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Lost in the greens of Mizoram's Murlen National Park

Rich biodiversity abounds in the enigmatic mid-altitude forests of the Murlen National Park in Mizoram

The rarely seen, canopy-loving green cochoa. A striking bird, often overlooked thanks to its penchant for sitting absolutely still and blending into the foliage. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

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Myriad greens—khaki, olive, lime, jade—beckon as I look down at the canopy of Murlen National Park from a watchtower. Sudden showers had peppered the trek to the watchtower. Trees tower over me, woody lianas reaching up like gangly arms from the forest floor to the canopy. As we walk further into the forest, orchids and ferns greet us at every turn—elegant white, fiery orange, cheery yellow, delicate lilac, dramatic emerald. In some spots, the foliage swallows the daylight before it can reach the forest floor.

We had already seen plenty of bird movement in the buffer areas, including a pair of mountain bamboo-partridges ambling a few metres ahead of us on a mud road. Spot-breasted parrotbills, with beaks that make them look like they wear perpetual genial smiles, grace the bamboo and grass stands along the road.

A day and a half’s journey from Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, and a mere 30km from the Myanmar border, this protected area falls within the Indo-Burma Biodiversity hot spot. With its mix of rocky outcrops and forested patches, the winding road to the small town of Vapar, on the outskirts of the national park, is good for wayside birding during the day and herping at night.

Altitudes range from 400-1,897m within the 100 sq.km of Murlen’s protected area, and it is a rich mix of tropical moist broadleaf, semi-evergreen and evergreen forest. The mid-elevation habitat is starkly different from other parks in Mizoram, like the high-elevation vegetation of Phawngpui National Park (319km from Murlen) and the low-elevation forests of Dampa Tiger Reserve (307km from Murlen). Several parts of this lush ecosystem are notoriously impenetrable. Ecosystems high up in the canopy easily capture attention in these forests, soaring above us and bustling with activity. Closer inspection of the understorey and forest floor reveals equally busy networks of life in fallen leaves, seeds and fruit on the forest floor, notably further inside the core area.

As we approach the national park, the vegetation is a feast for the eyes. Thorny shrubs overflowing with juicy yellow Himalayan raspberries (Rubus ellipticus) dot the road to Murlen. In the buffer zones, deciduous or evergreen mixed secondary forests add to the diversity but face growing pressure on account of human habitation. I speak to wildlife biologist Amit Kumar Bal, who has been based in Murlen village for three years, researching small carnivores. He has had significant sightings and camera-trap records of birds, small and large mammals in the buffer zones. While the moustachioed laughing thrush and blue-naped pitta have been sighted in the buffer areas, camera traps have also recorded the clouded leopard, leopard cat, Asiatic golden cat, slow loris and civets.

A tree frog at night. Despite the onslaught of human-induced environmental changes, the Murlen National Park is a treasure trove of diversity.
A tree frog at night. Despite the onslaught of human-induced environmental changes, the Murlen National Park is a treasure trove of diversity. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

Despite the onslaught of human-induced environmental changes, the Murlen National Park is a treasure trove of diversity. Spotting wildlife is a challenge in this thick forest that cloaks everything with its dappled light and shadows. And that is why any sighting fills me with excitement, that feeling of having just won a jackpot. I feel privileged to catch the hurried scuttle of squirrels and the more hushed signatures of tree shrews running up tall trees, almost always a step ahead of us, dissolving into the canopy with ease. The green-tailed sunbird that perches within arm’s length to feed on bright fuchsia flowers is a picture-perfect tableau against the verdant green. The blue-winged minla decides to alight close to us after a light drizzle, wearing a necklace of pearly water droplets around its neck. Special treats are the red-faced liocichla, which surprises us on more than one occasion, and fire-breasted flowerpeckers flitting busily in the understorey, the male flashing his brilliant red chest patch. Then there is my personal favourite—the rarely seen, canopy-loving green cochoa. A striking bird, often overlooked thanks to its penchant for sitting absolutely still and blending into the foliage. Once you spot it, however, you wonder how you missed such a flamboyant bundle of feathers, with a gorgeous green body, black and silver banded wings, and sky-blue head.

Though Murlen’s famed small carnivores proved elusive, we spot fresh civet droppings on the trails, tell-tale signs of the park’s wild enigmas. “While there is diversity (of carnivores) in Murlen, the density is low in spite of the health of the habitat,” notes Bal. There are several theories on why this could be so but there is no single reason for it. Cats like the clouded leopard and marbled cat can usually be found in low densities in most habitats.

Bal says that he walks around 15km a day and goes deep into the core area to place his camera traps, and that he might record rarely seen cats like the clouded leopard once in two months. On the other hand, on a routine walk to check camera traps only 5km from Murlen village, he once encountered an Asiatic golden cat just 6m from where he stood. This perhaps best describes the enigmatic quality of Murlen’s forests.

New discoveries

The national park is a cornucopia of plant life. In 2018, researchers discovered two new species of Ceropegia (Ceropegia mizoramensis, Ceropegia murlensis) in Murlen’s wilds. Ceropegia are climbers commonly referred to as lantern or parachute flowers owing to their distinctive flowers. Then there are the mosses, growing in tufts or spreading mats and contributing to the luxuriant greens of Murlen’s landscape. Mosses are vital ecological niches, sometimes evolving and adapting to flourish in specific environmental conditions where other plants might not survive. Murlen is also fascinating in its diversity of orchids. A 2012 study by researchers from the Botanical Survey of India revealed 32 species, including several rare species.

Murlen’s mysterious wilds seem to hold many revelations. In 2020, photographic evidence confirmed for the first time the presence of the marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), one of South-East Asia’s rarest felids. In 2022, a new species of non-venomous snake, the Murlen keelback (Herpetoreas murlen), was described and named after the national park. What we saw was a teaser, a glimpse that told us there was much more to its depths than met the eye.

Trip planner

- The best time to visit Murlen National Park is from October to March.

- The closest large settlement is the border town of Champhai. Accommodation options are the Champhai Tourist Lodge or the basic rooms at the interpretation centre in Vapar.

- There are frequent power cuts and no connectivity when it rains. It’s advisable to carry power banks if travelling with equipment.

- Carry any waste you generate out of the forest with you.

Divya Candade is a writer with RoundGlass Sustain, a social impact initiative telling stories of India’s natural world. Read a longer version of this article on Murlen National Park.

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