Kakoijana – Home Of The Golden Langurs
Debahutee Roy writes about a conservation initiative for endangered golden langurs, involving a triumvirate of local communities, forest officials and NGOs working against all odds to protect a fragmented forest called Kakoijana, in Assam.
Photo: Debahutee Roy.
In 2006, when I was still an undergraduate student in Assam, I participated in a migratory waterbird census in a picturesque wetland in western Assam. I was told that sonali bandar had just moved into the area. The moment I cast my first gaze on them, I was awestruck. I spent my summer break looking out for and following the langurs in a private rubber estate that they were known to frequent. I had to know more about them, so when I got the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop on golden langur conservation by Dr. Robert Horwich, co-founder and Director of Community Conservation, at the Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, I grabbed the opportunity. Chakrashila (Sanctuary Vol. XVI No. 2, April 1996) was just 20 km., from my hometown of Kokrajhar and the workshop shaped my future.
The golden langur Trachypithecus geei is found only in western Assam and along the adjoining Indo-Bhutan border. They can also be found in the buffer areas of the Manas Tiger Reserve between the Sankosh and Manas rivers. In recent years, several NGOs and primatologists have begun work to protect the primates in several fragmented forest habitats around Assam.
In 2012, one such fragmented forest, Kakoijana (17.24 sq. km.), became the site for my research work when A.V.C. (Autonomous) College, Mayladuthurai accepted my proposal. I quickly met with members of the Bongaigaon-based Nature’s Foster, a group that had rediscovered the golden langur in Kakoijana in 1994, almost four decades after the monkeys’ existence was made known to the world by the legendary E.P. Gee. Kakoijana is located about 15 km. from Bongaigaon town. When I arrived, Arnab Bose, Officer and Coordinator of the Golden Langur Conservation Project at Nature’s Foster familiarised me with their wildlife conservation initiatives and the status of wildlife in Kakoijana.
I started my field work in November when I would set out in the bitter cold at five a.m. from my temporary home in Khorapara, a small village two kilometres from Kakoijana. On the very first day, as my field assistant and I approached the forest entrance on our motorbike, we heard a loud booming sound from the canopy. We stopped and approached quietly, our eyes glued to the canopy. Four golden langurs, a male, two adult females and one sub-adult female, were feeding on Bauhinia (kanchan) leaves and I chose to follow this troupe for the entire day. From a fairly close distance I could see them feed and I discovered they were part of a larger troupe of 19 individuals.
Probably the best day of my life, I could scarcely believe my luck at having instantly spotted this large troupe in this fragmented and isolated semi-evergreen forest so close to human settlements. Over the next few days, more of the tiny forest revealed itself to me, including Rhesus macaques, crab-eating mongoose, barking deer, porcupines, python and several birds and butterflies.
TRACKING THE LANGURS
A researcher’s existence can be peaceful. Our study involved walking slowly and purposefully through the emerald forest, albeit across three fragmented sites. We would follow a troupe for six days, before moving on to another group. Sometimes they would be hard to pin down because the troupes occupy a relatively large area within the forest and we often had to really scour through the wilderness to locate them. We searched for bent tree canopies and the pungent smell of their droppings and urine. After three months, we could safely assume that the dombru tree Ficus hispida, along the edges of the small streams inside the forest was what the langurs used as their night shelter, and where they found seclusion to hide and breed. We often found fresh droppings adjacent to streams or over the rocks in the water. I recorded five groups comprising nineteen, twelve, nine, eight and six individuals within a six to seven kilometre range. I was also able to observe that they fed on as many as 40 different plant species. It is remarkable that they can obtain nutrition from such diverse plants. Thanks to their opposable thumbs, golden langurs can hold and tear their food and they also have dental crests and gut specialisations (expanded and segmented fore-stomachs) that initiate the mechanical and chemical breakdown of fibrous material. Coarse plant material is easily broken down and digested. The proximal stomach section of the golden langur has a high ph (5.0-7.0) and provides an environment capable of supporting a large and diversified micro-bacterial flora.
Photo: Debahutee Roy.
