A narrow pathway of sand and pebbles, so overgrown with grass and bushes that you wouldn’t be able to find it unless an experienced tracker pointed it out; tufts of grass and loose stones that would make you kiss the ground if you didn’t walk very carefully. On this track we walked over three kilometres, straining our necks and scanning the tree tops for those sleek black and brown bodies, swinging from branch to branch.
The Hoolongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, formerly known as the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, in Jorhat, was one place I could not miss after going all the way to Assam. It is the only place in the world that has the Hoolock gibbons, the only ape species in India. It also has six other endemic species of primates – the pig tailed macaque, the stump tailed macaque, the rhesus macaque, the capped langur and the slow loris. The Himalayan giant squirrel, a bigger and darker version of the Malabar giant squirrel is another very prominent species there.
The day before we were supposed to go there, an elephant was run over by a train, as she and her herd were crossing the tracks to get to the other side of the jungle, just a few hundred metres from the entrance of the Gibbon sanctuary. The agitated herd was still roaming about in the vicinity, and tourists were prohibited from venturing inside. But being a photographer, with huge lenses, does have its benefits! They let us in, along with another couple of photographers, and we were accompanied by two trackers with shot guns.
But the presence of the trackers with the guns definitely did not ease my qualms. I kept seeing dark humps everywhere in the dense undergrowth, and once, we even had to double back because we found fresh elephant dung on the tracks. I knew deep down, that though we couldn’t see the herd, they knew about our presence but decided to let us through unhurt, in spite of the gruesome murder of one of their members. It was one real nerve-racking experience to walk in the dense shrubbery, without the protection of a vehicle, knowing that a herd of angry elephants was on the prowl.
We walked on for quite a long distance, dragging along our heavy gear, and we had almost given up, when finally, the trackers gestured impatiently at us to hurry up. We ran forward, and spotted a group of gibbons, high up in a hoolong tree- four lithe bodies, hanging precariously to the high branches, one jet black male, and three brown females. We spent around 15 minutes with them, as they lazed around, eating leaves, swinging from branch to branch. And then… An alien male entered their territory. The group started hooting so loudly, that the entire sanctuary vibrated with the cacophony of the noise they were making. Down below, we were nearly deafened and I was busy recording the sound on my mobile, as the group hovered around the male, who was sitting quietly on a low branch, throwing leaves and branches at him, but never really making contact. It was a real spectacle, watching the entire drama unfold right in front of our eyes (and ears), for over half an hour, before finally, the thoroughly bored male moved away. We were also lucky enough to spot three other species as we came out – the pig tailed macaque, the capped langur, which on seeing us, started throwing fruits at us (and I must say its aim was nearly perfect) and the nocturnal slow loris.
Thanking the trackers profusely for all that they had done for us, we went back to the car, sweating like pigs, in spite of the cold winter wind. As I sat back in my seat, tired and spent, I realised just how lucky I was to have seen something, whose very existence not many people know about. And oh yes, also a ringtone that no one else in the world, I’m sure, has!!