Trailing the Grey Ghost in the Eastern Himalaya | WWF India

“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 for the day was to find a place to set up base for the coming days in the district headquarter of Koloriang. We reached Koloriang late in the evening and learned that the Circuit House we were planning to stay at was full. Later, a Forest Guard helped us out with information about some government quarters that were not in use. After some searching in the twilight, we finally came across 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 quaters from the Goats. We cleaned the place up, pitched our tents inside the empty structure, and had an early dinner. The night was mostly 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, Ladhak, 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.

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 into 2 protected areas i.e. Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary and Namdapha National Park. Of the total 13 districts harboring potential habitat, surveys on Snow Leopard had only been carried out in Western Arunachal Pradesh in the 2 districts of Tawang and West Kameng (Mishra et al., 2006). A major part of the state remained unexplored. To overcome these significant logistic and accessibility limitations our surveys were designed to rely on the immense body of traditional ecological knowledge of the 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.

After an early morning drive of about 3 hrs, 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 a few Gaonbudhas who take most of the important decisions and are respected by all. He was welcoming and helpful while providing reliable knowledge about the best hunters in the village. After some time of searching around, I was at the house of an “ex-hunter”. Being an introvert my whole life that first knock on the door proved to be much 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, the snow leopard was positively identified along with other mammals and the location details of the sightings noted.

This was a good start to the survey, but the truly interesting knowledge started flowing after the pen and paper were kept 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 (sharp, longish iron blade), jewelry, etc. Many villagers in Arunachal carry a dao on them, this is still a necessity in some remote villages where it is used for gathering firewood and timber, making various handicrafts out of bamboo and cane, and self-defense from wild animals. Design (blade length, thickness, the shape of the sharp edge, handle length, etc.) of a dao is unique to the tribe. Some tribes make the sheath out of wood, bamboo, or cane while others use various wild animal pelts and parts. 

Over the course, 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. There is so much that remains to be learned and explored by the outside world. 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 thing 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.

We had reached Anini, the district head-quarter 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 motorable road ended. There was no one in the first village of Engolin that was reduced to only one household. Other families had gradually moved to the motorable road-sides or towards Anini. As we continued further along the forest trail interspersed with ‘jhum’ (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 one jhum field. Villagers often help each other out during agricultural activities or building houses. We decided to follow suit and try our hands at sowing maize. Everyone was given a bottle of Apung (fermented rice drink) to keep the spirits high during the labor-intensive work. The jhum field was on a steep incline, add to it some apung and 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 jhum 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 the village named Biyanli for dinner. I was the first outsider to have worked in the jhum fields in these villages. 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 jhum 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 a concern about the lack of awareness and interest in their traditional knowledge amongst the new generations. A lot of people prefer to move to big towns and cities after getting an education, forgetting the customs and taboos. It was time to part our ways, but the last bit shared by them stuck with me. Although I was also 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!

Next in line was the Eastern-most district of India, the Anjaw. This had recently become popular amongst the birding community after regular sightings of three bird species previously known only from neighboring China and Myanmar. The vegetation by the roadsides and that 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 much slower than others.  The village called Dong holds the distinction of being India’s Eastern-most village. Villagers mentioned about a two-day trek to the tri-junction of international borders with China and Myanmar. They visit these high altitude areas to hunt the Musk Deer. The presence of Snow Leopard was also confirmed by them from the surrounding mountains. After short surveys in the districts of Lohit and Changlang, it was time to move to the western part of the state to my familiar districts of West Kameng and Tawang.

Having spent most of the last 6 years here 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 over here. Unlike the previous districts, 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.

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 move base. A joint expedition was planned together with a colleague from WWF-India who was studying the 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. Now popularly known as the ‘Bailey Trail’. The expedition started at Pangma, a quaint village at 2080 m and would go all the way t Laap, a herding camp through the highest point on the trail at the Tse La pass at 4710 m. The trail passes through a variety of forest types- mixed sub-tropical, coniferous forest dominated by Pine, Chestnut, and Oak and alpine 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 the Blue Sheep. Blue Sheep being one of the preferred prey species of the snow leopard our hopes were kept 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. 

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