Tenga/West Kameng, Arunachal Pradesh: The story begins in 1995 with an astronomer from Pune’s Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Ramana Athreya, now 45, a tall man with an athletic build, a short crop of salt-and-pepper hair, and a perpetual smile. That year, Athreya, an avid birdwatcher, decided to spend his holiday in Arunachal Pradesh and landed up in the cloud forests in the western part of the state. The upper reaches of the forest had been declared the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in 1989. The name came from the 4th Infantry Division, also known as the Red Eagle Division, of the Indian Army that was stationed here and fought the Chinese in 1962.
It was in the community forest adjacent to the sanctuary and managed by the Bugun tribe that Athreya was to make the discovery that would make Eaglenest a destination for birders from around India and the world (most birders will travel huge distances even to see a single bird endemic to the region and not found elsewhere). That day in 1995, Athreya saw a bird he couldn’t identify, nor did it fit any known description in bird guides. It was a small babbler-like bird, with olive-grey plumage and a black cap. Its face had distinctive dark yellow streaks running up around the eye, and its wings had yellow, red, and white patches. Its feet were pink and its black tail had a red tip and boasted a crimson undertail.
Call of the wild: Tourists on FCT Road in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/ Mint
It was a beautiful bird, and Athreya wouldn’t see another for nearly 10 years.
He saw the bird again in 2005, mist-netted (with the forest department’s permission) one in 2006, and the same year announced his discovery to the world. And in honour of the Bugun, he named the bird the Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum), magnanimously giving up the opportunity of having the bird named after him or a member of his family (most birds are named after the people who discovered them).
The Bugun, or Khowa, believe they are descendants of a primitive tribe, Achinphumpuluah, and are largely found in the Tenga region in west Arunachal Pradesh. Although animists, they have been influenced by a strain of Tibetan Buddhism practised by a neighbouring tribe that originated in Tibet, the Sherdukpen. And the Dalai Lama is a venerated figure.
“This is the very road his holiness the Dalai Lama took in 1959 when he escaped from Tibet,” says my guide, Indi Glow, as we drive up from the garrison town of Tenga to the forest above. Our destination is Lama Camp, named after the spot where the Dalia Lama’s entourage spent a night on that perilous journey.
At one time, this was the only road between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, but it is rarely used now, and the forest has crept up almost to the side of the road that has now become a single-lane jeep track, with a mohawk of grass splitting it into two. Glow, an energetic man in his early 50s, isa repository of information. “This road (built in the 1950s), also known as the Foot Hills-Chaku-Tenga (FCT) Road, earlier connected Misamari in Assam to Bomdila, and was at the heart of action in the 1962 Indo-China War,” he says, but it was abandoned after the wider Bhalukpong-Bomdila-Tawang national highway was constructed.
That abandonment has worked for the environment. Eaglenest has largely escaped the attention of the timber mafia—illegal logging is rampant in Arunachal—because trucks can’t navigate the narrow jeep track. A few years ago, the Border Roads Division did revive a plan to convert it into an all-weather highway, but the Supreme Court put it on hold when an expert committee set up by the court encountered elephant herds here while on a surveying mission.
Today, the jeep track passes through largely undisturbed forests, some at a height of a little above 3,000m. The road enters Arunachal Pradesh at Kamengbari at an altitude of 100m and winds uphill, past the villages of Doimara and Khellong, before entering the sanctuary above Khellong at about 1,200m. It continues through the campsites at Sessni (1,250m), Bompu (1,945m), Chakoo (2,400m) and Sunderview (2,465m) before crossing the ridge at Eaglenest Pass at 2,780m. It then descends past Lama Camp and the Ramalingam campsite to join the more popular national highway at Tenga. Eaglenest is a part of the Kameng Protected Area Complex (KPAC), the largest contiguous closed-canopy forest tract of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes the Eaglenest, Pakke, Sessa, Nameri and Sonai Rupai sanctuaries and the associated reserved forest blocks. The entire area covers 3,500 sq. km and ranges from 100m to 3,300m in altitude. It is the only place in the country where elephants are found above 3,000m during their summer migration.
Green zone: Green-tailed Sunbird. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/ Mint
And it was virtually the back of beyond till Athreya—who was waiting for us at Lama Camp (still with IISER, he continues to work on ecology and the conservation of biological diversity, and to look for new species)—made his discovery.
