Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India
by Ramana Athreya from BirdingASIA 4, December 2005.
Some places are renowned for long bird lists, others for rare species. The eastern Himalayas of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in extreme north-east India offer both and more - they offer too the allure of untried trails in imposing forests not yet made stale by custom, and of species which exist only in TV programmes. East Himalayan birding is about magical moments - when a birder enters a universe comprising only the birds in front and the immediate forest around.
Arunachal Pradesh is listed among the top biodiversity hotspots of the world. The profusion of species is due to (i) its location at the tri-junction of the Palearctic realm to the north, the Indo-Malayan realm to the south-east and the Indian subregion to the south-west, (ii) extremely high precipitation, and (iii) topology wherein the 7,000 m peaks on its northern border with Tibet look down on the Brahmaputra valley in Assam which, just 150 km away, has an elevation of only 100 m. Furthermore, this area is riven by deep gorges and steep hillsides which impede east-west movement of species, and even vehicles today. This has resulted in an extraordinary diversity of species as well as language and culture with each major gorge, less than 100 km apart, marking the boundary between tribes whose languages are incomprehensible even to their immediate neighbours.
Tucked away on the western boundary of this remarkable state, a stone's throw from Bhutan, is the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. My first visit to Arunachal in 1995 took me to Eaglenest. Birding in the cloud forest of this unknown sanctuary with an evocative name was sheer enchantment. I remember that when I encountered my first large mixed flock with some 20 species - mostly lifers of course - I felt like a raptor faced with a large flock of food! I remember too the pitter-patter on foliage of a 100+ flock of Black-throated Parrotbills Paradoxornis nipalensis and Golden-breasted Fulvettas Alcippe chrysotis, sounding like large raindrops in a furious shower as they zipped around me in frenetic pursuit of lunch, in total contrast to the elegantly languorous tendrils of mist filling the narrow space between us. That single trip to Eaglenest and the nearby Pakke Tiger Reserve produced so many of those magical moments that even the Beautiful Nuthatches Sitta formosa I watched from a roadside chai-stall did not make the cut! The nuthatches had to wait another nine years for their truly magical moment.
I returned to Eaglenest in late 2003 as part of the year-long Eaglenest Biodiversity Project to inventory the bird, butterfly and reptile distribution of the area and with vague thoughts (for the distant future) of helping the local Bugun tribe extract nontimber money out of Eaglenest by setting up a community-based ecotourism venture. But the Buguns had other priorities - stomachs first, conservation later. So, just a few months later found me back in Eaglenest leading a bird tour comprising the intrepid trio of Ray Ziarno, Claudio Koller and Mike Waite - intrepid, and indeed generous, for backing my words with their money. I had never led or organised a tour before anywhere and my partners, the Buguns, hadn't even heard of bird tours. An ill-prepared tour would have hurt my long-term plans considerably, but the Buguns left me no choice. However I knew one simple truth - there is no way a bunch of birders cannot see a tonne of birds in Eaglenest over 10 days - learnt nine years previously and dusted off and reaffirmed in November 2003 as I watched the impossible sight of more than a dozen Ward's Trogons Harpactes wardi play follow-my-leader across a clearing!
Which brings me to that evening in April 2004 with Mike and the Beautiful Nuthatches: walking a little ahead I encountered a flock of the nuthatches, yelled out a whisper and instantly started a stampede. Standing a little apart and sporting a forgivably smug expression I watched Claudio scope the birds and witnessed Mike impatiently nudge him away and crouch over the scope for a full minute. Then he rocked back on his haunches, simply keeled over backwards, his head in his hands, with an absolutely awed 'Oh! ... My! ... God!' The amused smile that had replaced my smug expression lasted until I (finally) got my turn at the scope. Only the sang-froid expected of a tour-leader kept me from following Mike - the coruscations on the nape of a Beautiful Nuthatch through that classic scope was indeed in the realm of the spiritual. That bird needed neither the weight of numbers nor swirling mist and moss forest to make it special: some species by and of themselves produce magical moments! Like the male Temminck's Tragopan Tragopan temminckii that I saw in March; like the Bar-winged Wren Babbler Spelaeornis troglodytoides in December that popped out of the vegetation at hand-shaking distance to shower imprecations; like the Red Panda Ailurus fulgens I saw while following a covey of female tragopans in November; like the spectacular lizard Mictopholis austeniana we stumbled upon in May, 125 years after the first and only specimen was collected by Col. Godwin Austen of Himalayan fame; like the gorgeous Harlequin Moth my colleague photographed in October; like the many breathtakingly colourful frogs in October and May, some of which are probably undescribed taxa; like the Wedge-billed Wren Babblers Sphenocichla humei which arrived by appointment to Mike's music at the place I said they would.
