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Clouded leopard country

A clouded leopard being rehabilitated into the wild. Photo: Kalyan Verma  

In the rainforest, the rewards of silence sometimes exceed your wildest expectations. From where I sit quietly, I don’t hear a single artificial sound. Unseen cicadas shrill and set the air ringing, woodpeckers cackle from the treetops, and frogs click and boom from the rock-pools alongside the singing river below. From somewhere in the undergrowth, a grey peacock-pheasant sounds an echoing, guttural laugh. In the distance rise great grey cliffs, home of serow (a forest goat-antelope) and bear, overlooking the rainforests where every morning the hoolock gibbons still hoot and sing. Around the steep rock slope where I am stretched out on my back, the looming rainforest envelops me like an amphitheatre. I feel like a tiny flame steady in an evergreen sconce. As yet, I have no inkling of what we are about to witness.

The evening drops like a shade over Dampa Tiger Reserve, a 500 sq. km wildlife reserve set in the Lushai hill ranges of Mizoram, near the Bangladesh border. After setting afire the far cliffs and tops of tall, emergent Dipterocarp and Tetrameles trees in its evening light, the sun dips behind the mountains. On the rock slope with me are Divya Mudappa, my wife, fellow biologist and wilderness wanderer; Jaydev Mandal, friend and young ornithologist, and Zakhuma, intrepid wildlife photographer with the Mizoram Forest Department. As we wait, the humid heat of day yields to a cool silver dusk, presaging a starlit night.

Suddenly, the forest resounds with the clamour of alarm calls. Harsh shrieks rip through the air and the high branches and tall bamboos crash and sway. In the tree canopy, through binoculars, we see an entire troop of Assamese macaques in tumult.

The brown monkeys seem to have materialised out of the mysterious depths of the forest to roost above a rocky bluff overlooking the slope where we are seated. Why are they alarmed? It must be us, we think. But it is not: the monkeys are looking away, over their shoulders into the forest. We sit, frozen, trying to become as immobile and silent as the rock. In the trees, the monkeys cry out, swivelling their heads and peering into the dense undergrowth. Down there, something is moving.

And then, a golden shape emerges from the shadows. With intense eyes, a lean, feline torso, splotched and marked in black, a long, flicking tail, and purposeful paws, he stalks forward. Softly, incredibly, he edges along a smooth, rounded bamboo culm as thick as an arm angled over the edge of the bluff. The monkeys explode in the treetops. The air fills our lungs and doesn’t leave. In thrall, we watch the predator on his hunt, an animal emblematic of these rainforests: the clouded leopard.

As the monkeys leap away, the clouded leopard turns on the precarious bamboo, enters the shrubbery, and emerges again above the bluff. He looks up at the monkeys, yawns to reveal strikingly large and curved canines, wipes his face with his paws, and ignores us completely for the few precious minutes that he remains visible. And then, almost as suddenly as he appeared, he is gone. The falling darkness hides the direction of his passage. It leaves his hunt to our imagination, announced only by the terrified calls of the monkeys.

In India, clouded leopards are restricted to the country’s north-east: the eastern Himalayas, the Assam valley, and the hills south of the Brahmaputra. This region falls within two global biodiversity hotspots, the Himalaya and Indo-Burma, renowned for supporting an astonishing diversity of life alongside an extraordinary diversity of peoples and cultures. From bamboos and babblers to pitcher plants and primates, Northeast India holds more species than any other part of the country.

Doubtless, many species await discovery and research too. In Dampa itself, a new species of bamboo and one of fish were described by scientists in recent years. Field camera or ‘camera trap’ surveys by wildlife scientists and the Mizoram Forest Department indicate that clouded leopard density in Dampa is perhaps the highest among forests of South and South-East Asia where the species is found. Yet, with sightings so rare and observations difficult in the dense rainforests, many aspects of clouded leopard ecology and behaviour are an abiding mystery.

Like the clouded leopard, much of the wildlife in India’s Northeast remains elusive, poorly understood, and inadequately protected. While larger threatened mammals such as tigers, elephants, and rhinos and reserves like Assam’s Kaziranga National Park garner conservation attention, innumerable equally significant species and areas get overlooked. Even as that changes slowly, rapid transformations in land use and other threats are rising from river valleys to mountaintops across the region.

In upper Assam, the last vestiges of rainforests lie scattered, fragmented by pockets of agriculture and vast monoculture plantations of tea.

Wildlife scientists have recorded rare and threatened wildlife such as hoolock gibbons, India’s only ape species, stump-tailed macaques and small cats in some of the remnant patches. In smaller fragments frayed by roads, timber logging, and other disturbances, the species are gone. A few forlorn forest plots hold lone gibbon families that, bereft of better prospects or others of their kind, have even stopped singing.

In Arunachal Pradesh and the hill states, dams, roads, mining, and plantations are transforming the landscape apace, creating more fragmented forests, replacing diversity with paltry monocultures. Once, shifting agriculture or jhum, practised by tribal people in the region, was considered a threat to forests. But recent research suggests that the diverse and dense mosaic of bamboo and regenerating forests that jhum creates is better for forests and wildlife than the expanding plantations of tea, teak, oil palm, and rubber.

Still, where communities, conservation organisations, and state authorities have come together, there are prospects of revival. In Assam, a remarkable reintroduction project has helped in the population recovery and reintroduction of over a hundred critically endangered pygmy hogs into the tall grasslands of the Brahmaputra valley. In Arunachal Pradesh, innovative efforts have enabled tribal people become protectors of endangered hornbills, birds that have suffered from hunting and forest loss. In Nagaland and Meghalaya, community reserves and initiatives protect migratory Amur falcons, remnant forests, and other wildlife. Initiatives for forest recovery are also emerging, which use myriad native rainforest plant species to ecologically restore degraded areas and bring back a semblance of the human-nature connect that once marked this landscape.

Back on the rock slope the next morning, I gaze at the spot where we saw the clouded leopard. It seems easy, too easy, to identify the place with this predator. Ironical, too, in a reserve that carries the name of its more imperial cousin, the tiger.

I have to only swing my eyes around to see something a whole lot different from memory. For there, on the slope, are the potholes naturally drilled through rock to a subterranean stream from where a romp of otters had once emerged wet and dripping, almost at my feet, only to disappear downriver.

Here spreads the buttressed roots of a great tree between mossy boulders cradling a crevice where a pair of wren-babblers had once made their tiny nest.

Above, on a natural wooden ledge 30 metres up a tall rainforest tree, juts the platform from where a flying squirrel had launched herself in a great glide into the night. There, over the ridge, lie the burial mounds and old forests of people who once lived softly off the land.

Around me, swaying with the bamboos, rising with the trees, cushioned in the moss, glinting in the stream, and wafting across the skies, lives a raft of recollections of other living beings and the places they belonged to and that belonged to them.

T.R. Shankar Raman is a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore.


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