Fellow travellers in the forest

Many of the forests that I have roamed over the last two decades would have been much poorer places had it not been for some special people who knew the forest and shared their knowledge of the wild, showed and taught me things with utmost generosity. 

These people from indigenous communities in Arunachal Pradesh have been a very crucial part of my journeys, and of some of the big and small discoveries we made together.

I first went to Arunachal in November 1995 to begin a study on the impact of logging on arboreal mammals.

I still remember the first day that I landed in Seijosa (the HQ of Pakke Tiger Reserve, then known as Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary) on a bus from Itanagar as it was getting dark and trudging to the DFO’s bungalow to meet him. I was introduced to Japang Pansa, who was from the Wancho tribe in eastern Arunachal who would become a friend, confidante, guide and teacher over the next 10 years. Japang was from Konnu village in Tirap district bordering Myanmar and Nagaland.

Japang Pansa in 2007, often serious. Photo: Kalyan Varma

This essay is an acknowledgement and tribute to Japang and many others in Arunachal – to the fun times, laughter, the pain and the hardships. We often refer to them as field assistants but they are the behind-the-scenes backbone of our research and conservation work. Their contribution remains largely unappreciated; except as the cursory thanks we give to our ‘field assistants’ in the acknowledgements of peer-reviewed papers and reports.

In the last 25 years – apart from Japang, there have been many others. Narayan Mogar, Pradeep Adhikari, Taya Tayem, Rasham Brah, Akhi Nathany, Duchaye Yobin, Ngwa-akhi Yobin, Khem Thapa, Kumar Thapa, Budhiram Tai, Tajek Wage, Tajik Tachang and many others.

And some with whom I have had very fleeting associations, and many younger people (Tali Nabam, Sagar Kino, Sitaram Mahato, Kejang) who now work with us who I have spent much less time with in the field but who also impress me with their field skills and interest.

All of them have taught me much natural history and of how to observe nature that I would never have known based on my limited knowledge and experience as a city-dwelling person. I share a few stories from the journeys and fieldwork in Arunachal’s forests.

Japang Pansa was the first and taught me a lot – his knowledge of plants was remarkable. I had to do vegetation plots in Pakke’s forests in that 1st study and it was mind-boggling. I did not know any species in those rich tropical forests. Every plot we would find unidentified species. Japang knew many and the Assamese names for them. For the ones, he did not know, he would tell me something interesting about them like when they fruited, what color the flower or fruit was or who ate them. It was hugely difficult as in one plot we would find many trees, most of which were new. In the next plot, we would find more new ones plus some of the unidentified ones in the previous plot. He was so good that he would tell me that X was the same species as the one that we got in the 2nd or 5th plot. I have no idea how he distinguished and remembered. We often had disputes during this data collection.  And I recall once we had a big argument in the middle of the forest about the possible ID of some trees but in the end, of course he was right.

Crossing the Kameng river early morning at Tipi to go into the Pakke Tiger Reserve (then known as Pakhui Wildlife Sanctuary) for our transects in 1996 – Narayan (standing in checked shirt) and Doimary in uniform, he still works in Pakke as forest guard. I think Japang took this picture.

The drudgery of field data collection would be relieved by the little nuggets of information and insights about the forest and its creatures that Japang shared. There is a beautiful liana Tetracera tomentosa with scaly red bark. Once after a long walk, Japang stopped and before I could say anything, cut it in the middle, swung it around and asked me to drink the water dripping from inside. I remember it as the most delicious water I have ever tasted. Cold, with a sweet aftertaste and a smell like that of ripe Canarium fruits which are yummy to nibble on. After that, that many a time, I have searched for this liana to taste its water.

I was a bit of a hard taskmaster in those early days as after the morning transect walks to count squirrels, primates and hornbills, we would do the vegetation plots and would return to the basecamp only around 2-3 pm after having been out since 5-6 am. Japang would complain about hunger pangs and joke about being on first gear and his stomach rumbling as we trudged up a slope to do yet another vegetation plot.

It is only after Charu visited us once in the field that I realized I was overdoing it – and that we should probably have eaten or carried some food. It had been drilled into my head as an MSc student by people like Dr. Johnsingh that one should not waste time lazing about in the field.  I also realized that Japang and Narayan were quietly having a quick meal in the early morning from the previous night’s meal to cope with the long hours. In those days, I was still a rookie in Arunachal and not used to eating anything so early in the morning, but I soon adapted and learnt their ways. To eat globs of rice at 5 or 6 am.

