It was an early start. We were ready to leave by 5:30 AM. It was already bright, this being the North East where the sun rises by 5 AM and it gets dark by 5 PM. The driver saw us in shorts and slippers and raised his eyebrows. There’ll be leeches he warned us. We couldn’t conjure up shoes, having not carried them, so I packed a deo spray and changed to fuller pants. We left by 5:40 AM, the driver warning us that it’ll take more than 2.5 hours to do the 110 Kms to the Gibbon sanctuary.
He suggested Golaghat and then Marriani, but instead drove through Jorhat which was just waking up as we drove past empty streets at 7 AM. By 7:30 AM we were there and greeted by forest officials in khakis. A fee of Rs. 200 was paid for cameras. A tip of Rs. 200 each for the guide and the guard was also collected. And we set out to watch some Gibbons.
There are some forests that look old. Unlike the Southern forests that are dealing with the Lantana crisis, these were full. They were old growth. And evergreen. There was life everywhere, even in death. Mushrooms and smaller plants spring out of dead logs. Earthworms excrete 4 inch long towers all over the forest floor. Spiders spin their webs in the gaps. The trees reach out high in a vertical arms race. Creepers go straight up trying to capture any sun that can manage to get in. Ferns grow out of trees, living off them. This was a Tropical Evergreen forest at its most pristine. With, sadly, a railway line cutting right inside it.
As we walked, the guide showed us the Hoollong trees which give the forest its name. They’re tall and stretch way up making you crane your neck like at a skyscraper. The Gibbons live at the very top, rarely coming down. There are other species, the capped langurs, the pig-tailed and stout-tailed macaques that live further down. Different species suited to different altitudes of the trees – a high rise with species floors.
We sighted one family swinging in the trees. These are Western Hoolock Gibbons (Hoolock hoolock). They are India’s only primate species. Like the rest of the Gibbons, they are also arboreal and very rarely come to ground. And like other Gibbons, they are also endangered, mainly due to loss of habitat.
The mother of the family moved from one branch to the other, resting to pluck some leaves and feed. Her two children swung from branch to branch, sometimes eating, but mostly enjoying the activity. The father swung by at another branch. They live in families of 3-5, Mother, Father and up to 3 children. They’re sexually dimorphic; the females are brown, while the males are black. Children are brown for a year, black from the age of 1 for 5 years and only later show the colours of their sex. They live for 30-35 years and change partners every 5-7 years, I guess once the children are ready to move out.
We couldn’t hear them singing, rather hooting, which they sometimes do as a family. We left them and started looking for the capped langur and that took us into other branches from the main path, eventually spotting another Gibbon family in a canopy far up a tree. This was a Mother with her child still attached to her. The father and 2 other children were swinging nearby. They were close to 200 ft away from us, vertically. They were aware of us, but given the distance, did not care.
We could not sight any of the other species – the langurs, macaques were for another day. We walked back to the main entrance after spending 1.5 hours walking in the forest. At the entrance, an Assamese Macaque walked up along a path, considered us and the surroundings and moved off.
A man nearby was pointing to something behind us. We looked around and were surprised to see what looked like Malabar Giant Squirrels climbing up a tree. A Malabar Giant Squirrel is, well, expected in the Malabar. This turned out to be a Black Giant Squirrel which is found from the forests of NE India into SE Asia. And like all animals that are endemic to this region, is classified as Near Threatened.
At the end of it though, we did have 2-3 leech bites each, which were dealt with using the deo spray. With that, we called it a morning and headed back to Kaziranga. The return drive took longer as he avoided Jorhat’s traffic and went to Golaghat before heading to Kaziranga.