A tall and lone semal (Bombax ceiba) tree stood in the middle of a large swampy area filled with the Torani gach (Alpinia allughas), known as ginger-lilies. Elephants love eating these plants. The soil was wet, soft and your feet could sink into its squishiness. There were small pools with greenish algae and the water was a discolored brownish-red – which was because of the iron.
The drier parts were over-run with Lantana, Mikania and Eupatorium – impenetrable thickets. The thorny bushes scraped our hands and arms as we hacked our way through and in many places, we were not actually walking on the ground but on top of the tangled masses of the Lantana bushes and other weeds. This open area was large, maybe several hectares.
The semal tree was not very far from the edge of the Pakke river which flows along the south-eastern boundary of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Just a few years ago, till 1993 to be exact, it was the site of a village – Mabuso, with about 28 families.
This was in 1995-1997 when I first began working in Pakke, in the initial days, Japang and I would spend some days just wandering and exploring different areas.
Pakke was then not a tiger reserve. And although it was known as Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary, legally it was still notified as a Game Sanctuary. It was only in the year 2000, that it was legally notified as a wildlife sanctuary and renamed as Pakke thanks to the efforts of Chukhu Loma, a Nyishi forest officer who brought in several other conservation initiatives after he became the DFO in 1999. Pakhui had been an Assamese name.
On that day, Japang and I were talking about hornbills and he said the hornbills sometimes come and perch on this tree. Sure, enough, we searched below and found seeds of Dysoxylum binectariferum, Chisocheton cumingianus, Aglaia spectabilis and Horsfieldia kingii dispersed below by hornbills.
That day, I remember telling Japang, how wonderful it would be if this old village site could be regenerated/reforested back. The hornbills were already doing their job and so were the other frugivores, but we both doubted whether it would be enough. Below the massive growth of Lantana, there were seedlings struggling to emerge out of the tangled darkness. And I wondered how many years would it take for the area to regenerate.
For many years, I did not revisit the old village site.
In 2014, our team began a rainforest nursery. At that time, I had many doubts on whether we would be able to sustain the effort in the long-term. I still have them. But we plunged in. Thanks to the interest of Lod Lylang, an Apatani Range officer who was posted at Seijosa in the Khellong Forest Division, we had the courage to begin.
A small area was given to us to start our nursery. It was a modest effort and we began with collecting the seeds of a few species. I remember the first lot of seeds that Swati and I gave to the Range officer’s staff in April-May 2014, most of which did not germinate as they were not planted soon enough, the seed beds had also not been properly prepared and the fencing was half-done. Initially, when we began, goats got in and damaged many of our seedlings.
Slowly, we got more people, built a proper fence, and arranged for better maintenance. Our team put up bamboo poles and shade nets.
Water supply was improved but is still a problem in the summer months.
It has been a big team effort, with seeds usually being collected by our field team as and when they go for field work. We have a list of tree species that we want to raise and the field team knows when they fruit and when seeds would be available.
The seeds are brought to the nursery by the field team and then the nursery staff keep the seed beds ready, sort the seeds and plant them in the polybags and water and monitor them.
Many people worked, helped and supervised in the initial stages of setting up the nursery since we began, some of whom are no longer working with us (Amruta Rane, Swati Sidhu, Ushma Shukla, while several volunteers/interns like Aakanksha Rathore, TJ Thonger and several others helped at the nursery for shorter periods.
By 2016, we had raised about 3000 saplings of around 35 native tree species, and we started restoration efforts on a small-scale by planting around nest trees and other sites in degraded areas of the Reserved Forest and in small patches inside the Pakke Tiger Reserve.
This year, we have raised over 8000 seedlings and saplings of around 46 tree species, including several economically important tree species.
As the nursery flourished, I remembered my dream of many years to restore and plant in the old Mabuso village site. As we do for many things in Pakke, I approached Sir (Tana Tapi, DFO of Pakke Tiger Reserve) in December, telling him of our wish to carry out restoration at the old relocated village site. I told him that we wanted to visit the site and needed help to clear the area of weeds and figure out the suitability for planting. He nodded barely. As is often the case, I thought he had not heard what I had said.
Two days later, he had summoned his staff based at the Dichu camp (which is close to Mabuso) and had started instructing them on what needs to be done at the old village site. They were looking bewildered and so was I. Then Sir muttered to me – “You had wanted to plant saplings in that patch, so I called them.” It took me a few seconds to realise that he had already figured out what needed to be done and had called his staff to arrange for labourers to clear the weeds and prepare the area for planting. I was taken aback by the lightning speed. It had seemed that he had not even heard what I had said in passing.
I left for Bangalore and within 2 weeks, the work was done and Sir called to tell me it had been done. He asked me impatiently when we would come to check and figure out about the best time for transportation and planting. That sums up the way he usually works. Less talk and more action.
In March, Rohit arranged for Bado Nabam, one of the long-time STPF staff to help us find labourers to help prepare the planting site by digging the pits. The pits were dug in a week. The Mabuso site is not easily accessible by vehicle after the rains set in, so the planting needed to be done earlier in the season. It would be impossible to carry the large number of saplings on foot to the planting site. This year, it rained quite heavily towards the end of March and April.
In mid-April, Sir gave us the Department truck to use to transport all the saplings and Sorenda came to help us. Our entire team comprising of Rohit, Devathi, Bhaskar, Saniya, nursery team (Narayan, Anita, Sital), field staff (Kumar, Khem, Tali, Sagar, Turuk) and all the nest protectors transported all the 1500 saplings in the Forest Department’s truck up to the point where the vehicle can go and everyone carried the heavy saplings on foot for the last 200-300 m up to the site and finished the planting in just 2 days. It must have been a back-breaking and tiring effort.
It was a dream come true after 20 years – the only disappointment was that I could not be there to help or see it happen.
I cannot wait to visit the site on my next trip and see the saplings growing up.
While trees continue to be felled outside and there is degradation in that landscape, these efforts at growing trees and restoring small patches of forest at times seem utopian and such wishful thinking. I despair that these efforts are small when compared to the destruction that is happening on such a large scale. But the happiness of seeing the healthy saplings of your favourite tree species growing in the nursery and watching them survive in the wild also gives hope and keep us going. There is a wobbly belief that somehow we can begin to grow back a forest – one seed, one sapling and one tree at a time.