As giant trees come crashing down, the author discovers a birding paradise in Arunachal Pradesh.

Cerebral malaria, leeches, poisonous snakes, running out of food, contaminated water, exhaustion from tough climbs were the known hazards when we planned an expedition to the jungles of Namdapha in the extreme Northeast of India. However, the most dangerous, which I was to experience at very close quarters, was not mentioned in any literature, trip report or jungle tale.

Falling trees — giant dead rainforest trees, struck by lightning, being knocked down with the onset of tropical thunderstorms. They would destroy anything in their path as they came crashing down to the jungle floor.

For the first time in our trip (we were already four days into it), I noticed our guides Chakma and Singpho were anxious. Yashi, their leader, realised that the sky darkened and suddenly started running. After catching up with him and the rest of our guides, we were told to watch out for falling trees. At that instant, without warning, we heard a loud crack and a massive tree snapped at about a third of its height and crashed to the ground. We witnessed three such crashes as we ran that afternoon in the pouring rain. Miraculously none fell in our direction.

We were in the heart of Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh. Namdapha’s altitude ranges from a mere 200m in the plains to a lofty 4,570m (Daphabum peak) in the easternmost tip of the Himalayas, providing an impressive altitudinal range. This coupled with its massive size —about 2000 sq.km. — makes this reserve one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world. It is probably the only place in the world that has the tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and the snow leopard. Namdapha is also a birding paradise with more than 400 species, some found only in this part of India.

Some time back, a good friend and ace Mumbai-based birder Shashank Dalvi and I made a week-long birding expedition to Namdapha. Our goal was to try and photograph several of Namdapha’s avian specialities, most of them accomplished skulkers. The trip was organised by the enterprising Miao-based, Phuphla Singpho who assembled a motley and enterprising crew of cooks, guides and helpers to assist us. We walked during day and camped at night. From Deban to Haldibari to Hornbill to Bulbulia to Rani Jheel to Raja Jheel to Firmbase and back. Easy to moderate walks and not more than 10-12 km a day, but always through dense jungle along the northern banks of the beautiful Dihing river. Our first evening was spent at the picturesque forest inspection bungalow at Deban on the banks of the formidable Noa-Dihing River, our trailhead. This was also the last night under a proper roof as we spent the rest of our week-long trip in tents. The following morning, at daybreak, we crossed the great river and entered Namdapha. The tropical forest is dense and a lot of birding happens, quite literally, by “ear”. Soon, by sound, we were singling out Fulvettas, Yuhinas and Wren-babblers. The reserve has several microhabitats and each supports its own wildlife specialities. River banks like Noa-Dihing and Namdapha are great places to see Gibbons (India’s only ape), Flying squirrels, Ibisbills and the endangered White-bellied herons.

Haldibari and Hornbill (overnight camping locations for days 2 and 3) are set in the midst of tall evergreen forests and are phenomenal for hornbills, falconets and other birds. Rani Jheel is a natural bheel or forest lake where one can occasionally find the endangered White-winged wood duck. The stretch from Raja Jheel to Firmbase descends steeply through fabulous bamboo jungle and supports specialities like Hodgson’s Frogmouth, White-hooded and Red-billed Scimitar Babbler, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Grey-headed and Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill, etc. Firmbase, on the banks of the Namdapha is a fabulous open riverine habitat with giant forests on both sides offering opportunities to spot deer, wild dog and water birds.

Namdapha has more than its fair share of troubles that require fairly urgent attention. In spite of its remoteness, Namdapha suffers from the classic tropical rainforest problem or the “empty forest syndrome”. Thanks to unsustainable hunting and poaching by local tribes, tropical forest species have been decimated, though the forest seems dense. In addition, encroachments in the form of full-fledged tribal settlements in several areas have caused serious habitat degradation. Forest clearings have been converted to paddy fields. Because of its massive area and a large portion of it still being densely forested, Namdapha can regain its original glory, but it needs serious political will as well as committed enforcement by the forest department.

FACT FILE

Nearest airport: Mohanbari (Dibrugarh), Assam (160 km)

Nearest railway station: Tinsukia, Assam

By road: Dibrugarh – Tinsukia – Digboi - Margherita – Ledo – Jagun – Namchik – Kharsang – Miao (about six hours)