5 January, 2019
It was a clear starlit winter sky, the dying campfire providing the only source of light—an orange glow that did little to disturb the constellations visible overhead. Eight of us were atop a large rock overlooking the Photwar river, at a section called Umthlong. It was the first night of a five-day trip to Wah Rimen (wah means river in Khasi), one of the lesser rivers that drain the southern ridges of Meghalaya. We were a mix of people, mostly from Shillong, who shared an enthusiasm for nature and the outdoors. There was Zorba, Banshan and Banjop who were established river-paddlers, Ban and Wallam, two local youths from nearby villages who worked as grassroots conservationists, and Duwaki, Ezra and I who were ecologists. A good two months of planning had gone into this exploratory river-paddling and biodiversity trip, and it was finally underway.
The trip had started on a not-so-happy note for us. We had all trekked down from Thyllaw village during that first afternoon, following one of the numerous forest trails that village folk use for their everyday commute into the forest. It ran parallel to the Photwar, a tributary leading us into the larger Rimen, and cut through scenic tropical agro-forests of areca nut, bay leaf and pepper. As evening dawned and we neared the location that was to be our campsite for the night, we heard a commotion amongst some men fishing in the river. A few from our group came upon them just in time to see what was happening. A Leopard Cat had come out from the undergrowth of one of the river banks and had jumped onto a boulder in the river. On seeing the animal, the men had chased it for some time before finally killing it! It was a sad sight—the dead animal lying lifeless amongst the rocks.
We gloomily set up camp on a large rock overlooking the incident and settled in for the night.
6 January, 2019
The morning revealed a beautiful scenery that we had overlooked the evening before. We were encamped in a river valley bounded on both sides by steep forest-covered hills. The valley—better described as a gorge—was cut by the river roughly along a north to south direction, which we were following. The river originated in the higher plateau tops to the north, still visible from our camp, and flowed down a hilly and boulder-filled course to join the low lying Rimen in the south. Crystal clear pools of water dotted the river between the riffles and the rapids; one such deep pool was right below the rock on which we were camping. Being winter, the water levels in the river were low and the sediment undisturbed by any rain. The forests covering the hills on either side were mainly agro-forests—an important source of livelihood for many people in these parts—interspersed with small patches of secondary forests. Apart from the areca nut and bay leaf trees, there were also jackfruit, Duabangas and numerous other species that we could not identify.
I had woken up early to go birding with Ezra while everyone else slept. It was a short half hour of birding along the river, spotting mostly familiar birds—Yellow-browed Warblers, Great Barbets, Pin-striped Tit-babblers, Black-crested Bulbuls and some unidentified minivets, yuhinas and leafbirds. We had hoped to see some of the rarer birds such as hornbills and possibly even some large mammals moving about in the early hours of the day, but we did not come across any and returned to camp just as everyone was waking up.
By about 9:00 am, everyone was up and about, busy preparing for the day ahead. Suddenly, the whole valley resonated with a loud noise! Hoo-ah hoo hoo-ah ah wohoo wohoo wohoo hoo-ah! Everyone stood transfixed, quickly exchanging excited glances before looking up towards the forests on the steep slopes—searching for the Western Hoolock Gibbons that were calling!
The river valley that we were in forms part of a larger landscape that has recently been in the news for its wildlife—in particular, the Western Hoolock Gibbon, an arboreal forest-dwelling ape. Listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this ape—which previously occurred over large parts of Northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar—has suffered major declines in its population (>50 per cent) over the last 40 years as a result of habitat loss and hunting.
The attention by the media towards the gibbon was a result of community conservation efforts by the people of five villages—Phlangwanbroi, Kenbah, Mawsawa, Mawkasaiñ and Mawrapat—of the Hima Malai Sohmat (hima means kingdom/state). This effort to conserve the ape and its habitat is being led by the Malaisohmat Tourism and Multi-purpose Co-operative Society (a joint organisation of the five villages), with support from Conservation Initiatives (a local NGO) and a few individuals from Shillong. This has slowly developed into a full-fledged conservation programme attracting further support from various other organisations.
Apart from gibbons, this landscape is also known to harbour other large wildlife. Capped Langurs, Rhesus Macaques and Pig-tailed Macaques are still seen from time to time moving about in the forest canopy. Barking Deer and Red Serows are regularly spotted by people visiting their bri (forest farms), and even bears are seen at times climbing and eating jackfruit when in season. Other smaller wildlife such as small cats (the Leopard Cat that we had seen killed), giant squirrels, civets and otters are spotted almost on a regular basis.
After a less than ideal breakfast (we had forgotten to pack coffee), a few of us jumped in for a swim in the clear pool of water below, while others paddled around in the inflatable packrafts that we had brought along. The water was quite cold but pleasant enough to swim in. The pool, at least 12 feet deep, was so clear that the river bed and all the fish swimming in it looked only an arm’s length away.
