Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

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February 23rd 2014
Published: March 14th 2014
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My next location after Kaziranga National Park was the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary which is a small patch of remnant forest east of Kaziranga. The name has various spellings. I had been using Hoollongopar but at the sanctuary they use Hollongapar so that's what I'll stick with from now on. The area has been protected since 1881, originally as the Hollongapar Reserved Forest, mainly so the British colonialists could hunt leopards and elephants there. In 1997 it was re-designated as a Wildlife Sanctuary. Nowadays the forest only covers an area of 21 square kilometres and is hemmed in by tea plantations and farmland so there are no longer any dispersal routes in or out for most of the species inside. There are seven species of primates in the reserve, the main one people want to see being the western hoolock gibbon. Few visitors stay in the forestry department accommodation there because it only takes about two and a half hours to drive from Kaziranga, but one of the seven primates is the slow loris which is nocturnal and I wanted to try and find one. However once again my attempts at loris searches were stymied, because it turned out that it is forbidden to enter the forest at night even if staying at the accommodation there (although they obviously used to allow this, because Mammalwatching guy Jon Hall was doing spotlighting there in 2008). Indian parks are extremely strict with rules and they are often pretty ridiculous. In Assam it gets light at 5.30am or so but most of the parks don't open until after 7am, they are closed in the middle of the day, and at the end of the day they close up the gates as early as 4.30 or 5pm. Few (none?) of the Assamese parks allow night visits any more. At most (all?) you need guides and/or armed guards whenever you enter, and some parks like Kaziranga don't allow entry on foot at all. At Hollongapar you are on foot but accompanied by armed guards and the length of the “tours” are only an hour or two. If I was to return to Assam I wouldn't bother staying at Hollongapar, I would just do what everyone else does and make it a morning trip from Kaziranga. The gibbons seem pretty easy to see on short visits – there was a huge noisy school-group there when I arrived and even they had seen gibbons.

To get from Kaziranga to Hollongapar I had been going to take a bus from Kohora to Jorhat, and then another bus to Mariani, and then a three-wheeler to the sanctuary, all of which would probably have taken most of the day, but as luck would have it there were some Wild Grass guests needing a pick-up at the Jorhat airport so I got a ride in the car all the way to the sanctuary and only had to pay 400 rupees (about NZ$8) in total, and so I arrived about 11am. The accommodation at the sanctuary is 600 rupees per night, and you have to take your own food but there is someone there to cook it for you (I just took noodles and fruit because I'm cheap like that). You've got the same daily entry and camera fees as at Kaziranga (500 rupees for each) but the guard fees are only 200 rupees so the actual time spent in the forest is cheap. Surprisingly there isn't a great deal of English spoken by anyone up that way; it's sort of the way an American might know enough words in Spanish to have very basic communication in Mexico but that's about all. None of the school-kids who were there when I arrived spoke any English beyond a halting “what is your name?”. I was the centre of attention for them and they all wanted my autograph and to get a photo with me. English is very widely spoken throughout India because the number of indigenous languages and dialects make communication otherwise impossible, but I guess Assam is just that little bit too far away from India proper.

I went out into the forest at about 1.30pm with two guards. There are elephants in the forest, and wild elephants can be dangerous of course, but the precautions taken in Indian parks are really over the top! In places with jeeps like Kaziranga they often don't even allow you to get off the jeep and stand next to it on a road in open grassland where you can see for a kilometre in every direction. At Hollongapar they barely let you walk more than ten metres ahead or behind in case an elephant springs suddenly out of its burrow and drags you down to your death. At one point on the second day, the guard in front of me turned round and asked “Are you afraid? You don't need to be, we are here.” I just said “no, I'm fine,” but what I was thinking was “what in anything I have done over the last two days has given the impression I was afraid?!” The reason I had been given for why they don't allow entry at night is because “the elephants are too dangerous” – but it is hardly going to be any more dangerous at night than in the day-time. Actually they even tried to tell me that sambar are really dangerous! Unfortunately even if a guard was happy to take you in at night everything is under the control of one person and the decision is his (and that decision is always “no”). The way I see it, if you go to wild places you take the risks associated with it. I just want to go into the forest when the sun comes up and wander round for as long as I want looking for animals. All the rules and regulations are just a pain for me.

