Trailing the Grey Ghost in the Eastern Himalaya

Rohan Pandit

bamboo and cane near Maliney

One of the many bridges made of locally-sourced bamboo and cane near Maliney

It was time to part ways but I was happy to have gotten my ‘hajira’ for the day in the form of a glimpse into the repository of well-rooted traditional ecological knowledge—priceless!

Albe Hato Kurung Kumey read the sign on the arch above the road. We had entered the first district of the survey! I was part excited but mostly nervous, having heard stories about the hostility of the locals from Kurung Kumey. Now, the challenge was to find a place to set up base for the coming days in the district headquarter of Koloriang. We reached Koloriang late evening and learned that the Circuit House we were planning to stay at was full. A Forest Guard helped us with information about some government quarters that were not in use. After some searching in the twilight, we finally found the quarters. His information was partially correct; there were two quarters but they were being used by Goats! After some nudging and persuasion, we did manage to capture one of the quarters from the Goats. We cleaned the place, pitched our tents inside the empty structure, and had an early dinner. The night was spent thinking of all the remote places that were planned for the survey using Google Earth imagery and some help from my friends in Arunachal, and the animal that got me here.

The elusive Snow Leopard also referred to as the ‘Grey Ghost’ and ‘Spirit of the Mountains’ is truly amongst the most enigmatic cat species of the world. Within India, its habitat is distributed across Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh is the least studied with regards to Snow Leopard. Around 23% of the total geographical area of Arunachal Pradesh lies above 3000 m, consisting of remote highlands, which remain largely unexplored (Mishra et al, 2004). These areas are not only important as the refuge of rare and threatened biodiversity, but also sources of most of the state’s major rivers and wetlands.

Interviewing a herder from Tawang

Interviewing a herder from Tawang with some assistance from his cow!

Arunachal Pradesh presents a unique case where over 60% of the states’ forests are under the rights and ownership of the local indigenous communities. Only a fraction of Snow Leopard habitat in the state falls in two protected areas i.e. Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary and Namdapha National Park. Of 13 districts harbouring potential habitat, surveys on Snow Leopard had only been carried out in the districts of Tawang and West Kameng in Western Arunachal Pradesh (Mishra et al., 2006). A major part of the state remained unexplored. To overcome significant logistic and accessibility limitations, our surveys were designed to rely on the immense body of traditional ecological knowledge of local communities. Hunters, as well as herders, are a repository of knowledge and we tapped that to survey a large 29,300 km2 area using semi-structured interviews. The main objectives were to determine the status of Snow Leopard, associated high altitude wildlife and threats to wildlife, specifically the Snow Leopard.

humans build roads but nature maintains them

I remembered a conversation with a villager—“here in Arunachal, humans build roads but nature maintains them”!

After an early morning three hour drive, we reached the end of the road at Sarli. The first thing was to talk to the ‘Gaonbudha’, the village headman. Most villages in Arunachal have one or few Gaonbudhas who take important decisions and are respected by all. He was welcoming and helpful while providing reliable knowledge about the best hunters in the village. After a bit of searching, I was at the house of an ‘ex-hunter’. Being an introvert all my life, that first knock on the door proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. To my surprise though, I had mustered up salesman’s enthusiasm before the door opened! The interview mostly went as planned and the Snow Leopard was positively identified along with other mammals and the location details of the sightings noted.

A typical Tagin Dao

A typical Tagin Dao: the sheath is made of bamboo wrapped by a capped-langur tail, belt for carrying made of Himalayan black bear pelt with a clouded Leopards’ upper jaw (with canines) attached to the base of it

This was a good start, but the truly interesting knowledge started flowing after pen and paper were put away. The ex-hunter shared his experiences about the mountains, the forests, and the animals. He narrated stories from his younger days when he was the best hunter in the village and how he used to trade wild animal pelts and other products into Tibet to get salt, Dao (a sharp, long iron blade), jewellery, etc. Many villagers in Arunachal carry a Dao which is still a necessity in remote villages where it is used for gathering firewood and timber, making handicrafts out of bamboo and cane, and self-defence from wild animals. The design (blade length, thickness, the shape of the sharp edge, handle length, etc.) of a Dao is unique to each tribe. Some tribes make the sheath out of wood, bamboo, or cane while others use various wild animal pelts and parts.