The Wedge-billed Wren Babbler day, Easter 2004, was spectacular, with more than 75 species and many stunning ones at that: a repeat show by Beautiful Nuthatches from less than 4 m in brilliant sunlight, White-browed Shrike Babbler Pteruthius flaviscapis, an outstanding performance by Wedgebilled Wren Babblers in the open and viewed through a scope at 5 m (!), Green Magpie Cissa chinensis, Rufous-backed Sibia Heterophasia annectans, Blue-winged Laughingthrush Garrulax squamatus, White-gorgeted Flycatcher Ficedula monileger, Red-tailed Minla Minla ignotincta, Redbilled Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea, Rufous-necked Hornbill Aceros nipalensis, Sultan Tit Melanochlora sultanea (a spectacular species of crest from which dangles a bird), Red-headed Trogon Harpactes erythrocephalus, Mountain Bulbul Hypsipetes mcclellandii, Yellow-throated Fulvetta Alcippe cinerea, Cutia Cutia nipalensis, Pale-headed Woodpecker Gecinulus grantia, Golden Babbler Stachyris chrysaea, Golden-throated Barbet Megalaima franklinii, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus ferruginosus and White-browed Shortwing Brachypteryx montana, to name just a few. The White-browed Shortwing was surreal: each of us, by turn, crawled through a tunnel of vegetation to view a huge, white brow hopping about in fury, the rest of the bird merely a darker shade of black in the murky undergrowth. The bird tour barely managed to break even financially but was successful in many ways. The major positive was that the Buguns were convinced of the existence of people who actually pay good money to see the birds in their backyard. Second, over 17 days in Kaziranga, Pakke and Eaglenest we saw 359 species, including many special ones, even though Kaziranga had already lost many of its winter visitors and we limited ourselves to below 3,000 m altitude in Arunachal; hard numbers had confirmed my impression that that was an extraordinary place for birding. Third, we learnt many lessons in tour organisation.
The big advantage that Eaglenest (and western Arunachal) has over other wilderness areas of Arunachal is its combination of altitudinal range and easy access. Access and good forests are usually antithetical and Arunachal is no exception, except for Eaglenest. Only five hours separate Eaglenest from the airport at Guwahati, the travel hub of north-east India. A jeep track cuts through Eaglenest from its base at 100 m altitude to Eaglenest Pass at 2,800 m. Only the width of a highway divides Eaglenest from the adjacent sprawling lowlands of the Pakke Tiger Reserve. A mere 125 km drive along this highway brings the visitor to alpine meadows at 4,500 m in the neighbouring Dirang and Tawang. Furthermore, the famed Kaziranga is only a three-hour drive from Eaglenest. In contrast, the better-known Namdapha has no jeep tracks in its interior and no paths at all above 1,000 m altitude.
In western Arunachal one can watch Blood Pheasant Ithaginis cruentus scurrying across the scrub at 3,700 m early in the morning, or even a Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra in the nearby fir- rhododendron-bamboo forests, and White-throated Redstart Phoenicurus schisticeps and Fire-tailed Sunbird Aethopyga ignicauda; then drive down to Dirang for lunch and Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis at 1,500 m; and dash off to Eaglenest for a spot of late afternoon birding involving Fire-tailed Myzornis Myzornis pyrrhoura, Black-headed Shrike Babbler Pteruthius rufiventer, Rufous-throated Wren Babbler Spelaeornis caudatus and Rufous-breasted Bush Robin Tarsiger hyperythrus. Obviously you'll need dollops of luck to get all those species in one day but one can cover those three areas, where those birds have been seen, in a single day.
