We’ve just devoured an early dinner of rice and egg curry, and I’m trying to calm my frayed nerves about spending the night in the forest. Dramatically enough, there’s a power cut at that very moment. I rush out of my room and see the caretaker, Jiten, and our driver, Joon, pointing a torch at the window of my room. To my horror, I see a large spotted reptile perched there. It is a Tokay gecko, the nocturnal Asian reptile whose reported medicinal properties have made it a target for smugglers. “See, this is why I ask guests to shut their windows," Jiten smiles. I turn away, almost considering spending the night in a hotel in the nearby town instead, when I see the entire forest glowing. There’s a starry sky above me, and in front, a million fireflies. I decide to stay.

I am in the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, a biodiverse pocket of evergreen forest spread across 20.98 sq. km in Assam’s Jorhat district. True to its name, the sanctuary is home to the western hoolock gibbon, which belongs to the only species of ape found in India, usually seen swinging in the dense upper canopy dominated by the hollong, Assam’s state tree.

I grew up in a tea garden just a few kilometres away and my childhood was filled with stories about Hoollongapar’s many residents. We would wake up to see the banana plants in our backyard robbed of their fruits, and plants uprooted. The banana thieves left behind large telltale footprints, and the gardeners would bless and curse the elephants all at once before fixing the mess. On another day, we would find a group of more than 100 rhesus macaques out for a morning walk. On such days, school was skipped without a fuss.

A golden-capped Langur. Photo: WikimediaCommons
A golden-capped Langur. Photo: WikimediaCommons

That afternoon, as soon as I had reached the sanctuary, Sanjiv Neog, a well-informed forest guard and guide, had offered to take me for a quick drive on his bike through the narrow mud-trails of the forest. Only a few metres in, I spotted a baby barking deer, its brown coat and antlers only slightly visible through the thick green. We stopped to photograph yellow and blue butterflies fluttering around a puddle of water, watch a large black and yellow spider spinning its web, and chat with villagers cycling to and fro.

Gibbons tend to rest in the afternoons, and chances of a sighting are dim. My expectations low, I signalled Neog when I spotted a hint of black in the swaying branches in the distance. “Oh, it’s definitely a gibbon!" he chirped. And sure enough, it was a couple scouting for lunch. The male, with black fur and a characteristic white brow, was squatting on a branch, holding on to either end with his long limbs, ready to swing. He held the position and stared directly at me. By his side was the female, with the same brow but a copper-brown coat, devouring fruit with great concentration. They are known to mate for life.

A female western hoolock gibbon.
A female western hoolock gibbon.
Male western hoolock gibbon.
Male western hoolock gibbon.

While the western hoolock gibbon is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the establishment of the Gibbon Conservation Centre in 2004 has made a difference, leading to a considerable increase in its numbers. According to the 2008-09 census, the sanctuary had 106 gibbons, including 26 families and five solitary males. In 2004, there were just 64.

With the afternoon sun glaring down at us, we decided to head back. On our way, we saw a ripe jackfruit lying open on the ground. Looking up, we realized it was the work of a restless group of pig-tailed macaques on the trees. Dodging the jackfruit seeds raining down from above, I counted three babies and two adults.

Pig-tailed macaque
Pig-tailed macaque

The next morning, I wake up at 6am to the loud calls of gibbons piercing the forest.

I greet Neog just as a train speeds away on the railway track in front of us. “If you ever happen to write about the sanctuary, please don’t forget to mention the tracks," he suggests, his face tense. The forest department has served several notices to the railway department to ensure trains slow to the minimum speed of 20 kilometres per hour on the route, but it’s yet to be implemented strictly. Many animals have been injured in the past.

Even worse, the railway track has forced a large gap in the forest canopy, preventing the arboreal gibbons from moving about freely. It has left a group of them secluded in one part of the forest. According to forest officials, the railway department has started constructing an iron overbridge to guide the canopy naturally over the track. It will take time, but they are hopeful.

We walk on the narrow stretch today, and immediately spot the elusive and colourful red-headed trogon perched on a tree deep inside the forest. We also catch glimpses of a Malabar giant squirrel and the tiny hoary-bellied squirrel on the same tree before they scurry away. I almost believe they’re playing a game of chase and tag.

A short distance away, a group of students led by a wildlife photographer and forest guide have stopped in their tracks and are calling out to us. They’re pointing at a stumped-tail macaque, a critically endangered species found on the southern banks of the Brahmaputra river in the North-East. According to Dilip Chetry, who heads the Primate Research and Conservation Initiative of the non-profit Aaranyak, more than 200 such primates, or two large troops, live in the sanctuary. If Neog is to be believed, the red-faced female in front of us could be a troop leader. She lets out a loud angry cry and we suddenly notice the others. There are about 10 of them, including small babies who have shiny, white coats.

A stump-tailed macaque
A stump-tailed macaque

Standing there, I feel the same way that I had the night before. Lying awake, I had listened to the forest around me. My thoughts had wandered to the gibbons that were perhaps asleep in a tree close by, the Tokay gecko that had found a safe spot on my window, and the elephants that usually came looking for food in the dark. I was in a box-shaped room, far from a chase, yet thrilled. The forest of my childhood had me feeling like a 10-year-old again.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

The nearest airport is in Jorhat, about 30km away. There are daily flights via Guwahati or Kolkata from Mumbai and Delhi. From Jorhat, hire a car to reach the sanctuary ( 800).

Stay

The Gibbon Forest Rest House, a small guesthouse within the sanctuary, has two basic rooms, clean attached bathrooms and a dining hall (tel. 9859359118). There is also the Prashanti Tourist Lodge in Jorhat, run by the Assam tourism department (tel. 0376-2321579).

Eat

If you carry along groceries from the nearby town of Mariani, the caretaker at the forest guesthouse will dish up simple meals on request. Mariani itself has simple ‘dhabas’ (roadside eateries); the forest officials recommend Hotel Nilachal. Jorhat has better dining options, including Belle Amies, which has been serving delicious chicken rolls for years now.

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