Over time, I got better at knocking on strangers’ doors and convincing them for an interview. The natural history information that was shared during informal conversations was truly impressive and humbling at the same time. We had similar experiences in the other districts that we surveyed—Upper Subansiri, Shi Yomi (previously part of West Siang), and Upper Siang. Everywhere we went, we were greeted by people who welcomed us and some went out of their way to help us out.

Another interesting aspect in Arunachal was the scale of cultural diversity. There are 26 major tribes with over 100 sub-tribes with their unique languages, dialects, and customs. This has been attributed to the states’ geography. The North-South aligned river valleys and mountain ranges have divided the state into numerous pockets that were isolated or very difficult to access. Over eons, this has allowed the populations and cultures to flourish in their unique ways. The same pattern also contributes to the immense biodiversity in the Eastern Himalaya.

People have co-existed here with the surrounding forests and wild animals for many years. The diverse traditional knowledge and taboos have played an important role in the co-existence. Hotspots of biodiversity are often located in regions where traditional societies abound (Colding & Folke, 2001; Stevens, 2014; Toledo, 2013). Recent studies in and around the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in the Dibang valley district have shown a healthy population of wild animals. The dominant tribe of the region, the Idu Mishmis traditionally have had a lot of taboos called ‘ghena’ related to hunting in general and specifically for all wild cats. Similar taboos have also been noted in other animist tribes like the Akas, Nyshyis, Tagins, and Adis.

A group of Idu Mishmi elders taking a break during work in their ‘jhoom’ fields to compare who’s fitter!

Idu Mishmi elders

We had reached Anini, the district headquarters and the next day was going to be a long one. The plan was to hike to a group of villages beyond Mipi where the motor road ended.There was no one in the first village of Engolin that was reduced to only one household. Other families had gradually moved closer to the motor road or towards Anini. As we continued further along the forest trail interspersed with ‘jhoom’ (slash and burn method of agriculture) cultivation we heard a commotion near a newly burnt field. We were in luck as the villagers from the surrounding villages including the single household from Engolin had gathered here to help sow maize in the field. Villagers help each other during agricultural activities or building houses. We decided to try our hands at sowing maize. Everyone was given a bottle of Apung (fermented rice drink) to keep the spirits high during this labour-intensive work. The field was on a steep incline and adding to it some Apung, we found ourselves tumbling down the field a couple of times. Later we were invited for dinner along with other villagers by the family who owned the field. Traditionally, this has been a way to acknowledge and thank others for their help. In recent times though, payment in cash over kind has started dominating the everyday transactions even in the remotest villages.

We all reached Biyanli village for dinner. I was the first outsider to have worked in the jhoom fields. We later joked about my ‘hajira’ (daily wage) for the day. After interviewing them, dinner was served which consisted of unpolished red-rice along with local herbs mixed with maize and field-rats (found in the burnt fields) not to forget another round of Apung! Later, we all gathered around the fire and the elders shared their stories about the forests, wild animals, and their associated beliefs and ghenas (taboos). Among others, the strictest ghena is associated with hunting a tiger as it is believed that humans and tiger are born out of the same womb, tiger being the elder brother. Hunting of a tiger is believed to bring bad luck to the whole village and requires an expensive ritual similar to that of a human funeral. All the elders did sound concerned about the lack of awareness and interest in their traditional knowledge amongst the new generation. A lot of people prefer to move to big towns and cities after getting an education, forgetting customs and taboos. It was time to part ways but I was happy to have gotten my ‘hajira’ for the day in the form of a glimpse into the repository of well-rooted traditional ecological knowledge—priceless!

