Hunting out

Print edition : November 15, 2013

A bull takin with a female and a kid. Photo: Tiger Sangay

The misty, snow-bound takin habitat in the Mishmi Hills. Photo: A.J.T. JOHNSINGH

A female cow with her calf on the banks of the Siang river. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

A mother with her young. The golden coloured calf looks like that of a gaur (Indian bison). Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The Lohit river in Mishmi Land. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Erianthus logisetosus. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Rupus calycinus in the open patches in the forest. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Thurbergia coccinea, an ornamental species, seen in the Lohit landscape. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Luculia gratissima in bloom. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Polygonum sphaerocephalum with black seeds. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Hydrangia heteromalla, commonly found on the way to the Mayodia pass. Photo: A.J.T. JOHNSINGH

Terminalia myriocarpa with its attractive pinkish-red flowers. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Polygonum capitum, another captivating species growing in open areas. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Oxyspora paniculata with its deeply veined leaves. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A takin trying to protect its kid from a dhole. Photo: DHRITIMAN MUKHERJEE

A Bhutan takin family. In the higher altitudes, the takin is an important prey of the tiger. Photo: Nature Conservation Division, Thimphu

A mithun bull in the Mishmi Hills. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

The serow is another species that is heavily hunted in Mishmi Hills. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Ornage orchards are promoted to wean people away from shifting cultivation. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

In a fish market at Roing. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

A Mishmi girl selling oranges in Roing. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh

Mishmi dancers. Dibang Valley district is home to the Mishmis. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The well-wooded Mishmi Hills, the takin habitat in Arunachal Pradesh which has already lost its large mammals to poaching, is facing uncontrolled hunting.

SNOW, hail, rain, and cold greeted me as I ventured into the Mishmi Hills in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2012 to understand the takin habitat. The takin ( Budorcas taxicolor) is an animal listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, which offers the species the maximum protection. Along with the serow and the goral, the takin falls in the category of goat-antelopes, a primitive group of ungulates. Goat-antelopes are Asian in distribution. The takin is a species of the Eastern Himalayas. There are four subspecies of the takin: Bhutan takin ( B. taxicolor whitei), Sichuan takin ( B. taxicolor tibetana), golden takin ( B. taxicolor bedfordi) and Mishmi takin ( B. taxicolor taxicolor). The Bhutan takin is largely confined to the Jigme Dorji and Wangchuck Centennial National Parks, the Sichuan takin to the Sichuan and Gansu provinces of China, the golden takin to the Quinling mountains of China and the Mishmi takin to Arunachal Pradesh.

The Mishmi takin’s range may extend into Myanmar. On June 16, 1999, a male takin from Bhutan came into the Kyongnosla area of Sikkim, killed a man and disappeared. It is possible that the takin migration between Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh is now broken by human settlements in locations such as the Nyamjang Chu Valley.

The morning was cool and misty as I travelled from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia in a van arranged by Pradeep Wahule of the Arunachal Forest Department to take the ferry across the Brahmaputra from Dhola Ghat to Sadiya Ghat. It took 90 minutes to cross the mighty river, and while in the ferry I was lucky to see two Gangetic dolphins surface from the water. The river dolphins, found both in India and Pakistan, face an insecure future as a result of problems such as dam construction, gill netting and pollution.

Fabulous habitat

Lower Dibang Valley was the first district we entered in Arunachal Pradesh. The fertility of its soil was evident from the marshes, mustard fields, orange groves and the magnificent trees. The most attractive tree in the dense growth was Terminalia myriocarpa with its mature pinkish- red flowers. It is in this rapidly vanishing vegetation that the surviving population of the endangered gibbons—the only ape species found in India—has a home. It was not difficult to imagine what a fabulous habitat it must have been for elephants, rhinos, gaurs, wild buffaloes and other large mammals; all that has been lost to poaching, which goes hand in hand with development and migration. Although most of the tribal people in north-east India do not eat gibbon meat, those living in Lower Dibang do.