It was about 11:00 am by the time we packed up and started on our way to the second campsite. We continued south along the previous day’s trail, moving through more agroforests until we reached a place where the Photwar turned west, at which point we got off the trail and directly followed the river towards its confluence with the Rimen. The river at this section was wide—being closer to the plains of Bangladesh—with white rocks and boulders sticking out between small flows of running water. We proceeded at a snail’s pace: trying to spot every bird we heard, investigate every animal sign we found, and of course, swimming in another clear pool of water (this time under the hot mid-afternoon sun). It was approaching evening when we reached the confluence of the Photwar and the Rimen, and we started walking up the Rimen towards the campsite. Most of us were exhausted, having trekked for five hours under the hot sun. As we were nearing the campsite, we heard a familiar call—kak-kak-kk-kak-kk-kak—and everyone strained their rucksack-laden backs and tired necks to look up just in time to see three Oriental Pied Hornbills fly past—our prize for the day.
We finally arrived at our second campsite, situated on the south bank of the Rimen. It was where a stream joined the river perpendicularly from the north; two large forested hills, separated by the stream, stood directly north of the campsite. Bah Heh and Rit—extra hands that we had taken on to help us—had already arrived with more ration and set up camp.
7 January, 2019
I woke up while it was still dark, after an uneasy sleep. Ezra and Zorba were already up drying some clothes over a fire—both had not slept well. As dawn approached, the others also got up. We had some much-needed coffee (thankfully, brought in with the extra ration) and hot noodles, and then a few of us got ready to go birding. The plan for the day was that a group of us—Ban, Wallam, Ezra and I—would go birding; Zorba would go around photographing interesting things around the camp; and another group—Banshan, Banjop and Duwaki—would go explore for cave locations in the two forested hills near the camp. Before leaving, we heard the gibbons again, this time calling from the hills that we were going towards.
The hills surrounding the Rimen are part of the karst formations that are characteristic of the southern ridges of Meghalaya, and stretch all the way from the Garo Hills in the west to the Jaintia Hills in the east. These formations have been formed by the action of the heavy monsoon rains on the limestone band that runs along the southern border of the Shillong Plateau, and are arguably the most important of karst formations in the Indian subcontinent in terms of their ecology. Over a thousand caves dot these formations, which experts believe account for only a small proportion of what is still to be discovered. Nine of the longest caves in the Indian subcontinent are found here, ranging in length from 6 km to an impressive 30 km! Within these caves exist subterranean ecosystems populated by unique and diverse communities of cavernicoles—organisms that inhabit caves—which include arachnids, crabs, millipedes and beetles, and even fish and bats (the rare Wroughton’s Free-tailed Bat, for example). The karst formations housing these caves also support diverse aboveground plant communities across their entire range which are easily comparable to some of the world’s richest tropical forests. These plant communities, in turn, support the many species of wildlife previously mentioned.
The caving group was led by Bah John, a resident of Phlangwanbroi village who had happily agreed to guide them around the forest. Their first stop was Krem Remblang (Krem means cave), a limestone cave not too far from camp, where a terrapin had been spotted two weeks earlier. It was a shallow-looking limestone cave, seemingly only a few metres deep, with large chunks of white limestone sticking down from the ceiling. In actuality, the cave continued on much deeper, disappearing into smaller tunnels. The group came back to camp after, planning a visit to a second deeper cave much further away. Our group (the birding group) was already back at camp—we had seen quite a few species that morning including Oriental Pied Hornbills (which were roosting right next to our camp), Little and Streaked Spiderhunters, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers and a Himalayan Bluetail.
At camp, Bah John told us of a place about half an hour away, where a company had come prospecting for oil over 20 years back, where oil continues to seep out from the pit to this day. We decided to abandon the day’s plans to visit this place instead. It turned out to be a good one-and-a-half-hour trek (Bah John later told us that he had never used a watch in his life), moving downriver from our campsite, passing through a couple of villages and finally following a short trail into the forest.
Along the trail, we could see traces of oil in the streams that flowed by. The smell of oil soon became evident and it grew stronger with every step. We arrived at the place and saw a square-shaped pit in the ground about the size of a carton box, full of black sludge—the sludge was a mix of oil and mud. Bah John warned us that if we lit a match and set fire to the mix, it would continue burning for days. He then narrated the story of how the company had come prospecting for oil but had abandoned work as the operation turned out not to be profitable. His story, mixed with the sight and smell of oil oozing out and turning the ground to blight, suddenly made us aware of the numerous threats to the ecology of these landscapes.
The fragile karst ecosystem of Meghalaya is rich in mineral reserves, and sadly many areas are already being exploited with little concern for the environment. Although oil extraction is less heard of, coal and limestone mining have ravaged large parts of the natural ecology of these formations at different places in the state.