The seven primate species at Hollongapar are the western hoolock gibbon (the only ape found in India), the capped langur, the slow loris, and four species of macaques (rhesus, northern pig-tailed, stump-tailed and Assamese). The sanctuary has the highest number of primate species of any protected area in India. I'm not really sure how four similar macaque species manage to co-exist in the same area, especially when the area isn't particularly large, but they obviously do. I had seen a group of female and young capped langurs at Kaziranga but otherwise the only species of those seven which I had seen anywhere before were the rhesus and pig-tailed macaques. The first of them which I got to see at Hollongapar were the stump-tailed macaques, a whole troop of them foraging about in the forest. At Hollongapar the guards take you along a fairly wide dirt road through the forest and when they hear or see something you head onto narrow trails to get closer. The stump-tails didn't seem too keen on us interrupting their feeding but after following them through the forest for a while they settled down and ignored us. They are weird-looking monkeys! The body is very robust, almost like a little bear, and the face is all rumpled up and bright scarlet like a very sunburnt old man. When you see photos of them, or see them in a zoo, they are the ugliest things imaginable, but seen in the wild in the forest they look completely right (much as I had found with the Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys in China – in photos and zoos they are just plain weird, but in the wild they are beautiful). Next up were the northern pig-tailed macaques, of which there were just a few feeding high up in the trees. I've seen quite a lot of pig-tailed macaques before, but the ones here look different somehow .... longer fur maybe? ….. I'm not quite sure what it is. The last primate for the afternoon I found for myself rather than the guards pointing it out, so I felt like I was pulling my weight. It was a male hoolock gibbon, all black with white eyebrows (females are brown with white eyebrows), and in a nearby tree was a bicoloured giant squirrel. The gibbons and the giant squirrels are both pretty difficult (often impossible) to photograph successfully because they are always up in the canopy and hence usually backlit against the sky.

There was a very odd situation that first afternoon where after we had seen the pig-tailed macaques we carried on along the road until we reached a bit of a waterhole off to the side. “Now you go to the toilet,” said the guard who spoke some English. “No, that's alright, I don't need to go to the toilet,” I said. “Yes, you go to the toilet.” “I don't need to go to the toilet.” “You go to the toilet now!” I have no idea what was going on but if I'd been a woman I would have been getting very scared right then!! I half expected him to point his shotgun at me and tell me to go to the toilet or die. After a bit of a stand-off, they decided I really didn't want to go to the toilet and we carried on to find the gibbon. Obviously it was the result of some sort of language difficulty but still really really weird!

The next morning we set off at 7.30am. I had tried some birding around the camp area earlier but there wasn't much there. I did see another giant squirrel and a red-bellied (Pallas'😉 squirrel though. On the dirt road through the forest one of the guards pointed out fresh leopard droppings, which was a tad frustrating! It wasn't long before we found a family of hoolocks – father, mother and baby – followed by the stump-tailed macaque troop still waking up in the tops of a couple of trees – perhaps the leopard was still around somewhere and they didn't want to come down yet. No sign of yesterday's pig-tailed macaques, nor any Assamese macaques which I wanted to see. On the return to the HQ we walked along the railway track which runs right past the accommodation building (and is very noisy at night!). There was lots of elephant dung along the line. I wondered if the trains and elephants ever collide. I spotted a gibbon off in the forest and when we went in we found another family group of male, female and baby, and I managed to get some photos of the female which weren't too terrible. Back on the track a train went past and we stood off to the side. When we continued walking we found a large Indian rock python cut in three by the train, the head end still writhing in its death-throes. It was one of the saddest things I have seen in my travels, and I was really annoyed with myself because I thought if I had just looked up the track through my binoculars earlier I would have seen the python crossing the line and been able to get it out of the way before the train killed it.