My contact in Roing was Jibi Pulu, who runs an ecotourism camp. Having grown up in the region as the son of a hunter, he has an admirable knowledge of the Mishmi Hills. He agreed to take me to the takin habitat in the vicinity of Mayodia (2,655 metres) for two days, after which I would have the assistance of Iprao Malkhao. Iprao had gone to Aninee in Upper Dibang Valley district with some Forest Department officials and members of the Wildlife Trust of India, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), to bring back two four-month-old tiger cubs.

It was reported that the litter had three cubs. I was told that the mother, who had been preying on domestic pigs and the mithun, a cross between the gaur and the cow, had been killed in a snare possibly kept for wild pigs. It was also reported that a male tiger was frequenting the village where the tigress was killed. The Mishmis vouch that they do not kill tigers wantonly and that if a tiger is caught in a snare and dies accidentally, they mourn its death as they would a family member. The person responsible for the death of the tiger is expected to perform several rituals.

The news about the occurrence of tigers in these parts was pleasantly surprising as Aninee, like most other parts of Arunachal Pradesh, is a heavily hunted ground and wild pigs and takins are the only wild ungulate prey available there for the tiger. Tigers preying heavily on the mithun is a well-known fact in Arunachal Pradesh, and according to Jibi, some settlements in Upper Dibang have been abandoned as a result of such heavy predation. The mithun population may be on the decline as a result of a rise in the demand for the animal’s meat. Besides, managing the mithun is a difficult job. Mithuns have to be periodically gathered from the forest and fed with salt intermittently to maintain their attachment with their owners and to confine them to certain locations in the jungle owned by the village people.

The day was cloudy and it was threatening to rain as we started from Roing to Mayodia. The entire 50-odd kilometre road runs almost parallel to the Dibang river, through one of the most luxuriant forests of Asia, characterised by bamboo, cane, wild banana, tree fern and various tree species such as Saurasia nepalensis, Hydrangia heteromalla and Ficus auriculata. Amidst the lush green vegetation, species such as Luculia gratissima with rose-like flowers, Polygonum sphaerocephalum with black ripe seeds, and Oxyspora paniculata with its deeply veined leaves and pink flowers appeared conspicuous. There were several mithuns, including calves, foraging along the road, far from human habitation. Around Tiwari Gham, several domestic pigs were seen, again far from hutments. Tigers and other predators such as dholes are able to prey easily on mithuns and pigs when they range away from the village.

At Mayodia, we stayed in a large tourist lodge built on a mountain slope by the side of the road. It is not a building designed to keep away the wind and the cold. It rained in Mayodia and there was snowfall in the nearby high mountains. The first night there was frigidly cold as we had no time to build a fire to keep ourselves warm before having dinner and going to bed.

The Mishmis originally lived in Tibet and Myanmar. The Mishmi Hills derive its name from the presence of the Mishmis who migrated from Tibet. They form the dominant community here. The landscape of the Mishmi Hills extends from the Siang river to the Lohit river with the mighty Himalayas as its northern boundary.

This Mishmi land, distributed across the four districts of Upper Dibang, Anjaw, Lower Dibang and Lohit, is spread over about 21,620 square kilometres. With a population of about 23,000 people, it has a density of a little over one person per sq km. The takin is reported to occur in all these four districts. The Mishmi Hills has two sanctuaries, the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary (4,149 sq. km) and the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary (282 sq km). Upper Dibang may be the stronghold of the takin, as one medical doctor, who was working in Aninee (the district headquarters), reported that he saw hundreds of takins when he went along with musk deer poachers thrice, each time for three weeks, posing as an adventure tourist. They trekked for three days and hunted near the Tibetan border where they met Mishmis from Tibet who were hunting. Existing information indicates that outside the Mishmi Hills, takins are found in the districts of Tawang, East Kameng, Upper Subansiri, Siang Valley and Changlang. In the light of this information on the animal’s wide distribution in the region, it may even be called the Arunachal takin instead of the Mishmi takin.