The interested reader can visit the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project webpages, which are tailored to the serious birdwatcher and contain information necessary for planning a visit to western Arunachal. They also contain the western Arunachal bird list (450 and counting), lists of butterflies and herpetofauna and are liberally sprinkled with over 225 images of the faunal and the landscape. The 200 km transect (as the Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii flies) from Kaziranga (in Assam) through Pakke and Eaglenest to Tawang has 800 bird species on offer, and a well-prepared and well-equipped team of knowledgeable birders can expect to see half those species in 2-3 weeks of birding between December and April. Kaziranga hosts a spectacular assemblage of migrants in winter, and winter also offers a better chance for Black-necked Crane, Vivid Niltava Niltava vivida, Black-headed Shrike Babbler, Rufous-bellied Bush Robin, Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, and Red-faced Liocichla Liocichla phoenicea in and around Eaglenest. On the other hand we have recorded some of the region's specialities like the Purple Cochoa Cochoa purpurea, Blue-fronted Robin Cinclidium frontale, Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophrys and Emerald Cuckoo Chrysococcyx maculatus only in May, but by then the plains (Kaziranga and Pakke) would have been emptied of their winter hordes. December-January and March-April are the best times for relatively short visits. Those with more time to spare should plan on one visit spanning December-March and another in late May (during the pre-monsoon).
Some of the other specialities of Eaglenest include Spotted Wren Babbler Spelaeornis formosus (it boasts six wren babblers in all), Brown-throated Fulvetta Alcippe ludlowi, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker Dendrocopus cathpharius, all three tesias Tesia, Grey-headed Bullfinch Pyrrhula erythaca, Gold-naped Finch Pyrrhoplectus epauletta, Broad-billed Warbler Tickellia hodgsoni, Black-faced Warbler Abroscopus schisticeps, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris, Brown-throated Treecreeper Certhia discolor, Maroon-backed Accentor Prunella immaculata, Gould's Shortwing Brachypteryx (Heteroxenicus) stellata, Rusty-bellied Shortwing B. hyperythra, Grey-sided Thrush, Mountain Tailorbird Orthotomus cuculatus, Large Niltava Niltava grandis, and 12 laughingthrushes Garrulax. In reality, of course, listing specialities in the Eastern Himalayas is quite wasted - they are all special, a fact brought home to me when Mike Waite highlighted the Crested Kingfisher Megaceryle lugubris in his trip report (Waite 2004), a handsome species no doubt but... The pristine forest at Eaglenest is as amazing as the fauna it supports. My favourite patch is the stretch above Eaglenest Pass. This broadleaved forest at 3,000 m is so dense that the canopy looks like surface of a tea-garden! An unbroken canopy stretches from Sessa Peak to the distant haze over the Brahmaputra valley 3,400 m below; and in late December the different seasons coalesce into a single mountain slope - from the veneer of winter on the topmost ridge, through the colours of fall and mist in the mid-elevation temperate cloud-forest to the rich deep evergreen at the base!
Fewer than a dozen birders had visited Eaglenest from 1994 to 2003 despite its ease of access. However the activities of timber contractors had caused an alarming reduction in tree cover in the buffer zones. But for the ban on timber operations by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 there would have been no buffer left and possibly no trees along the road even inside the sanctuary. A more serious menace in the area is the Indian army's desire to upgrade the jeep track into a four-lane highway; without informing the Forest Department, who seldom visit the area, army engineers blasted large sections of the fragile mountain terrain to widen and straighten the road alignment, leaving behind a 10 km strip of devastation in the precious temperate zone. A major highway will be a permanent invitation to poachers and encroachers to enter and diffuse through the protected sanctuary. Once again the Supreme Court came to the rescue and has stayed all further activity until the final judgement, expected any time now.
One of the principal aims of the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project is to raise the national and international profile of Eaglenest and attract visitors, both scientists and eco-tourists, to the area. In December I had the gratification of observing a couple of would-be hunters turn back on seeing us as 'they did not want to hunt in front of us who have come from such a long distance to study the wildlife of their area'. Perhaps that is the first essential step - conveying to the local populace the worth of the globally treasured resource that they happen to be custodians of. That, and a way for them to make a living from the forest without destroying it.