He had been a hunter and much of his knowledge also came from following/tracking animals He could call out barking deer by making sounds with a leaf – a trick many others in Arunachal use, although I think I have actually only seen it succeed once or twiceJ

He also told me about a ‘thaili’ or a ‘potli’ that the hornbill has on its back from which they take out the bright yellow-coloured oil that they color themselves with. Like the bird’s make-up. He was talking about the preen gland that hornbills and most other birds have. I, of course, knew of it, but had never seen or touched it, and my ‘knowledge’ was bookish.

His knowledge and abilities were such that I started thinking there is nothing that Japang does not know. One day I was surprised to learn that he did not know that butterflies came from caterpillars, this was the one thing he had never noticed. So, it felt good to be telling him a few things sometimes, instead of the other way around. But again my knowledge was based on what I had read in a book.

 My work had started on a blank slate when I began my PhD study on hornbills in Pakke. Not much was known – apart from Salim Ali’s notes and a couple of studies in south India and a few outside of India. So, we had been at a loss in terms of how and where to find hornbill nest trees, where did they roost, what did they eat.

Japang showed me my first two hornbill nests in 1997 – one of these nests is still active after 22 years. And together, we found several more. Pakke has three hornbill species in the lower elevation forests – the Great, Wreathed and the Oriental Pied. For the first two years for some reason, we could not find any Oriental Pied hornbill nest trees. Japang told me that it was likely they nest among rocks on cliff faces. Now I don’t recollect exactly what his information was based on – whether he had heard from others or seen them himself in some place.

But till date, we have never found Oriental Pied Hornbills nests in such habitat. However, recently in China, Oriental Pied Hornbill nests on limestone cliffs have been found, as well as nests of other species like Wreathed hornbills. Therefore, his information is not wrong or far-fetched.

Apart from the learning, what was equally valuable and enriching are the shared moments in the forest. One day, Japang, Narayan and I, fed up of the daily data collection routine decided to explore some new forest area and spent the whole day roaming and by late afternoon, we were lost – we finally managed to find our way back when it was dark, tired and hungry but exhilarated after a lovely day in the forest.

Narayan standing in front of a huge Bhelu tree with its characteristic buttresses, with hard to measure girths. This was a hornbill nest tree. Around 85% of hornbill nest trees in Pakke are of this species.

So many memories of slip-sliding along many a steep hill slope, crossing difficult mountain streams, once Japang and I almost got swept away while crossing the Noa-dihing in Namdapha. Wondering about the stars in the night sky, camping in the forest and finding edibles in the forest.

Once Japang helped pick out a difficult tick out of my ear with forceps. He and I had a thing about leeches too. He used to use leeches to ‘cure’ any infected boils he had. He would let them loose on his toes and insist that they would help speed up the process of healing by removing the infected pus. Once, he demonstrated to a disbelieving sceptical kind of disgusted me – by casually picking up a leech and putting one on his infected toe. It seemed to me that the leech was smarter and wanted nothing to do with the oozing stuff around the infected area.

He told me of some other chap who used to pick off leeches and put them in his mouth. The guy was apparently upset that the leech was taking away his precious blood. Clearly, such reminiscences are not for the squeamish. So, I will understand if some readers stop reading at this point.

Yet, he would be horrified by me picking off leeches and walking for a long time with the leech in hand, squeezing and stretching it, till no one would be ever able to tell that once it was a leech. By the time I finished with it, it would become a dry smooth somewhat shiny plasticky looking strip. I found it fascinating, if a little heartless. He would gently admonish me or suggest that I drop the leech. Not because he cared about the leech, but because he thought it was not such a great sight. A digression here – if you touch leeches or do the sort of thing I did to them, then it’s a good idea not to touch or rub your eyes. They become very itchy – maybe due to some substances on the leech.