In the Jaintia Hills to the east, large tracts of forests have been degraded or lost, soil fertility reduced, rivers and streams polluted beyond use—the Lukha river being a sad documented example, and the resident wildlife communities greatly diminished. Limestone mining and cement manufacturing near Sohra (more famously known as Cherrapunji) has led to the collapse of a section of the famous Mawkhyrdop (or Mawmluh) cave, one of the longest in India, threatening both the unique biodiversity and the geology of the cave. The Mawkhyrdop cave houses the boundary stratotype—a geological reference point decided upon by geologists—that defines the Meghalayan geological age! In the Garo Hills, acid mine drainage (runoff of acidic water) from coal mining areas have had severe negative impacts on the fish fauna of the famous Simsang river.
Although some measures have been advocated by various environmentally-concerned groups from within and outside the state, their adoption and implementation are far from adequate, and there is still a long way to go to secure an environmentally safe future for these places.
8–9 January, 2019
The plan for the day was very much like the day before: a group of us would go birding, Zorba would go photographing, and another group would visit the second cave. Ban, Ezra and I—the birding group—were the first to set off. We had been birding for about an hour, all the while slowly climbing up one of the two hills near camp. As we were reaching a point from where we could see the low-lying hills to the south of us, we heard a group of gibbons calling in the distance, from a south-easterly direction—they were quite far from us. Soon after, a second group called, this time, from a southerly direction—they too were quite far from us. The three of us stood there listening and noting down the directions. Just then, we heard a hoop---hoop---hoop call from the valley right across us, towards the northeast. My initial thought was that it was a langur calling. When I suggested this, Ban shook his head and softly whispered that it was a gibbon. Suddenly the whole valley resounded with their full call—the high-pitched starting notes of the female ah ah ah, and the joint chorus of the male and the female wohoo wohoo wohoo! The three of us scattered to find good vantage points before frantically searching the canopies on the other side of the valley for gibbons. Finally, it was Ezra who quietly exclaimed without looking away from his binoculars that he had seen a male gibbon—black with the white brow over his eyes—jump across trees! Ban and I kept scanning the canopy for a while but had no luck.
The conservation efforts started by the people of the five villages of Hima Malai Sohmat to protect these apes give hope for the future of this landscape, a hope that its natural ecology will be preserved and protected for the years ahead. As part of their efforts to conserve the gibbon, the people here are trying to protect their forests and in turn, everything else that is linked to these forests—the soil, streams and rivers, the subterranean cave ecosystems, and other wildlife. The people leading these efforts are acutely aware of the environmental concerns of this generation—pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss—and are working hard towards securing an environmentally sound future for themselves.
However, these efforts come with huge challenges. This landscape is not only a home for wildlife, but also for people; the forests are not only a habitat for wildlife, but also a source of livelihood for people living here. Large parts of the landscape, including forests, are being used and worked on by people. Conservation efforts then become a balancing act of protecting the non-human ecologies on one hand and ensuring the security of people’s livelihoods on the other. Novel ways of thinking are needed to meet this balance; maybe, by promoting and bettering the existing agroforestry systems which both preserves the forests and provides a livelihood for the people or by bringing in other forms of nature-based livelihood options—eco-tourism is currently being explored. With hard work and dedication, good support from other people and organisations, and a little bit of luck, the people of Hima Malai Sohmat may yet prove successful in their conservation efforts and safeguard the gibbons, the forests, and all that is linked to them!
We came back to camp, ate and then relaxed with a nice swim in a pool upriver. The others returned late in the afternoon and told us that they too had heard the gibbons and had come very close to seeing them. They had also visited the second cave called Krem Judok, located somewhere in the other hill. As described by them, it was a beautiful cavernous limestone cave structured like a natural hall. The entrance was wide, leading into the spacious cavern that no one knew extended for how long. Large numbers of bats were roosting and flying overhead and the stony floor was covered in guano. Banjop and Wallam had gone inside the cave, but were quickly forced out by the overpowering smell of guano.
At night, there was a final effort to photograph some stream animals, as we searched up and down the river for frogs and other smaller lifeforms.
The next morning, after breakfast, we packed up camp. Rit and Bah Heh headed back to the village with the bulk of our things, and the rest of us paddled out onto the Rimen.
It was a long six hours of paddling the Rimen—from the campsite to Ryngku village near the Bangladesh border—passing through a beautiful riverscape of low-lying forested hills and villages on the river banks. We left camp at about 11:00 am in the morning and reached Ryngku village at about 5:30 pm in the evening, just as it was getting dark. A hired taxi took us back up to Thyllaw village where we collected our vehicle and then drove on to Mawsynram town where luckily the food shops were still open (it was about 9:00 pm by then), and we had a hot dinner with some nice steaming red tea.
The final wildlife sighting from the trip was a jackal on the side of the road just as we left Mawsynram town. We got out of the vehicle just in time to see its slender form slink down from the road into an open grassland at a distance. It turned back to look at us before finally walking away into the dark night. We got back into the vehicle and continued on to Shillong.
*Note: Bah Heh, Rit and Bah John are names that have been changed.
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