The afternoon walk was for capped langurs. I had seen the group of females and young at Kaziranga but I wanted to see a male which are quite brightly coloured and remind me of red colobus. That mission was accomplished successfully with a very large troop crashing through the tree canopies. Very difficult to photograph because of where they were, but I managed a couple of “all-right” shots. I'm hoping to be able to get better photos at Nameri National Park where apparently they are easily seen in the grounds of the Eco-Camp, but you always take the chances when they arise just in case you never get another one. There was another giant squirrel seen as well (the third for the day) and a few birds. Because of the short time you're in the forest there's not really any time for birding if you want to find the primates, but amongst the few I saw were three lifers (white-throated bulbul, maroon oriole and sapphire flycatcher) as well as a red-headed trogon.

I had now seen pig-tailed and stump-tailed macaques, capped langurs and hoolocks. Slow loris was out for now (but I had a plan for that night involving sneaking), rhesus macaques I had seen plenty of at Kaziranga, and the last one was the Assamese macaque. I knew these were difficult to find because there was only one troop in the reserve, comprised of between 40 and 50 individuals. After the langurs had been found and watched and photographed, one of the guards said we would now go look for the Assamese macaques. We headed off across to the other side of the forest, along the edge of a tea plantation. After a while he stopped and said “that is my house over there. We will go there to drink tea.” A bit of a coincidence that he lives right by where the macaques were supposed to be, but we went over there. I sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, they turned on the tv, and then both the guards disappeared to eat. His daughter and son sat there smiling and nodding at me because they spoke no English and I spoke no Assamese. I tried to be patient because you don't want to annoy the people guiding you, and if they speak little English then there's no point getting antsy anyway because they don't really understand what you are saying or why you are annoyed. But after almost an hour had passed I was sick of my time being wasted and “suggested” we go look for the macaques. So we went back across the tea field to where there was a trail into the forest and one of the guards went inside. The other one said something along the lines of Assamese macaques are difficult because they only live where the wild elephants are and wild elephants are really dangerous. After maybe twenty seconds the first guard comes back out of the trail and I'm told that there are elephants there so we can't go look for the macaques. What a load of bollocks! Not much I could do about it though, so we went back to the HQ.

Over the course of that second day we had travelled around a few trails and along the railway line a couple of times so I now had a pretty good idea of where everything was and where I could get to trails in the dark without being seen, so my plan for the night was to go along the railway line and then into the forest on one of the trails which ran off it, and that way I wouldn't have to pass any of the guardposts. I hadn't tried this on the first night, partly because I didn't know the lay of the land properly and partly because I didn't want to get kicked out of the reserve if caught. Slow loris was once again within my grasp. Unfortunately though, even this sneaky loris plan got foiled! Late in the day I found out quite by accident (from an Indian photographer who had arrived to stay that day) that there was a two-day strike proposed to be happening tomorrow. To me a strike is some people in one industry stopping work but otherwise life goes on as normal. In Assam, in contrast, a strike apparently means that all the roads get shut down, the entire region grinds to a halt, it is impossible to get anywhere or do anything, and cars and buses that do try to go places get stoned! I had been going to leave Hollongapar the next day, bus to the city of Tezpur where there was said to be a good site for dolphins on the river, and then the day after that head to Nameri National Park, but this guy said that if the strike went ahead then I wouldn't be going anywhere, I would be stuck in Hollongapar for the duration with no food, and so if I could I should get out that night to somewhere safe. He had some friends arriving the next day and they were seriously scared about the travel, even though he was desperately arranging to get them there in the morning before light. Political strife doesn't normally bother me – like the lame stuff in Bangkok – but this sounded pretty full-on and I thought I better take his advice and get somewhere safe! Back to Wild Grass at Kaziranga seemed like a good bet because if I was going to be stuck somewhere, then somewhere with birds was preferable to the inside of a hotel room in some city. Also it wasn't too far away so I could get there that night. The really annoying thing was the money side of it because I had already paid for that night at Hollongapar (and the office was closed up so I couldn't try and get a refund), I would have to pay for the same night at Wild Grass too, and the car to Kaziranga set me back 3200 rupees (about NZ$62).


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