Expedition - Talle Valley
December 2010: The road was nearly impossible. The incessant rains had eroded the sides, making passage very challenging for our vehicle. Trees brought down by heavy gusts of wind lay across the road, which itself had turned into slush, part ravine, part bog.
We had been forewarned about the road conditions but our only other option was to hire a hundred porters to lug all our equipment to Pange, our base camp. So we continued onwards – hacking, pushing, slipping and sliding our way precariously to Pange. We refused to consider the possibility that the continuous rain might prevent our return trip.
Mid-way to our destination, Chinmay found the first herp – a false cobra Pseudoxenodon macrops that decided to take shelter under the vehicle. We quickly bagged it without waiting to confirm our identification. Soon after, Seth found a tree frog Polypedates himalayensis under a stone. We were delighted that Talle’s herpeto-fauna was showing up and hoped it was a sign of things to come.
At an elevation of 1,700 m. above sea level, Pange sits on the edge of the 337 sq. km. Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which lies east of the town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh (270 32’ N; 930 52’ E). The camp comprises a few concrete buildings and a long row house with a central fireplace. This was the main dining and kitchen area and a space to dry clothes and sleep. Importantly, it also served as a leech crematorium. Looking out from the clearing a cool, clear stream flowed past surrounded by dense tropical forest with crowns that looked like broccoli tops.
THE INITIAL SURVEYS
The rest of the team arrived two days later after walking the nine kilometre soggy trail from Siro and familiarised themselves with the local denizens, including mithun – a hybrid between a gaur and domestic cattle and a myriad blood-sucking but very colourful leeches. The team brought with them plenty of enthusiasm and also a tropical depression in the form of continuous rainfall. Gerard Martin, the co-leader of the trip, along with James and Rowland were quick to set off to explore the surroundings in search of possible hiding nooks for snakes; Gaurav went out looking for large trees to access the high frontier of the canopy; Karthik Vasudevan from the Wildlife Institute of India and Barkha Subba, a research scholar from ATREE, awaited nightfall to go looking for amphibians – their primary interest and a convenient excuse to stay back and rest at the camp. Sangeetha Kadur, my sister and wildlife artist got busy finding things to sketch. Seth Patterson and I went about setting up a mobile photo studio in one of the concrete rooms in preparation for the models that would turn up for positive identifications. Chinmay Rane, a filmmaker, began documenting the whole process. Our team worked closely with Chada and Tatu and other members of Future Generations – an NGO based in Ziro working to document and protect the biodiversity of Talle Valley. Our hope was that the expedition would further the mission of Future Generations to document the region’s extraordinary biodiversity.
The Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, like many Protected Areas across India, faces a number of threats. One that could do the most damage is, of course, the Lower Subansiri dam, (Sanctuary Vol. XXV No. 1, February 2005) which will submerge large tracts of forest in the lower reaches of Talle Valley and surrounding areas of the Ziro region. There is much opposition to the dam as it violates several clauses stipulated under the Wildlife Protection Act. But without stricter policies and greater control from the central government, dams will continue to alter not just the flow of life but also the freshwater lifecycle of many species of fish, several of which are still to be documented in this region.
HERPING IN TALLE
Our mission was to find as many species of reptiles and amphibians as possible in the short time we were there. Herping is hard work – back-breaking, knee-jerking and exhausting, but in the right place – very rewarding for the avid herp enthusiast. While the snakes continued to remain ‘no shows’ on the first day, Karthik and Barkha were luckier. Within the first two days we had nearly six species of amphibians. The Rhacophorids – tree frogs were a particular treat. Some, such as the Rhacophorus bipunctatus showed a huge variation in colour and pattern. They were found calling along the edges of stagnant pools and streams.
On the second day, the sun emerged for brief periods. The perfect weather for snakes! A beautiful bamboo rat snake, followed by mountain pit vipers, followed by worm-eating snakes – all in a day’s work. Once the weather showed signs of clearing, a few of us marched up to Talle Valley. A steep hike of nearly 15 km. took us beyond leech country and over the ridge at 2,700 m. and dropped us into the high-elevation valley. Here a tall forest of conifers welcomed us across a wide plateau. Along the gently flowing stream, stretched thickets of cane and a forest floor covered in moss over a foot high. The mossy floor felt like a soft mattress. The name Talle comes from a particular plant that grows profusely in this region along the stream. The arduous hike yielded nothing in particular, even after hours of turning logs over and looking into holes. The rains had rendered everything soggy, and even seemingly big logs, broke off into wet crumbs at the first touch. One very large tree trunk seemed the most likely dry spot to look under. The two groups were positioned on either end of the 40-foot-long (12 m.) trunk to move it, and suddenly, to our surprise a golden cat came bounding out. I was on the wrong end of the trunk and missed the sighting but Gerry and the rest of the team had a fantastic glimpse, although the brevity of the sighting makes it difficult to make a positive identification. However, there are very limited possibilities. While Talle Valley is also home to clouded leopards and red pandas, we did not come across pugmarks.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of human disturbance and presence throughout the inner areas of the sanctuary. We heard of hunting parties of local Apatani men who come in during the winter months when rain and leeches are not an issue. That is when the wildlife in the region is most threatened.
A TRIP TO REMEMBER
We spent the night huddled around a fire after a hot meal that included the local ingredients of talle and cane. Overnight we found another large tree frog as well as a few small Nanorana species. We quickly photographed them during the day and released them. Gerry set off with James and Rowland, while Karthik and I explored the cane forest for a little while longer. It was a fabulous day of great sunshine. Play today at the best friv4school online games.
By late afternoon when Karthik and I arrived, there were smiles all around. Gerry and his group, had caught one of the most beautiful snakes in the area – Ptyas nigromarginatus – the green rat snake. They had also caught a pit viper, and that was proving to be a bit of a problem. None of the keys in any of the books matched the snake. Detailed photographs were taken along with measurements. It was tentatively called the Jerdon’s pit viper Protobothrops jerdoni. Little did we know at the time that a team of researchers at Eaglenest (Aamod Zambre et. al) had recently made its discovery and reported the first ever sighting of this sub-species Protobothrops jerdoni xanthomelas within India (Sanctuary Vol. XXX No. 5, October 2010). Our find added a second location for this striking pit viper.
In our seven days of searching we found eight species of snakes, three lizards and over 10 species of amphibians. The unlikely star of the whole expedition proved to be a tiny forest lizard in the Genus Japalura. We are yet to ascertain the identity of this diminutive little creature – a living emblem of the many new species and discoveries that are yet to be made in our forests. My only hope is that these tropical rainforests that sustain so many varied forms of life are not submerged, before we even know what exists within their realms.