Month: August 2012

The last gibbon

The last gibbon

Guest post by Kashmira Kakati

When you hear a gibbon call, time stands still and flies past. When that ‘song’ tumbles around the forest mists, it is hard to tell which is the call and which, the echo. It comes from the deep jungles of aeons ago, and hearing it is like having an ear to infinity, a bit like looking at the stars.

A wild female hoolock gibbon up in the rainforest canopy (Photo: A Christy Williams)

In my dreams, the sound of the rainforest always comes to me in this, the call of the gibbon. If there was a sound that had to stand for everything truly wild and free, this would be it. It is also a love song. We now know a lot about our sub-continent’s only ape, the hoolock gibbon—found only in northeast India, south of the Brahmaputra, and the adjoining forests of Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are so few left that they count, regrettably, among the world’s top 25 most endangered primates. We know that they are among the few mammals that pair monogamously, often for life; that they give birth every two years or so and the young live with their parents for almost 8 years, learning the ropes of survival in the high canopy of the rain forest. There is no other animal as agile or gracile as the gibbon in that lofty world. We know that each gibbon family defends a small territory, not by violence, but by singing! We also know that they eat a lot of different kinds of forest fruit, but that they need some leaf as well. Then, there is a lot more that we do not know.

Six kilometers from Margherita in Upper Assam is a Singpho village called Inthong or the village of a “thousand houses”. In the 1960s though, Inthong didn’t actually have a thousand houses. It was just a settlement of 10-20 households surrounded by forests, and what seemed like hundreds of howling gibbons. The young Singpho men even tracked tigers in these forests.

We had driven out to Inthong from my camp at Digboi—not to sample its unique, organically grown phalap or Singpho tea—but to see a half-wild, half-pet hoolock gibbon called Kolia, the Black One. She may be nearly 30 years old. Kolia’s guardian is a gentleman by the name of Bhupeshwar Ningda. From the verandah of his traditional Singpho chang-ghar, Ningda calls out to Kolia. In a trice, out of the betelnut tree, swinging hand over hand on the rafters and rope-walking on the railing, comes Kolia. We are thrilled. In so many years of studying gibbons, this is only the second time I am within touching distance of one. (The first time was when a sudden monsoon shower sent me scurrying for shelter under a tangle of lianas beneath a stately hollong tree in the Borajan forest. The wild female I was following apparently had the same idea. Hearing a noise just above my head, I looked up at the same time she looked down at me. My heart missed several beats. I looked away, and so did she. I don’t know how long we sat there behind that liana curtain, within 3 feet of each other. It may have been minutes, it felt like enchanted hours. Until, as abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped, and we resumed our roles as the observer and the subject.)

Kolia, the last gibbon (Photo: Kashmira Kakati)

Kolia. Ningda remembers the day—but is not sure of the year—when his dog caught the young gibbon as she scrambled along his garden fence behind her parents. Ningda rushed to her rescue and handed her back to her mother. He named her Kolia, because she had the jet black coat of young gibbons. What a surprise he must have had then, when about 8-10 years later, she started turning golden as female gibbons do when approaching adulthood. It was too late to change her name and he still believes, erroneously, that she is male—but that is not important to the plot. Anyway, to continue the strange story, Ningda says that after the dog incident, the gibbon family started staying in the patch of forest around his homestead more often. They were among two or three groups of gibbons that lived there.

This forest patch, formerly part of the Upper Dehing Reserve Forest (East Block), was separated from it when the Powai Bongaon (Forest Village) was set down in that area around 1960. In just over two decades most of the gibbons would disappear, in a familiar but unacknowledged sequence of circumstances that took place all across northeast India. The official term is forest fragmentation—when forests become progressively smaller and isolated from one another by the hand of man. The effective term is death sentence—for the isolated forest, and everything in it, as the incredibly complex system that is a living forest breaks down and ceases to function.

Intricate and complex, the rainforests are now threatened by fragmentation and disturbance (Photo: A. Christy Williams)

By 1995, Kolia had lost both her parents and she was the last gibbon left in the Inthong forest patch. Ningda started putting out bananas for the lonely orphan. She started approaching the house closer than she ever had, seemingly for the bananas, but possibly just for the company of another living being. I’ve seen wild sub-adult gibbons exhibit separation anxieties, lasting months, when the time comes to leave the family and strike out on their own until they find a partner. It has been 14 years this year that Kolia has not seen another of her own species. Her social contact is with Ningda and his large family. She takes food from their hands, and she will groom their heads. She often holds the mirror on the verandah and peers intently into it, trying to touch that familiar animal on the other side. Maybe she understands it is just a reflection. I hope the high intelligence of her species fails her and that she doesn’t understand.

