding the hard work of local forest officials in efficiently protecting and managing the small but biodiverse forests.However, a broad gauge railway line bifurcating the forest appeared to be a serious threat to its biodiversity. We left Gibbon WLS,carrying with us the hope of returning, this time, in the winter.

Approach and access
Nearest railway station: Mariani (5km)
Nearest town: Jorhat (20km)
Nearest airport: Jorhat
Nearest National Park: Kaziranga (112km)

From Gibbon to Hoollongapar
The Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary is part of the forest that was once Hollongapar Reserve Forest in Jorhat, Assam. Named after its dominant tree species (Hollong; Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) it was declared a reserve forest in 1881. At that time, it onnected to a forest tract in Nagaland and was an important forested zone at the foothills of the Patkai range. The protected area (206 hectare then) gradually shrank as parts of it got de-reserved and tea gardens and villages began to come up as part of a rehabilitation move for the people of Majuli, thus fragmenting the forests and isolating it from the foothills. In 1924, artificial regeneration brought in well-stocked even-aged forests in place of the sporadic evergreens, which stood there in the past. This move led to a rich biodiversity and though the lost forest areas were added to the reserve again, the fragmentation remained. It was named the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in 1997 being home to the Hoolock gibbons, the only apes found in India, with populations densest in Assam. It was renamed yet again in 2004 to Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary.

Hoollongapar Gibbon WLS of Assam is the only sanctuary in the country, which harbours seven primate species, including Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) the only Indian non-human ape. Apart from Rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta), the population of other globally declining species of primates like Capped langur (Trachypithecus pileatus), Northern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca leonina), Stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides), Bengal slow loris (Nycticebus bengalensis), Assamese macaque (Macaca assamensis) are steadily increasing in Gibbon WLS.
Hoolock gibbon 105 in 26 families
Capped langur 162 in 14 troops
Stump-tailed macaque 233 in 2 troops
Northern Pig-tailed macaque 75 in 4 troops
Assamese macaque 46 in 1 troop
Rhesus macaque 174 in 4 troops.

Ujjal Ghosh
A forest officer in the Indian Forest Service cadre, his 25-year long experience has spanned over different capacities in West Bengal. He has closely experienced the every day happenings in nature and wildlife. His photography aims to highlight natural history moments in the wild.

 

 

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