River Lohit near Dong

River Lohit near Dong

Next in line was the eastern-most district of India, Anjaw. This had recently become popular amongst the birding community after regular sightings of three bird species previously seen in neighbouring China and Myanmar. The vegetation along the road and in the surrounding mountains was dominated by swathes of Pine and tall grass. The dominant tribes are the Animist Miju Mishmi and the Buddhist Meyor. The prevalence of opium (locally called ‘kaani’) was apparent in remote villages. People generally smoke opium by the fireplace in the house. As a result, some of my interviews went slower than others. Dong village holds the distinction of being India’s eastern-most village. Villagers mentioned a two-day trek to the tri-junction of international borders with China and Myanmar. They visit these high altitude areas to hunt Musk Deer. The presence of Snow Leopard was also confirmed. After short surveys in the districts of Lohit and Changlang, it was time to move to the western part of the state to the districts of West Kameng and Tawang.

Having spent most of the last six years in West Kameng, I was confident of finding the right people faster than in other districts. I realized how wrong I was just a few days into the survey. Unlike in the east, livestock rearing in the high altitude areas is an important activity in West Kameng and Tawang. This meant that we had to target the herders along with the hunters. The month of June meant that all the herders would be around the summer grazing grounds situated higher up and in difficult to reach locations. It was also a race against the approaching monsoon rains which leave a lot of remote areas vulnerable to being cut-off due to the numerous landslides.

Tsela on the Bailey Trail

A high altitude lake near Tsela on the Bailey Trail

We were informed about a livestock depredation case, possibly by a Snow Leopard in the high altitude region of the Community Conserved Area (CCA) of Thembang. We had to plan and move quickly to find the herders before they moved base. A joint expedition was planned with a colleague from WWF-India who was studying animal diversity in the CCA using camera-traps. It was going to be an 11-day expedition which would retrace the historic route taken by Lt. Col. F M Bailey and Capt. H T Morshed, British officers who were commissioned to survey the lands between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet during 1911-12 popularly known as ‘Bailey’s Trail’. The expedition started at Pangma, a quaint village at 2080 m and would go all the way to Laap, a herding camp through the highest point on the trail at the Tsela at 4710 m. The trail passes through a variety of forest types-mixed sub-tropical, coniferous forest dominated by Pine, Chestnut, and Oak and Pine forests dominated by Juniper and Rhododendrons. On the way, we came across many high pastures and herding camps grazing their Yaks and Sheep. We had to cross a few glacial rivers and higher up, the trail was interspersed with glacial lakes.

For the first time since the survey had started, I was actually in the Snow Leopard habitat. We were scanning the ridges and mountain slopes enthusiastically hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive cat. Our efforts only rewarded us views of Pikas, Himalayan Marmots, Red Fox, and Blue Sheep. Blue Sheep being one of the preferred prey species of the Snow Leopard our hopes were high. We were on time and managed to meet many herders. All of them confirmed the presence of Snow Leopard in the region and some even shared instances of their livestock being preyed upon. Several camera-traps were laid along the way and we hoped to capture some interesting species. A month later, when all the camera traps were retrieved, one of them, placed near a narrow pass at 4000 m did capture a Snow Leopard. This was the first photographic record for the state and confirmed the narrative of the herders we had interviewed.

Bailey Trail passing through Rhododendron bushes

The route on the Bailey Trail passing through Rhododendron bushes

Continuing our series on wildlife and ecology of the Himalaya, we present an article by a young scientist, studying the habitat of the Snow Leopard, this time in Arunachal Pradesh. In the bargain he meets local people and gets an understanding of the communities in remote parts of the state.

About the Author

Rohan Pandit is from Pune. He says “I was lucky to have grown up around the Western Ghats while always being intrigued by the immense biodiversity. My interest and fascination in natural history, faunal ecology especially in the high altitude areas and cultural diversity have only increased having spent the last ten years in the Eastern Himalayan region.

My current work towards Snow Leopard conservation keeps me exploring the different ways to converge the research-based ecological knowledge with that of the community-based conservation model.”

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