Mostly, she is safe. But sometimes, school boys pelt her with stones. One time, poachers shot at her, taking off a finger. And another time a man approached Ningda, offering him money for Kolia’s heart, which he said he’d grind into good medicine. Such is the nature of the human beast.

When she hooted, we laughed, amused. But it was a song without any context. In the wild, from up on high, she would have been singing a duet with her mate once in the late morning. She would have been singing to celebrate her ‘married’ status, to guard her territory for her family. At Inthong, Kolia would launch into crazed hoots every time someone prompted her. As everyone laughed at the antics of the funny ‘monkey’, I suddenly recognized that she was demented. It was there in her eyes, and from that slightly open, down-turned mouth. I have watched wild gibbon eyes for hours on end, for months together. They are curious, intelligent eyes. Or playful, indulgent eyes. Sometimes they can be angry or annoyed or fearful eyes; and sometimes just sleepy, lazy eyes. They shine. They used to first warily, then calmly, directly, watch me back. But Kolia’s brown eyes were empty. Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. Inside them were two bottomless pools holding all the loneliness of the world, all the burden of being alive when everyone you knew and loved, or could love, has gone.

On the drive out, a tremendous April cloudburst surged down the car windows and brought to me an old memory of a story. It was called the ‘The Fog Horn’, by Ray Bradbury. It told of an ancient sea monster that emerges from the bottom of the sea, answering the call of a lighthouse’s fog horn on a cold, misty night; clutching desperately to a shred of hope that another of its kind was finally calling to it. As it approaches, the frightened keeper switches off the foghorn. The monster is first confused by the silence, then enraged by it. In the anguish and fury of a hope lost forever, it cries out and lashes at the lighthouse, destroying the unbearable untruth. Bradbury sends it back to the depths of the sea, never to be seen again, to wait another million years for the merciful death that would release it from its intolerable existence. Kolia has all the gentleness of her species, none of the fury of the monster. But her call is the lonely monster’s call is the echo of the foghorn blowing:

…whoever hears it will weep in their souls,

whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity…

Note: Hoolock gibbon populations continue to decline across its range, leaving many Kolias calling hopefully, hopelessly, from the tattered, disappearing patches that were once their soaring, vine-tangled forest abodes. In the worst of these forest fragments, they no longer call.

Love, longing and leopards

Love, longing and leopards

A long time ago, I was madly in love with a girl. At first, she was not aware of the fact that I was crazy about her. During those days all I wanted was to see her. I was happy and contented just by the sight of her. When she unexpectedly walked past me or sent a casual glance in my direction, I was overjoyed. Then, I started observing her routine and I knew what she would do at particular time and where she went. I tried to walk along the same route that she generally took so that I could see her. She was not a very talkative person. She did not announce her presence unnecessarily. As far as I knew, she did not mingle with anyone very easily. Still, she had a small group of friends. Sometimes when I heard her talking, I would go to see her. Sometimes she would look at me, sometimes she just ignored my presence or not even notice me. I would become very nervous in her presence and spoke to her very rarely. But I remember every occasion when I did. I never told her how much I like her, however, after sometime it must have been apparent and she became conscious of the fact. Once she knew, she began to avoid me; leaving the place immediately if she found me there. I knew that she did not hate me, but perhaps she was more practical and did not wish to encourage an adolescent love.

Like I said, this was a long time ago. Now, I don’t even know which part of the world she lives in. Why should I then write about all these things now? I write because I realize now that the excitement, awe, thrill, ardor, joy, and frustration that I had gone through during those days (or those moments) weren’t different from the emotions that arise while I watch certain wildlife. How much contentment there is in seeing the Malabar tree nymph gracefully fluttering its delicate wings and glide, in listening to the Malabar whistling thrush, in watching the flight of Great pied hornbill! And the list will go on. I am sure every one of us will have our own such list.

But there is one species that, when seen by us, will overshadow whatever else we have seen: the leopard. Isn’t this true? Sometime back, I went wildlife watching with some of my family. I showed them many species of birds, amazing colorful butterflies and damselflies. On our return, we saw also plenty of black-naped hares. Still, it was only when they got a glimpse of a leopard in swift motion crossing the road, that one of them said, Our trip is complete only now. Now we can go home. They were not really serious wildlife watchers, but even they were most captivated by the big cat.