Early on in his interactions with the Bugun, Athreya realized that the local community needed to be involved in any effort to conserve the biodiversity of the region. The Bugun wanted something in return. Until 1996, they’d lived off the forest, but that year the Supreme Court passed a ban on unsustainable harvesting of forests. Farming tomatoes, potatoes, kiwi, apple and cabbage, and animal husbandry helped, but the Bugun had been looking for an alternative source of livelihood.
“It was clear that their enthusiastic participation in conservation activities had a strong component of community development, and they wanted the community to reap benefits in the present and not at some unspecified time in the future,” says Athreya.
Green zone: The famed Bugun Liocichla. Photo: Ramana Athreya
So he hurriedly put together a birdwatching tour to demonstrate the tourism potential of the area. “The Buguns could not believe that anyone would pay money to see birds,” he adds.
In 2003, he started the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project to encourage the Bugun to help in conservation efforts and to develop ecotourism that could benefit the tribe. The discovery of the Bugun Liocichla helped, but it’s a great responsibility, says Glow, “to ensure that no harm happens to the bird or its habitat”.
With Athreya’s assistance and after discussions among themselves, the Bugun started looking at Eaglenest as not just something that was part of their natural heritage, but also a community economic resource. They drew up plans on the community’s role in protecting the area from poachers, reducing dependence on the primary forest for firewood, participation in ecological studies, and training members of the community to handle tourists. Today, the Bugun, under Glow, are stakeholders in the conservation of the forest; they run the birdwatching camps, generating revenue for themselves as well as for the community.
Every year, the tourist season (November-May) generates around Rs 25 lakh for the Bugun (while the number may appear small to readers of this paper, it is actually a significant amount for a small tribe in a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh). Apart from this, every visitor pays a separate community fee (Rs 100 for Indians and Rs 200 for others) that goes to the Bugun and Sherdukpen village council and which is used for community development.
Green zone: A yellow-throated Fulvetta. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/ Mint
However, for the past six years, at least half the Rs 7-8 lakh has gone towards maintaining the jeep track as the area is prone to landslides during the monsoon months, somewhat restricting the Bugun Welfare Society’s efforts toward sprucing up the tourism infrastructure. Glow would like the state to fund the maintenance of the jeep track so that the money earned from tourism can be used to build traditional huts with attached toilets for tourists. Currently, the tourists stay in tents with basic amenities, even during the punishing winters.
The Liocichla may have brought fame to Eaglenest, but there are other exotic birds to be seen here as well, such as the wedge-billed wren-babbler, the fire-tailed myzornis, the rufous-necked partridge, the beautiful nuthatch, the rufous-necked hornbill, Ward’s trogon, the rufous-bellied hawk-eagle, and several species of tragopans, minlas, sibias and spiderhunters. The forest is also home to rare mammals such as the red panda, the golden cat and the clouded leopard, and several species of butterflies, moths and beetles.
Athreya is aware that it may not always be possible to repeat the Bugun model of ecotourism elsewhere. In this case, even the minor income that came in was significant, he says, and population density is very low in the region, resulting in lower demand for land. Across 24 villages in the region, there are only around 1,500 Bugun.
Green zone: Indi Glow (in green cap) and Takam Nabum, the headman of the Nyishi tribe, discussing ways to make ecotourism work. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/ Mint
Their enthusiasm for conservation efforts, though, more than makes up for the forest department’s apathy. “I have never had my entry permit checked during numerous visits to Eaglenest, have only once seen the forest department staff inside the sanctuary, and the forest gate is kept open at all times of the day and night,” says Athreya, “but as long as the Bugun are in charge there is not much to worry about.”
That enthusiasm seems to have rubbed off on other tribes as well. On the day this reporter spent with the Bugun, the tribe was visited by Takam Nabum, the headman of the Nyishi tribe, best known for the headdress they sport—made from a hornbill’s beak and feathers. He wanted to study how the Bugun were making ecotourism work for them, and apply some of this to his own tribe’s ecotourism project in the forests around the Pakke Tiger Reserve. And, not surprisingly, their efforts involve the hornbill.
Next: The Nyishi and the hornbills