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Diwali special: Call of the primates

  • Aaranyak, an Assam-based not-for-profit organisation, conducts training programmes on primate conservation for foresters, researchers and volunteers
  • You could also attend a field course in conservation biology and global health at the Gibbon Conservation Centre, in the sanctuary, in December

Hoolock Gibbons live and travel only through the high canopies of trees
Hoolock Gibbons live and travel only through the high canopies of trees (Photo Courtesy: Saket Badola)

As soon as you enter Mariani town in Upper Assam, a lopsided board points heavenwards, telling you the distance to the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. It’s best not to take the directions literally—instead, follow the railway track to the protected forest area. Hoollongapar is like a rich green island, set amidst acres of lush tea plantations. I am there for a basic field session by the scientific and industrial research not-for-profit organization Aaranyak—rudimentary first steps towards becoming a guide, with initiation into the history of the sanctuary and an understanding of its conservation needs.

Walking through the sanctuary, located on the south bank of the Brahmaputra riverin Jorhat district, is a lesson in listening. Ears inured to the harsh clanks and clangs of the city find the forest eerily quiet. And then, suddenly, the sanctuary erupts in a jungle orchestra straight out of a Julia Donaldson book. A little ahead, a man with a gun walks alone, cutting a small figure against the massive Hoollong or Dipterocarpus macrocarpus trees, from which the sanctuary derives its name.

Heramba Bhuyan, 58, is a forest guard, part of the 16-member Assam forest department team that protects the sanctuary. He says the first lesson for any volunteer or visitor is to listen to the forest.

Heramba stops every few minutes, keeping his ears strained for the sound “holou holou". That’s the call of the Hoolock Gibbon (holou bandor), one of the seven primate species found in the sanctuary, and one of the most significant—for its social behaviour closely resembles that of human beings. Also, it is the only ape among the 26 primate species found in India. “Most children in Assam have heard of this nursery rhyme: Holou uthil tokou gosot, logai khodou modou. jou jou koi horil niyor hol jolou jopou (Holou climbed a palm tree in a big hurry. But the falling dew drops drenched its coat, which was furry)," he recites, explaining how enmeshed the holou bandor is in local culture.

Just as I am learning to shut out the sound of birds, insects and the possible hiss of one of the 15-plus snake species found here to hear the holou sounds, we are joined by Jibon Borah. He is one of the 15 locals trained as guides by Aaranyak. Starting as a nature club in 1989, it has emerged as a major organization working for the conservation of biodiversity in the North-East through research, environmental education, capacity building and advocacy for legal and policy reform. Heramba and Borah take me through the familiarization steps.

A historic reunion

I am lucky to be visiting Hoollongapar in the first week of October, at a time when something rather momentous has taken place—two of the four compartments of the forest, which had been cut off from each other, have finally been connected by a natural canopy. And in July the first gibbon crossed over, thus ending the 132-year-old isolation of the gibbon families.

Even though my visit coincides with this historic reunion, I am still two months early for the field course on conservation biology and global health, which Aaranyak conducts in collaboration with the Assam forest department and University of Washington in December. This is open to students and eager volunteers like me. Some travellers choose to time their visits with the training sessions as well.

“Annually five-six training programmes are conducted here with 25 participants at a time," says Mridu Paban Phukan, a conservationist who is part of the management at the Gibbon Conservation Centre. He also conducts training programmes for Aaranyak. “We have also done sessions for front-line forest staff from the forest departments of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland where Hoolock Gibbons are found," he adds.

GPS training for volunteers
GPS training for volunteers (Photo Courtesy: Mridu Paban Phukan)

Aaranyak has so far trained 200 forest guards, 300 foresters, 100 local youth and countless volunteers in the conservation of Hoolock Gibbons. They have been taken through a wide range of topics such as biodiversity, primate and gibbon survey technique, GPS and remote sensing and wildlife law.

For those like me who have no background in conservation biology but are eager to get initiated into the field, the December programme can be a great way to get started. It is conducted by Randall Kyes, professor at the University of Washington, who is working closely with Aaranyak’s Gibbon Conservation Centre, by conducting training for aspiring young conservationists.

A field course in conservation biology by Randall Kyes
A field course in conservation biology by Randall Kyes (Photo Courtesy: IFS)

After taking me through the highlights of the programme, Heramba and Borah steer the conversation back to the formation of the natural canopy. To understand its significance, however, one needs to go back in time 132 years, when the British were setting up tea estates in Upper Assam. Hoollongapar, which once extended up to the Patkai hills right on the India-Burma border, was turned into an isolated island, bound by plantations on all sides. In 1881, keeping in view the number of primates present there, the British authorities declared it a reserve forest with four compartments. Six years later, they created a railway track through it in a bid to connect the plantations in Tinsukia with Jorhat and Dibrugarh. This event had a dramatic impact on the population of the Hoolock Gibbon in the forest—the ape families in compartment 1 lost communication with compartment 2. “Hoolock Gibbons never descend to the ground if the closest canopy is in the forest. They live and travel only through the high canopies of trees. This track split the gibbon population into two parts, isolating one from the other," says Rupak Bhuyan, beat officer at the sanctuary. This meant that the gibbon population was confined to small pockets of Hoollongapar, risking their health and safety if there was a fire or an outbreak of disease.