One day in Pakke, we were on the main path (not motorable in those days – between Seijosa and Khari). We were looking at different fruiting trees and looking out for hornbills. We had seen a fig tree (right side) from the path and I asked Japang to try and get some fruits/fallen branch as a sample for our herbarium collection. I stayed on the path but wondered a little ahead and was looking around at some birds. At one point, I instinctively turned around and saw – just 10-15 m from me, an elephant (a makhna) right on the path, with its trunk up, as if smelling me. Thankfully, I did not scream or run, but quietly tiptoed away from the path into the undergrowth and sat down hiding under some small tree. I was super worried about Japang and wondering what I should do – I did not want to shout or yell as I did not think that would be prudent.

I tried whistling out some warnings, very ineffectually. After a while, I suddenly saw Japang running like crazy, with the elephant charging right behind him. Fortunately, the elephant took a left turn and crashed away into the forest below.

Japang was super mad at me once he saw me coming sheepishly out of the undergrowth, asking me why I had not warned him. That encounter taught me a lesson on how to be always careful in any forest with elephants. We had many more encounters with elephants but Japang always knew what to do and we never panicked. Once we came face to face with a big tusker around a bend on the hilly track between Khari and Romoni nala (near the famous Riram chadhai, which in those was nothing but a narrow mud trail) but we moved back slowly and patiently waited for it move on. At other times, he would make a certain sound and the elephants would move on without any fuss.

I have many other memories of going with Japang to visit his village in Tirap district and meeting his relatives which I have written about earlier in a blog (A Journey in Wancho Land).

In the forest, we collect several kinds of mushrooms to eat, but there is a common mushroom that they (Japang, Narayan and others in Pakke) always collected only when it was growing on the bark of a specific tree – Stereospermum chelonoides or Paroli in Assamese. According to them, this same mushroom cannot be eaten if it is growing on another tree species.

I have always been sceptical of this and it surely needs testing by someone, but I would not dare to try experimenting. Japang, also firmly believes that drinking water from forest streams and pools can lead to malaria. I did not listen to him on this and drank water happily from the streams.

In the winter of 2002, a couple of years after completing my PhD, I set out on an expedition with Japang to search for the leaf deer Muntiacus putaoensis in eastern Arunachal. A few years ago, it had been described as a new species by the late Dr. Alan Rabinowitz in neighbouring Myanmar. I suspected that it also occurred in adjoining forests in eastern Arunachal. This had also been corroborated by conversations with Tangsa and Lisu villagers during a previous survey earlier that year.

Together, we surveyed far-away forests and tribal villages covering 300 km on foot in parts of Changlang district, conducted interviews with hunters, sat up at salt licks at night to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive leaf deer which the Tangsa called the Lingpun and the Lisu called the Lugiche.

Japang sitting on the chang-ghar of the young Tangsa gaonburra’s house in Changlai village, one the Burma border in Changlang district – November 2002. We spent several days in the forests wandering around in the forests and from village to village in search of the leaf deer.
Sambar antlers in a Tangsa household – serve as hangers for bags, umbrellas and sundry household items.

We went on fruitless walks hoping to catch a glimpse, based on the knowledge of hunters, we searched in tribal households among the animal trophies they displayed. The leaf deer was only 10-12 kg in size, but morphologically looked like the barking deer which is twice its size. One key difference is that the males had short unbranched antlers and the female had canines which were as long as the ones that males had.

An elderly man from Changlai village took Japang and I through the forest up to the Burma border marked by an unremarkable stone pillar. No difference of course in that wilderness:) Photo: Japang Pansa
A male leaf dear skull with small unbranched antlers.

In one such Tangsa village (Mossang Putok) in the forests in Changlang district which bordered Myanmar, it was Japang who first noticed an unusual skull among a bunch of old dusty ones and it turned out to be the first leaf deer skull we got – of a female with canines. Later, I found more skulls in Lisu villages beyond the Namdapha National Park. And we published a paper in Current Science with Japang as the second author.

We made another discovery in a Lisu village, thanks again to Japang. A deer skin was spread out on the bamboo wall of the house. He noticed it and pointed it out to me. It was very dark with a longer tail and quite different from the barking deer. Turned out that the Lisu also considered it a different species, calling it Che-mey which means black deer. It would turn out to be the Gongshan muntjac which had been described in the nineties from neighbouring Yunnan in China.

The stories are too many to share. He also showed me my first and only Draco in Namdapha’s forests, which are not so easily seen in Arunachal unlike the Dracos of the Western Ghats.

