Planet of the apes

, Travel

The Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam is home to the Hoolock Gibbon, India’s only ape. Tej Narayan gives you a glimpse of the endangered species

The resounding call of hill mynas pierced the silence of the hills. Around me, Assam’s lush green tea estates rolled out to the horizon and the fresh mountain air, spiced by the faint aroma of tea leaves, filled my lungs. I was driving through Jorhat on my way to the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Assam’s crown jewels. All of 20.98 sq km, the sanctuary is home to the elusive Hoolock Gibbon, India’s only ape. My aim was to spot this endangered species.

Hoolock Gibbons are found in specific areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and east Bangladesh. These frugivorous (feeding on fruit) primates are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and are also endangered as per the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network. These apes generally live in a family of four (parents and two children), and move within a territorial area. It is believed that they are monogamous.

My host, a forest official, had assured me that I would be able to see and even click the rare ape. And within a few hours of my arrival, a sudden commotion outside raised my hopes. But my neighbours were panicking because a troop of stump-tailed macaques had come visiting the colony. This species of macaque, too, is rarely spotted and I did not want to miss the opportunity. Walking through low-lying shrubs and bushes, I entered a patch of thick foliage, trying to track the group. A forest guide helped me spot a full-grown brownish-black macaque, scurrying down a hollong tree and jumping to the adjoining one before vanishing into the denser part of the forest. My adventure had started on a good note.

Next morning, I shadowed Deben, the friendly forest guide, deeper into the sanctuary in an attempt to spot a Hoolock Gibbon. But even after several hours of walking and wandering, we did not come across so much as a crow. We had almost given up and were about to turn back when Deben stopped in his tracks. His expert ears had picked up the calls of the Hoolock Gibbon and we snuck back deep into the forest trying to locate the origin of the call.

Weary from hours of walking, we were almost ready to believe that the gibbons had gone out of range. Suddenly there was a stirring in the branches above and, looking up, all I could see was what looked like a bunch of leaves. “It’s a male Hoolock Gibbon,” Deben smiled. We stood still for several seconds before the primate made his move: walking across trees using the lower branches as footholds and the upper ones as support. Then, standing on a branch, he crouched, swung on his hind legs and stayed there, hanging upside down. It was as if he was putting up a show especially for us! As I clicked, he reached out to grab a fruit from the next tree and proceeded to relish every bite. His face seemed frozen in a scowl, his thick white eyebrows framing his jet black face.

Later in the afternoon, as I was resting, Deben rushed in and whisked me away to see a family of Hoolock Gibbons that had decided to grace the nearby treetops. And that’s when I got a clear view of a female Hoolock Gibbon, with light brown fur. The white bands on her eyebrows were thinner compared to her male counterpart, and her gaze softer. The family was on the move, led by the father, who stopped at regular intervals and called out to his partner to hurry; she, with a baby in her arms, tried to catch up. Within a few minutes, they were out of sight. I had been lucky, twice; that, too, on the same day. Naturalists and visitors camp for days in this sanctuary hoping to catch a glimpse of the primates and often go back empty handed.

As I prepared to leave the next day, I heard an unfamiliar sound. Outside, a forest officer was focussing on a high branch. Following his gaze, I spotted a giant mongoose-like creature deftly waltzing between the branches. It was a Malayan giant squirrel, I was told. First the stump-tailed macaque, then the Hoolock Gibbon and finally this exotic mammal! I could not have asked for a more fulfilling trip.

The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are his own

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