The people living on the margins of protected areas, mostly from the poorer sections of human society, rarely derive any benefit from the wilderness they view as theirs, leading to a strong sense of local angst and animosity against conservation measures. I have proposed that all visitors to Eaglenest pay a per diem entry fee to a local community development NGO which will decide how to spend the money after in-community consultations. Ecotourism income will be able to fund activities critical for kick-starting developments like improving local school facilities, village sanitation, medical facilities, etc. This utilisation of income from a community resource (i.e. the forest) for the good of the whole community should nurture positive local interest in the continued survival of Eaglenest. Furthermore it makes the community 50 Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India responsible for its own development instead of waiting for alms from the government. The Bugun village committee has plans for earmarking much of its income from ecotourism for subsidising the annual costs of maintaining education facilities for their children - a wonderful objective that we are trying to help from our side by raising funds for improving the school/hostel facilities. I am also training some of the Bugun people in the task of managing visitors by themselves. We hope to encourage youngsters to take up birdwatching and possibly find their vocation as bird guides, but that will take many years to come to fruition. We are also examining the feasibility of a Bugun forest protection force to patrol the area and enthuse the forest department staff into doing their duty diligently.
For the ecologist May-October is the most interesting period in the Eastern Himalayas: birds breed, orchids bloom, and cold-blooded animals thrive. Unfortunately, torrential monsoon rains shut off most of Arunachal Pradesh during this very period. However, the jeep track at Eaglenest keeps it open even during the rains, at the least to those on foot, offering unparalleled access to the scientist and the tourist. This ease of access drew me to Eaglenest in 2003. I wanted to visit the area every couple of months all through a year to understand how the wildlife assemblage changes at different altitudes. Even after six visits the expectancy of something new waiting round the corner has not abated. Over 11 weeks of fieldwork last year we recorded close to 400 species of bird in Arunachal alone (i.e. excluding Kaziranga) and almost a fifth of the species are either on the IUCN Red List or involve range extensions, indicative of how little the area has been studied. We had more than 20 sightings of Ward's Trogon plus a nest site, previously unknown to science. We recorded Wedge-billed Wren Babblers on five occasions, outnumbering by far the number of published sightings of this species in the western half of its range prior to the twenty-first century! The tourism effort affected the detail in which I had intended to map the seasonal and altitudinal distribution of birds at Eaglenest, but we did obtain a fair idea of the broad pattern in summer and winter, enough to chalk out our future strategy. One of the priorities is to estimate the populations of the IUCN Red List birds, some of which are quite regular at Eaglenest and, more importantly, we are in a position to predict where they may be found. I suspect that a researcher equipped with a sound recording will find that some rare species are actually not uncommon in that area. Last summer I finally tracked down a oft-heard mystery song to a Blue-fronted Robin. Many supposedly rare reptiles and butterflies are also proving to be relatively common in the area.
A peculiarity I have noticed is that many birds, such as Striated Bulbul Pycnonotus striatus, Ashy Bulbul Hemixos flavala, Golden-throated Barbet and Blue-throated Barbet Megalaima asiatica, seem to occur at higher elevations in winter than in summer! These are all common, easy to identify, and highly visible species. Furthermore the summer/winter differences are quite stark - Ashy Bulbul 1,000 m/ 2,500 m; Striated Bulbul 2,000 m/2,700 m; Golden-throated Barbet 1,800 m/2,500 m; Blue-throated Barbet 1,500 m/2,400 m. Many years ago Trevor Price found that leaf-warblers forage about 1,500 m higher than their nesting sites in Manali. I wonder if birds also make daily forays to higher elevation in winter in search of temporally and spatially concentrated food resources (a fruiting tree for instance)? But science requires more than fleeting impressions and this very interesting possibility requires an ornithologist counting birds in a rigorous manner.
Clearly there is much to be done in the years to come and we all have a role to play - professional scientists, amateur naturalists, NGOs, the local community, the forest department, and tourists - to learn from, to enjoy and to protect one of the most remarkable pieces of real estate in wild Asia.
Acknowledgements The project was funded by the Rufford-Maurice- Laing Foundation (U.K.) during November 2003- January 2005. My colleagues in the field included Indi Glow, Pratap Singh, Ishan Agarwal, Viral Mistry, Shashank Dalvi and Dhananjai Mohan.