Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hoolongapar - Primate Paradise






It was deafening! The whole jungle reverberated with primate calls and even a kilometer away, they sounded like they were right next to me. So I asked Devenda (Deven Barua, ace guide at Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary) whether there were 15-20 who were making all this noise. And was completely staggered when he said it was probably 2 warring couples haggling for territory. Ergo, a mere 4 gibbons making such a fearful racket. I was very curious to see this confrontation, so we scrambled through the undergrowth (and navigating through evergreen forest with bamboo thickets thrown in for good measure is no easy task) till we got to sighting distance. And it was indeed only 4 of them, but their pitch and the intensity of the brawl made it sound like an entire regiment of the Gibbon army!

Hoolock Gibbon Male
The Hoolock Gibbon was another priority species for me and I was licking my lips as we drove towards the Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, onwards from Kaziranga. This tiny (20 sq km) island of evergreen forest is home to not only the gibbons, but to 6 other primate species including the capped langur, pig-tailed macaque, stump tailed macaque, Assamese macaque and slow loris along with the more common rhesus macaque. Along with elephants, the (very) occasional leopard and several species of birds, it makes this little place a must-do on any Assam itinerary. It is named after the Hoolong tree, whose most distinctive feature is a relatively smooth, round trunk with no branches or leaves till very high up. So it's like a straight, really high rod with a canopy at the very top.

Capped Langur
The primates are active mainly in the mornings, so it was important for us to make an early start. Accompanied by Devenda, we set out early the first morning, with me hoping for Gibbon and also at least a couple of the other primates. And as soon as we walked in, we hit pay dirt with a troupe of capped langurs. These beautiful animals have a large tuft on their head, so it almost looks like they're wearing a cap. They jumped from tree to tree right above us and a couple of them stayed still long enough to give us some pictures.


As we walked further, we saw a bunch of people staring into the trees and one of the other guides pointed to a black shape and whispered 'Gibbon' (they pronounce it Gibb-'on' - as in 'on and off') and we saw this male (all black with white eyebrows) He swung through the branches, posed for a few pictures and then headed back into the upper reaches of the tree. Then we saw his mate (Gibbons are monogamous) and his little one as well. We saw them for quite a while, but always through thick branches, so photography wasn't great, but it was super fun just to observe and admire the agility of these beautiful animals. We were then joined by a huge bunch of school kids on a field trip. It was great to see their interest in the gibbon, though many were more interested (and quite amused I dare say) at the sight of me fighting with my camera/tripod - twisting and contorting to try and get the right angles for the blokes high up in the trees! But the noise (and sadly litter) which invariably accompanies large groups made us leave the gibbon family in peace and look for another one.

Gibbon-fighter
And that's when we heard the fight. Crawling through the undergrowth was awesome, but not easy with a 500mm lens and an unwieldy tripod! But when we did get near, I put my camera away to just focus on the intensity and sheer energy of the activity. The resident couple were the more aggressive of the two and finally seemed to get their way as the other guys quietly melted away. On the expedition back to the road, we came across fresh elephant dung in the undergrowth, a sign that there are bigger (and definitely more dangerous) beings in this forest. Outrunning an elephant in the open is anyways  impossible, but in the undergrowth makes it even more so (if there exists such a phenomenon called 'more impossible')

Back on the road and Devenda said it was too hot for any of the other primates, so trying the next morning was a better option. But as we headed to the gate, we got a few lovely little bonuses on the way. A couple of snakes made an appearance alongside the road  but they vanished before we got a proper look at them. The highlight though was a beautiful red-headed trogon who whizzed across the road. He settled on a branch briefly, but it was too quick and too dense for me to get  anything more than a record shot. But a lovely sighting nevertheless.

When we reached the hotel, I realized that I had inadvertently carried back a memento from the forest. As I removed my socks something fell out and slithered across the floor. It was a leech, who had latched on probably during my little cross-country expedition. I hadn't realized I was carrying him all through the return journey. He only managed to get a few mils through my socks, so no real damage done. I was glad to let the little guy go and thanked him, not for making me a few grams (mills?) lighter but for not recruiting a few more of his troops into Operation Srikanth!

It was a super day and I was looking forward to so much more the next day. But that evening the heavens opened up and very atypically for March, the rain stayed through the next morning. I did make a visit and Devenda did try to rustle up stuff, but it was futile. None of the primates broke cover and the sight of Devenda, hands on his head and searching valiantly for some signs of life, makes up one of the most memorable 'sightings' of my visit.

Devenda
And there ended a fascinating first trip to Hoolongapar. And I can't wait for next winter to get back and spend a few more days there, searching for all of the resident primates.

Till then.


Hoolongapar Trip Guide

Getting there

Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary is about 30 kms (1 hour) south-east of from Jorhat, the nearest big town and airport. Jet Airways/Jetlite and Air India have daily flights to Jorhat from Kolkata. 

Alternately, you can also drive from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. But that's a 6 hour, 250 km journey.

Mariani is the nearest town (about 10 kms away)

When to go and how long for

Though the park remains open through the year, February is the best (and driest) time to visit, though the other months of winter are good too. Rains start in April, and that becomes an issue with sightings. As well as leeches!

You need a good 2-3 days to see all the primates. Gibbon sightings are pretty good (there are 26 families) and the guides there are aware of family movements, so you should see them without too much trouble. Pig-tailed & stump tailed macaques and capped langurs should be possible as well, but the assamese macaque is rare and requires some serious luck, while the slow loris is largely nocturnal.

Stay

There are two options - stay in Jorhat and drive everyday or stay in the local forest guest house.

Jorhat has some decent hotels. We stayed in Hotel Earl Grey (www.hotelearlgrey.com) which is decent - clean and comfortable. The other options in Jorhat include Paradise Hotel and Burra Sahib's Bungalow (a heritage bungalow)

At Hoolongapar, the forest guest house has 2 basic rooms, which can be booked in advance. They're building a new wing with 3 more rooms which should be ready by late summer.

To book, you can contact Mr. Deepak Bordoloi, Beat Officer, Hoolongapar Wildlife Sanctuary on  +91 9435713634

Safaris

No vehicles are allowed apart from the main road, so it's better to leave your car at the gate and walk. 

You'll need a guide and Deven Barua is amongst the best, if not the best. He's a lovely, soft spoken gentleman and a fountain of knowledge on Hoolongapar and its inhabitants. You can reach him on + 91 9613929595.