Exploring the best of avian and wildlife in the foothills of Himalayas
Nestled in the high altitude region of Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some of the rarest birds and other wild species.
The suspension complained loudly as the overloaded pickup truck groaned its slow way along the rough dirt track. Four of us were crammed into the cabin in the front, and the back was almost overflowing with all that we would need during our stay – tents, bedding, provisions, cooking utensils, assorted equipment, and a couple of chickens. At the wheel was Nima Tsering – driver, manager, guide and raconteur all rolled into one. “This is the road the Chinese took to invade the Assam plains in 1962”, he said, grinning out of the windshield at the lone winding track with its many landslides ahead in the distance.
We were in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Eastern Himalayas of western Arunachal Pradesh – a spot that has shot to global recognition and fame after the first ever bird discovery post independence – the Bugun Liocichla, described by Ramana Athreya in 2006. But the liocichla was not the only thing we were after! I still clearly remember myself as a ten-year-old, salivating over John Henry Dick’s illustrations of the Wedge-billed Babbler and Ward’s Trogon in the Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent – mythical, inaccessible birds that I swore I had to see; well, at least one before I died. Here was my chance!
The Eaglenest area (which ranges in elevation from 500 to 3200 m above sea level), was formerly known as the Balipara Frontier Tract under the British and was first systematically explored in the 1870s by Godwin-Austen of K2 fame. Subsequently, the area vanished from the biodiversity map, until scientists and naturalists began conducting detailed surveys in the last decade. Eaglenest was well-known to the army (both Indian and Chinese), and the sanctuary is actually named after the Red Eagle or 4th Infantry Division of the Indian Army, which was based here in the 1950s.
As we drove through a sharp drizzle, we crested Eaglenest Pass and entered the sanctuary itself, descending into the wet-temperate forest area, shrouded in mist. Our destination was Bongpu (or Bompu), a campsite almost bang in the middle of Eaglenest. Nima kept up a lively and thoroughly entertaining running commentary – “this is where I was charged by an elephant when I was on a motorcycle; I had to take a flying leap under this culvert”, “here’s where we once saw a Red panda”, “in another two months, this patch of forest will become red with blooming rhododendrons”, “there’s a black wildcat here that I see quite often on the road”.
Indeed, Eaglenest is rich not only in birds; recent camera trap studies have captured rare and endangered species like the Clouded leopard, Golden cat, Marbled cat, Red panda and the Asiatic black bear who live, if not thrive, in Eaglenest and the surrounding community forests. From his window, Nima points out wild dog scat littering the track and a troop of recently discovered Arunachal macaques in the tree canopy. Over the years, researchers have discovered new species of frogs and snakes and rediscovered species like the Abor Hills Agama, a lizard last recorded in 1874, and presumed ‘lost’ since.
Undoubtedly, the most visible, audible and spectacular array of inhabitants are certainly the birds. And what birds! Over 500 species in Eaglenest alone attract birdwatchers from all over the world in droves. Of course, the Liocichla is the flagship of Eaglenest, but no less magical are species like the Ward’s Trogon, Wedge-billed Babbler, Beautiful Nuthatch, Rufous-necked Hornbill and Blyth’s Tragopan. As we awoke in the pre-dawn cold of our tents, we were treated to a stupendous dawn chorus, led by a flock of Grey-sided Laughing thrushes, with Rusty-fronted Barwings and Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers chiming in.
It is this spectacular bird diversity that has motivated the resident Bugun tribe to initiate a bird tourism-based community conservation programme that has been running successfully for the last seven years. This innovative conservation initiative has won multiple awards for its unique blend of wildlife conservation and local economic empowerment. The Bugun tribe has also recently taken the step to protect their traditionally managed lands adjacent to Eaglenest as a Community Conserved Area, which will effectively expand the region under protection from 218 sq. km. (Eaglenest’s area) to almost 300 sq. km.
It was to this area we were headed next. Lama Camp is situated in the midst of Bugun community forest land and is so named because the Dalai Lama spent a night camping here on his journey from Tibet to Dharamsala, in 1959. Breakfast at Lama Camp is made even more special with glorious views of the snowy peaks of the Gori Chen range to the north through the glass-fronted dining room. As we sat in the warmth of the winter sun, lazily postponing the moment when we would pick up our binoculars and head out, Nima pointed to his ear and then the valley. Four mellow, fluty descending whistles rose from the forest below. A liocichla was calling.
Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary
Area: 218 sq km
Altitude: 500 to 3200 m above sea level
Location: Eaglenest and Bugun Community Forest land are in the West Kameng district of western Arunachal Pradesh. The nearest town, Tenga, (17 km. from Lama Camp and 40 km. from Bongpu) lies on the Tezpur Tawang highway. Bomdila, the district headquarters, is 22 km. from Tenga. Sessa Orchid Sanctuary lies to the east of Eaglenest, Bhutan is to the west. The plains of Assam lie immediately south of Eaglenest and can be seen from Bongpu on clear days.
Climate: Eaglenest is monsoonal, with heavy rains from June to September. Temperatures go to sub-zero during the winter, with snowfall at Lama Camp.
HOW TO GO
By air: The airports closest to Tenga are Guwahati (326 km.) and Tezpur (138 km.). Guwahati is well connected to major cities through daily flights; flights to Tezpur operate twice to thrice a week.
By rail: The closest major stations are Guwahati and Tezpur.
By road: Driving time to Tenga from Guwahati is 10 hours and from Tezpur is 5 hours. Guwahati is well-connected to Tezpur through buses and smaller commercial vehicles. Tata Sumos are available on a shared basis from Tezpur (ASTC bus stand) to Tenga at 6 AM and 2 PM.
WHERE TO STAY
Lama Camp: Situated in Bugun Community Forest land at an elevation of 2350 m ASL, this is a permanent campsite offering tented accommodation. On clear days, visitors can get spectacular views of the snow-capped Gori Chen range in Bhutan. The newly discovered bird species – the Bugun Liocichla, is found around Lama Camp.
Bongpu (Bompu): This campsite also offers tented accommodation. It is situated within Eaglenest, at an elevation of 1940 m ASL, in the midst of montane forests. The lower elevations of Eaglenest (Sessni, Khellong) can be accessed from this campsite. Specialties around Bompu are the newly discovered Bompu Litter Frog, Blyth’s Tragopan, Wedge-billed Babbler and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler.
Ramalingam is in community forest about 8 km away from Tenga and between Tenga and Lama Camp. It has a Forest Rest House and a tourist camp. Ramalingam is a good place to look for open-habitat animals which are difficult to see inside the sanctuary.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For bookings and tariff details, contact Indi Glow
Comfortable accommodation is also available at Inspection Bungalows at Singchung, Rupa, Jigaon and Shergaon and hotels (Diyng-kho and Aphet) in Tenga.
Cover Pic: Maroon Oriole (Oriolus traillii) in the rain | Photo: Jayesh Joshi (Saevus Gallery Member)
Text: Umesh Srinivasan & Nandini Velho
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First published: Saevus Magazine (Issue January 2014)