Until recently, there were only three families of Hoolock Gibbons in compartment 1 and 23 in compartment 2—and they had never interacted.

In 2004-06, Aaranyak, under the leadership of Dilip Chetry, decided to do something about this. The team launched the Hoolock Gibbon Conservation Programme with support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Great Ape Conservation Fund). As part of the programme, a series of education, research, training and socioeconomic development modules were launched. Chetry, a Jorhat local and one of the first to do a PhD on Indian primates, took it upon himself to create a natural canopy which would end this 132-year isolation for the families. For 13 years, a plantation drive was carried out along the 1km-long railway track with the help of the local community. Only those trees that cater to the food and lodging requirements of the gibbon were planted.

“We carried out sensitization workshops with the railway department as well, which fells trees annually along the line, as they tend to fall on the track during rain and lightning," says Chetry. After sustained effort, a natural canopy started forming just above the track. And on 7 July, in a momentous moment, the first male Hoolock Gibbon crossed over early in the morning, from compartment 2 to 1.

What is the significance of this? “For the conservation of Hoolock Gibbons and protection of their specialized habitat, this patch of high unbroken canopy is crucial. Sanctuaries such as this are islands of hope in a fast degrading landscape," says Saket Badola, an Indian Forest Service officer who is the country head of TRAFFIC India, the wildlife trade monitoring network. He believes there is a need to expand such areas to help the spread of the surviving population. “This will also reduce the risk of them getting wiped out in case of spread of a disease," he adds.

Today, this has emerged as a canopy of hope. According to the 2008 census, the population of Hoolock Gibbons is pegged at 105 in the sanctuary. There is now hope that the movement across the canopy will result in the formation of new families.

Primate research in the region is, nevertheless, at a nascent stage. There are very few records of gibbon numbers before 2008. The sanctuary is home to six other primate species as well—the pig-tailed macaque, Assamese macaque, Rhesus macaque, slow loris and the stump-tailed macaque, or the xenduriya (or sinduriya) bandor, as it is called in Assamese. “But the Hoolock Gibbon is special because it lives in a family like humans. Each family has no more than five members. And they don’t mate within the family, but always with a member of another family. And they mate for life, starting a family at 10-11 years of age. If the partner dies, they don’t take a mate ever again," says Rupak.

protectors of the forest

The popular discourse in conservation usually revolves around the big sanctuaries and the big cats. But here is this little forested area—spread across 20.98 sq. km and declared a sanctuary by the Assam government in 1997—which is attempting ingenious ways to conserve the gibbon.

Borah and Heramba explain that the western and eastern Hoolock Gibbon are both found on the south bank of the Dibang-Brahmaputra river system. But just 10,000 gibbons are left in India. While the western one is endangered, the eastern Hoolock is listed as a “vulnerable" species and is found only in eastern Arunachal Pradesh and Assam’s Sadiya subdivision. Both are on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Species listed under this require absolute protection.

According to Chetry, gibbons play a vital role in the ecosystem. Because fruit is such a prominent part of their daily diet, they are important dispersers of undigested fruit seeds, and, therefore, integral to the maintenance of forest health. Habitat loss or fragmentation is a major threat, leading to the isolation of small populations, with some having become locally extinct in certain habitats. And the shortage of front-line staff in forest departments makes it difficult to devote time to glean even basic information.

This is why the sanctuary and the Gibbon Conservation Centre become so important. The training programmes sensitize and train groups of foresters, students, teachers, researchers and volunteers to carry the message of conservation to a wider circle. Locals have been empowered through alternative income-generation initiatives such as bee-keeping, duck farming, weaving and training as guides.

There is no shortage of challenges. Felling for fuel is a big one. “We asked locals to not cut wood. But we needed to give them an alternative. So, Chetry distributed improvised chulhas and biogas plants to reduce pressure on the forest," says Borah. Working with the locals is an integral part of the volunteering experience at Hoollangapar, where you assist them in plantation drives and in activities such as bee keeping. This helps one understand the integrated approach in conservation.

As I walk through the forest, on a muddy patch built by the British to connect the forest with the Meleng tea estate, Heramba says protection becomes difficult with limited staff. This is why it helps that Aaranyak is training locals such as Borah to be guides, who also work closely with the volunteers on the ground, taking some of the pressure off the forest staff and leaving them free to deal with another mammoth challenge—the elephant-human conflict. The sanctuary is home to more than 55 elephants. As the area is quite small, they tend to venture into the villages, destroying the paddy crop and tea plants, often trampling homes.

The forest department is also trying to get extra land to the tune of 7.5 sq. km to accommodate the likely increase in gibbon population and to ensure that elephants will have enough space to move around and not stray into fields.

As I head back to the tea plantations, I hope that initiatives like these will help species which are often overlooked, thrive. And somewhere in the distance, a faint holou call resounds, as if in affirmation.


Money-wise: One may donate money or specific items, such as binoculars, to Aaranyak. Support a honey-bee box, donate raincoats for forest guards, torchlights, search lights, sweaters, or even sponsor the publication of a leaflet on gibbons.

You could also: Attend a field course in conservation biology and global health, organized by Aaranyak, the Assam forest department and University of Washington, from 7-11 December. In addition, the Asian Primate Symposium will be coming up in February in Guwahati. To apply, log on to

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