It’s an obvious tradition among the naturalists and researchers to ask the person who went out looking for wildlife at night,”What did you see?” If you have to pass through a forested area to reach the place where you live, then you are the luckiest person in this world. As soon as you reach your place, the first question your folks would ask, “Did you see anything on the way?” You may have seen several spotted deer, sambar, black-naped hare, porcupine, or a few nightjars and civets. But the answer would be, in a very tired tone, “Well, nothing much, a few deer, hare, and yeah, a porcupine, that’s it.” But if you had seen a leopard, they don’t have to ask you any questions. With a victorious smile on your face, you would ask them, “Guess what I saw?” The immediate response from the other side would be, with wide-open eyes,”Leopard?”

Although I loved to see leopards, I secretly disliked this form of answer. So I made a resolution that if somebody asked me what I saw, even if I had seen a leopard, I would first mention other species that I saw and only then would mention my leopard sighting. Well, the resolution hasn’t worked. I can never resist: the leopard would get first mention. I would call up to tell them or send an SMS ahead. Why does this happen to me or to most of us? What is there in a leopard? What makes the sighting so special?

The Beauty. (Photo by Kalyan Varma)

To figure this out, I gave it some serious thought. Before I explain my views, let me tell you about my very first sighting of a leopard in the wild. In 2001, I was returning from Cuddapah to the place where I was living at the time—in Jerdon’s Courser country. We were in a jeep and saw a leopard about a hundred metres away. The Jerdon’s courser was one of India’s most endangered birds and I was excited and happy on those rare occasions that I saw the bird. Yet, the feeling of seeing the leopard was something different.

Let me explain why the leopard is so special. Watching Jerdon’s Courser, Nilgiri marten, or a snow leopard are like sighting some very very popular stars such as Rajinikanth, Kalyan Varma, Katrina Kaif or Sachin Tendulkar. You won’t get to see them often. It may happen if you made a serious effort, but that would be like once or twice in a lifetime. But the leopard is like your girl next door (or a boy next door, for girls). If you know that they are there, you will be looking out for them, and if you do it, you know that there are chances that you would get a glimpse. When you have this little hope or a wish somewhere in the corner of your mind or heart, while you are passing through the forested road, and if you then did see the leopard, imagine how much you will be elated! Can anything beat that or even come close to that feeling? Nothing I think, other than a leopard—at least for me.

There is another reason that makes leopard sightings so special. We all like good surprises. The song Yeh Ishq haaye from the Hindi movie Jab We Met is one of my favorite songs. I have saved this song whereever I could so that I can listen to it whenever I want to. Still, when I am not carrying my music or any of those gadgets and it suddenly plays on the radio: that brings the smiles to my face. This does not happen often. When it does, it is special.

Among the other things that I love watching are the protruding vocal sacs of Pretty Bush Frogs, the glittering green flashes of Stream Glory damselflies, and the dance of the fantail flycatcher. You can spend time watching all these to your heart’s content and then you would probably leave. But the leopard won’t pose for you for long. The leopard is a big teaser. I began this post, describing my old flame. Do you know why? She reminds me, now, of the elusiveness of the leopard. Their elusiveness is what makes them so alluring. You always want more. You are never contented with just one sighting. It’s like eating good potato chips. The salt and chilli taste linger for a second in your tongue and disappears instantly. So you dip into the packet for one more.

It is for this reason that I always look out for the leopard every time I go out. I have seen her many times. I don’t know how many times I missed her and I don’t know how many times she skillfully avoided me. I had seen her in quite close quarters. On one occasion, we even looked into each other’s eyes. What an awesome moment that was! It was just about 15 seconds and then she slowly walked away from me. On another occasion, I was driving past a huge Ficus tree and I saw her resting at the base. I wanted my friends to see her so I called them and they rushed to the spot. They saw her slowly walking into the woods. Another day, I saw her walking beautifully on the road and I was just following her, for a while. She would walk away a bit, then stop and look back inquisitively. Oh, that was bliss! All I would do was to move away from there and just let her be. I have also heard her call many times. Seldom have I gone looking out for her, though, after hearing her voice.

The recent sighting was the best so far in my life. It was like a dream. It was a completely misty night and I was driving in the car, moving slowly, very slowly with my headlights on low beam. I could hardly see beyond five metres in front. And there she emerged through the mist, in a slightly hurried gait, crossing the road. In that split second, her beautiful yellow coat glowed in the car’s light, and she was gone like an angel.

I have to go now. It is time. She may be waiting for me.