The Forest Of Improbable Dreams

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 4, April 2015

By Pranav Capila

Shaggy black, splash of white. An image from the blurred margins of memory. A black bear on a jungle path, somewhere between Taluka and Seema on a school trek to Har Ki Dun. Legs pump, sweat streams, heart beats like a damroo, a street performers drum. A sloth bear dances to its beat on the street beyond my gate: dream within a dream.

“Run! Now!"

Twenty-six years later, a different jungle. I'm running again.

There's a wild elephant on the path behind us, urges Debahutee Roy, the field biologist walking (running) in the jungle with me. I hear a snap-crackle of branches in the distance but don't stop to fact check. The locals say that elephants here are aggressive, prone to charge. You don't stand on ceremony when you encounter one on foot.

We are in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, about a kilometre into the buffer zone on the west bank of the Pakke river. Debahutee is an assistant field officer at the Centre for Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation (CBRC), set up by IFAW-WTI and supported by the Arunachal Forest Department. As we ease to a trot she tells me she has “experience with elephants", having been chased by a tusker during an animal census at the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary five years ago.

The path back to CBRC headquarters peels off into a small trail leading to the Centres holding area on our right. Four rescued bears - too old for rehabilitation - are housed here in roomy enclosures; there's also a smaller ‘nursery with a year-old cub being treated for cataract.

Earlier in the day, I watched Doluk Dagang, one of WTIs animal keepers, prepare the daily meal here: porridge, horse gram, wheat and molasses (soaked overnight and cooked), and an egg for each bear. Plus a side order of cane fruit and wild mango fruit - both abundant in these forests, and therefore a crucial part of the meal plan, particularly for older cubs that are being prepped for wild release.

Teddy, Karbi, Diyun and Zoo II are the four adult black bears in permanent residence. Karbi, one of the two females, is all menace, glowering at me from her machaan as I walk by. Teddy rises to his full 1.8 m.-plus frame and rocks back and forth: ‘It would be a mistake to judge me by my name, he postures. The other two bears are more easygoing: Diyun calmly contemplative, Zoo II propped up on an elbow, blowing raspberries at the monkeys on surrounding trees.

The cub is like an overgrown monkey himself. He climbs all over his enclosure, making suckling sounds and rising curiously onto his hind legs as I approach. He is (pardon the pun) unbearably cute.

Through the assisted release programme, a rescued bear cub acquaints itself with the forests in which it will soon roam free.

















Photo: Debahutee Roy/WTI.

What the Stork Said

The rescue ambulance tears down a dirt road, antenna quivering, dry leaves chasing in its wake. The jungle runs alongside, tangled and tall, twisting, jostling, overclimbing itself, a virgin tropical forest in evergreen ecstasy.

“Black bears are hunted for their meat in the northeast," Jahan Ahmed, CBRCs resident veterinarian, and de facto ground operations manager shouts over the engine. “And of course there is the trade in body parts, including gall bladders for traditional Chinese medicine. Orphaned cubs are picked up to be sold or kept as pets; these are confiscated by the Forest Department or brought in by locals when they are too big to manage. Our job is to care for them and rehabilitate them in the wild if possible, minimising the number of orphans that end up in zoos."

CBRC was established in Pakke in 2003. Since the ‘assisted release of the first batch of bear cubs in 2004, a total of 43 bears have been released in Arunachal (Pakke and Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary). Regrettably, one bear had to be sent to the Itanagar zoo.

And it isn't just about bears: IFAW-WTI also runs Arunachals only mobile veterinary service and animal rescue unit out of the west bank setup. Jahan flicks through the pictures on his cellphone, showing me a reticulated python that he rescued a few days ago and a Lesser Adjutant stork that was treated and released a month prior.

We see this very stork fishing in the Khari as we leave the jungle the next evening - mended in spirit and feather, a successful wild release in action.

The Centre for Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation team (left to right), Doluk Dagang, Debahutee Roy, Jahan Ahmed, Deba Musahari, Biri Aman, Rali Nabam and Sanjoy Tisso.


Photo: Pranav Capila.

It Takes a Village

Pakke is one of the most beautiful wildlife sanctuaries you could hope to visit. Off the jaded tourist trail, with deep forests, perennial waters and a brilliant variety of plant and animal life.

For most of its history though, it has been a wilderness under siege. It was constituted as a Reserve Forest in 1966 and declared a Game Sanctuary in 1977; it took until 2002 for it to be made a tiger reserve and placed under the ambit of Project Tiger. Hunting was rampant in large swathes of its area through all that time - until 2004, when a new sheriff came to town.

Tana Tapi, Pakkes current Divisional Forest Officer, is something of a legend in these parts. “I was driven quite mad in the beginning," he chuckles. “There was a lot of poaching and virtually no infrastructure."