Our plan in the morning was to drive beyond the Mayodia Pass and look for wildlife on either side of the road, a deep valley to the right, towards the Dibang river, and densely wooded steep mountains to the left. Because of the cold morning, we had a problem starting our vehicle and so sought the help of some labourers to push it in order to rev up the engine Although it was drizzling and snowing in the high mountains, gibbons were merrily calling in the valley. The Wildlife Trust of India has a programme of capturing gibbons from the isolated forest fragments in Lower Dibang district and releasing them in the forests of the Mehao sanctuary. This programme is worth pursuing as the forests in the sanctuary are largely intact and capable of supporting more gibbons. We heard one gunshot on the slopes leading to the valley and Jibi said it was possible that either a takin, migrating downhill to escape the snowfall, or a serow could have been killed. We could not make much progress towards Aninee as there was a landslide beyond the Mayodia pass.

In the evening, it rained and snowed even around the tourist lodge and Jibi said it would be difficult to drive along the road beyond Mayodia if the snowfall continued. Also, there was no information from Iprao. However, later we found out that landslides had prevented Iprao from returning to Roing. We decided to return to Roing the next day and from there I decided to go to Tezu and drive along Lohit to see the habitat in the eastern part of the Mishmi Hills. In the morning, we had to push the vehicle for nearly a kilometre before it could be started.

The travel along the road to Tezu, 70 km from Roing, gave me joy as there were splendid lowland forests in certain stretches of Lohit district. In Tezu, I hired a vehicle and drove to Hayulianga, 100 km away. Driving through lowland forests dotted with cultivation, we ascended the hill slopes, which offer a magnificent view of the Lohit river.

Thunbergia coccinea, an ornamental species, is common in the south-facing slopes. The road then passes through cool, dense forests into Tidding and the Lohit valley and then for nearly 50 km along the right bank of the Lohit. The river had taken a greenish-blue tinge, as all Himalayan rivers do during winter. In many locations, I had splendid views of the river, and surprisingly, I did not see any fishing activity.

By the time I reached Hayuling it was dark. From there I went to Kupa, 6 km before Hayuling, where I had an accommodation in the well-maintained Ampani Lodge, arranged by Nyali Ete, Divisional Forest Officer of the newly formed Anjaw district.

The morning was bright, with a clear blue sky, as I made my return journey to Tezu. The mountains on the left bank of the Lohit, with no road and with only a few settlements, had dense forests.

But the forests on the right bank, because of road construction activity and settlement building (both need a huge amount of wood), looked decimated in most places. This had resulted in serious landslides in many places. It would be prudent to grow lots of wood—eucalyptus is a good choice—in the vacant areas within and around the lowland forests, where the soil is fertile, to meet the demand in the high mountains in order to stop the extraction of wood from the natural forests. Firewood plantations of suitable species should be encouraged in the mountains wherever possible.

Interestingly, on the Aninee road I did not see any Army vehicle as there is no Army base near or beyond Aninee. The government rightly or wrongly believes that the forests and the high mountains north of Aninee will deter any enemy invasion from the north. On the contrary, along the Tezu-Kibithoo road, near the Tibet border, there was considerable movement of Army vehicles because of the presence of the Army in and around Kibithoo. This location saw serious skirmishes during the 1962 China-India war.

The Mishmi Hills may be vast, well-wooded and with an extremely low human density compared with other parts of Arunachal Pradesh. However, uncontrolled hunting in the recent past using guns, and now .22 calibre air rifles with lethal bullets, instead of bows and arrows, has taken its toll on the large mammals. The sambar, an extremely valuable prey of the tiger that can do well in a mountainous terrain, seems to have been nearly exterminated.

The hunting pressure on the takin is also serious. The serow may still survive in good numbers as the mountains provide them a superb habitat, but the sure-footed Mishmis are bound to hunt them down by either snaring or using superior weapons. The same fate awaits the takin. During this trip, I covered some 450 km but never sighted hornbills or pheasants. The only barking deer alarm call I heard was when I was spending a night in the Roing forest rest house.

I wonder if the government would immediately withdraw .22 rifles from everyone in possession of the weapon and instead provide the licence holders with breach-loading guns as there are rumours of .22 air rifles being converted into .22 rifles. The sale of .22 air rifles should be stopped and possession of such guns without licence should be banned.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.