Japang is a remarkably skilled naturalist. His contribution to my research has been tremendous. He has assisted many other researchers and visitors in Arunachal. His skills in the jungle and observation powers are unparalleled. Japang never went to school, yet he can put many formally trained scientists to shame with his remarkable intelligence, careful reasoning, keen observation and curiosity. He told me he had run away from school when he was small and always regretted doing so in later years. Now, he has taught himself to read basic things.

This photo is a recent one from a trip with other NCF researchers. Photo: Megha Rao

His transformation from an avid hunter to a keen wildlife watcher who cares for the fate of wildlife and forests is remarkable. He has developed a conservation ethic and empathy for wildlife. He has also recently developed an allergy to meat in any form. He tells me ruefully that this may have happened because he is paying for his past sins.

I have worked with several other people who once they had undergone a change of heart became the biggest advocates for wildlife.

One such man was Taya Tayem – he was a Nyishi gaonburra from one of the villages close to Pakke TR. He was a renowned hunter when I first him and knew the forests and its creatures well. He showed me some hornbill nests when I started my PhD fieldwork. In 2004, he started working with us to help us find hornbill nests and in one year, he found 14 nests. Taya Tayem became a protector of Pakke’s wildlife. One day, he told me that he had found an injured Great hornbill in the forest and walked 10 km to take it to a vet hoping that it would get cured. Tayem who had once told me that he had killed at least 30 Great hornbills, had wanted to care for this one hornbill and all the nests that he watched over. Another time, he showed his growing empathy for wild animals by saving a drowning elephant calf literally roping in his entire family and risking his own life in a fast-flowing river in spate. He had had a change of heart and transformed into a conservationist. Tayem told me that he had a change of heart after he was taken to Kaziranga and he saw how close they could approach the animals. He could not imagine seeing animals that close – he was amazed that they had no fear. And he thought that if they did not hunt so much, all the animals would not be so shy and fear humans so much in his forests.  Sadly, he passed away in a car accident in 2006.

Taya Tayem in Pakke’s forests, ca. 2006

He would be happy to know his eldest son, Ohey became a nest protector and is now much sought after as Pakke’s first nature guide. On behalf of the nest protectors of the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program, Ohey received a Sanctuary-Asia award in 2014.

In Pakke TR, our long-term monitoring of hornbill nesting and roosting relies on our field staff.

Khem Thapa is a reliable, a meticulous field note taker and diarist, always happy to learn new skills – like learning to climb 30-40 m tall trees to repair hornbill nest trees and install artificial nest boxes. Khem is also a good mimic of people and makes me laugh with his imitations.

Kumar Thapa is a happy-go-lucky person and can be counted on to always have handy goodies in his bag to share in the forest. Tali, Sagar and others came later. Last year, there was much drama at a Wreathed hornbill nest in Pakke, waiting for a chick that was about to fledge.

Both Japang and I have aged now and added some girth.

I visited Namdapha in 2019 after a long gap and spent a day with Japang and his family. Walking on the now-widened Miao-Vijayagar road at around 19 mile. The other person is Nayan da who works with us in Upper Assam.

Despite all the adventures of his youth – he is a very serious and responsible family man. He lives in Miao with his wife and three children and has a permanent job as the head mahout in Namdapha, which he had got after many struggles to get a permanent position. His eldest daughter Lemchai, who I have known/seen since she was a baby, is very good at studies and has joined a Bachelor’s course in Doon Agriculture College in Forestry in Dehradun. Japang took her there, flying for the first time to bring her to study so far from home. She is now a keen bird watcher, uploading eBird lists, observing wildlife and writing poems too.

These were only a few of the stories about Japang and few of the people who have taught me.

I imagine that most of us would take much longer figuring out stuff in the forests, but for the knowledge and guidance of such people. Not all of us are as observant as a Charles Darwin.

We need to acknowledge the contribution of many such people to our research. We take it for granted, but if there were no forest people with the close connections to nature and the years of observation, we would know much less.

Japang (right) in Namdapha near the Hornbill camp in March 1999.

We would have to figure out many things from scratch and only from our books and field guidebooks. The transfer of that knowledge is so seamless and organic that often we are not even aware of how much is being shared or transferred.

Photo: Megha Rao

This article is based on a talk that I gave at the Nature in Focus event in August 2019 (https://www.natureinfocus.in/speakers-2019)

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