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
But why did these primates, which managed to survive for several million years, suddenly become ‘endangered’? The evidence is plain. Economic development, encroachment and political turmoil over the last two decades have made the forests of western Assam sick, so to speak. Once continuous, the forests have been fragmented. A huge area from Malivita to Dadgari, part of the buffer of the Manas Tiger Reserve, has been encroached. These areas are under tremendous human pressure because this is the gateway to Bhutan. The golden langur population of Manas is, of course, vitally important as they migrate and interbreed with populations in neighbouring Bhutan.
But in the Panbari range of Manas, a drop in golden langur sightings by tourists has been reported. Sensitive animals, they respond to environmental changes quickly. And they are very shy by nature. A drop in tourist sightings could have been caused by habitat degradation. Surveys conducted in 2008-2009 yielded startling results from different golden langur habitats. The most exciting was the discovery of several golden langur populations in different island forests of the lower Aie Valley Division. But apart from Kakoijana, virtually all the remaining forested tracts are now badly degraded and under increasing pressure from logging, firewood collection, jhum cultivation and hunting. Rubber cultivation under misguided application of policies under REDD+ has further magnified the problem as natural vegetation has been replaced by unpalatable, commercial species. Such plantations are actually subsidised by loans from banks and the Agriculture Department of Assam, which treats rubber cultivation as highly profitable, while labelling it ‘afforestation’. The impact on the delicate primates can be imagined.
Not surprisingly, golden langurs living adjacent to villages have been turning to bamboo shoots for sustenance. But bamboo is an important source of livelihood for locals and this has led to antipathy toward the langurs. In my meetings with villagers adjacent to other forests, I was often asked “of what use are the “boga bandor” (golden langurs) and “lal bandor” (Rhesus macaques) when they are raiding our crops?”
Though golden langurs seldom raid crops, Rhesus macaques actually do and the rising tide of anger against them and other species does not bode well for wildlife. My attempts to explain how these primates contribute to almost half the biomass in the forests that people depend on and how they help maintain the ecological balance fell on deaf ears. People would in fact shake their heads in despair and all too often I too would be left frustrated with what seems to be an intractable situation.
Nevertheless, I believe that the quality of human existence will plummet if wildernesses and wild species vanish and are replaced by commercial species that will fail to perform the flood, drought and climate-moderation services that are taken for granted, even by economists who should know better. I believe further discussions, coupled with awareness programmes must continue so that at some point we see a turn-around in favour of the ecological health of these fragmented forests. This is where I believe that organisations such as Nature’s Foster have already made a difference. The Golden Langur Conservation Project (GLCP) begun by Community Conservation, Nature’s Foster and Green Forest Conservation in 1998 continues to bring locals into the conservation fold. The Kakoijana Reserve Forest, the first project in the GLCP, is encircled by 28 villages that shaped two federations (Green Conservation Federation and Nature Guard), which work together to protect the forest. The communities here have prohibited woodcutting and have developed methods to patrol their forests. They have also begun to reduce the dependency on forest, by accepting alternate livelihood programmes offered by Nature’s Foster, including options such as pickle-making, handicrafts, poultry farming (under a unique initiative of providing a hen to villagers to start the business), fisheries and the fabrication of bio-degradable serving dishes crafted from betel nut leaf). At last count there were as many as 26 self-help groups in Kakoijana.
Photo: Debahutee Roy.
Something seems to be working and efforts are on to monitor and document the impact on the primates of this ‘brokered peace’ between humans and animals. Efforts are also underway to implement the same in the Manas and Ripu-Chirang Reserve Forests. Similar efforts in villages near other golden langur habitats would need to be implemented if we are to have any hope of protecting golden langurs from extinction. Without doubt, we would need to start by upgrading the protection and status of these fragmented golden langur habitats, often undervalued by both developers and conservationists. Perhaps just as vital is the task of creating corridors, howsoever tentative, that allow the primates to move from one fragmentedforest to another. The most fundamental reality of course is the imperative of protecting the Manas Tiger Reserve more effectively. If this is not done then the death knell for Trachypithecus geei will have been sounded.
Frankly, the way I see it, if the sonali bandar, a symbol of Northeast India, vanishes, I hold out little hope that the lives of humans living in this once-rich and very biodiverse theatre have much chance of getting any better either.
Author: Debahutee Roy, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.