Pakke's forest staff waged an all-out war against poachers in Tapi's initial years as DFO. “We had to induce a fear psychosis in them," he says; “they were too bold, too dominant." At the same time, the Forest Department began to expand its presence in the reserve. “There was only one approach road, till Khari - and that was open just three months of the year. Now we have a longer all-weather road, and 34 strategically located anti-poaching camps where there was just one."

But Tapi's most important initiative was to get local communities on board with him. “It was difficult at first because they are traditional hunters," he says; “but the Forest Department cannot work alone, the support of fringe dwellers is essential. So we have tried to empower them. They benefit from whatever tourism there is, and from employment opportunities within the reserve."

Hunting pressure has abated in the last five years, but Pakke has other problems. The access road through Seijosa (a chiropractors delight) is one of these, as is the spotty cellular connectivity. Bodo militancy was a major issue on this side of the park too, but army operations in the area have helped.

And then there are the five hydel power projects planned on the Kameng river. “They haven't started yet; all the permissions aren't in place," says Tapi. “And if they're cleared?" I ask. “Well, the Kameng flows through our tiger reserve," he says, grim-faced over his tea; “so that will be a problem."


The clifftop forest rest house overlooking the exquisite upper Dikorai.

The Portmanteau Club

Karbi and Zoo II up a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g?

An incongruous congress, given their respective temperaments. But the cub were travelling to see is theirs. Bizoo: back-end of his mother's name, front-end of his fathers; captive-born but on the cusp of a life in the wild.

At just over a year old, Bizoo is ripe for assisted release. Three months ago he was translocated from the holding area to an isolated enclosure in the jungle. Daily walks with an animal keeper have helped him acclimatise to the habitat, get a bead on natural food sources and hone other skills essential to his survival in the wild. He is still fed in his enclosure, but as his wild instincts have kicked in he has grown increasingly reluctant to return to captivity each evening. Tomorrow he will be radio-collared so the team can monitor him when he is finally sent off to fend for himself.

Deep into Pakkes core we drive, splashing through the Khari, past the Tarzen Anti-poaching Camp, beyond the cliffs-edge forest rest house that overlooks the Upper Dikorai, another perennial stream. We park at the Bodna creek and hike half a kilometre upstream.

The CBRC staffers looking after Bizoo have set up a temporary camp here. Their barracks are an otherworldly machaan perched some four and half metres off the ground, rough-hewn but solid, built almost entirely from bamboo and cane.“

Give us these two things and we can build the world with them," says Biri Aman, a Nyishi tribesman from the Kurung Kumey district. The animal keepers are all locals, mostly Nyishi and Karbi tribesmen who would traditionally hunt in these forests.

Giving indigenous people a stake in wildlife protection is key to long term success. “We may not be in Pakke 10 years from now but they can pass the conservation instinct down through generations," says Jahan. “Plus, of course, they know their forests like no outsider ever will."

These are men immersed in a simple ingenuity. It shines through in the construction of their machaan, the bamboo cups they drink their laal chai in, the cane bracelets they nimbly weave as a pastime.

Like most young men with limited opportunities, their driving wish is for a job they can build a life around. Of course, there is always room for flights of fancy: “I could build a house like this in Delhi," Aman says as we sit down to a meal of daal-bhaat and chicken cooked in bamboo stem, “and serve people Nyishi food."

With effective rehabilitation into the wild as the end mission, rescued bear cubs frolic and gambol in the forest during a walk with their keeper.
Photo: Sashanka/WTI.

Another Elevated Story

Bizoo is in a quiet grove upstream of the machaan, his enclosure raised well above the forest floor to keep him out of harm's way.

Already he looks more bear than cub, the shorter, sleeker coat having given way to shaggy fur that's in motion blur even when still. He is in a playful mood, rolling about, mock-fighting a leafy branch, thrusting exploratory claws out at the camera.

Down below, the CBRC team is all business. Jahan readies the tranquilliser while the keepers fashion a stretcher from bamboo and paw snares from cane.

But snare tactics don't work on Bizoo anymore. It takes just one failed attempt for him to realise what's up - and then no jaggeried enticement can distract him enough to get a loop around his paws. “Two months ago we could have managed it this way, no fuss," Jahan says; “but his behaviour has changed. He's wilder now."

It takes an hour, but Bizoo is finally netted, pinned down in a corner and anaesthetised. A half-hour later, he's out cold. The team quickly collars him, then weighs and measures him head to toe to teeth.

When we check back on him an hour later, he is groggy but recovering well. Debahutee will study his behaviour on subsequent assisted walks into the jungle, evaluating his readiness for wild release. She checks his signal on the radio receiver; its good to go.

My last impression at Pakke: a baby elephant receiving a saline drip in a field contiguous to the CBRC headquarters. But there are flashes of other things, already fading, growing apocryphal with time. Hornbills roaring like lions at dawn. Scarlet flowers on a tree, taking sudden flight as minivets. The night songs of elephants, heard from a perch in the forest canopy. Shaggy black with a splash of white: on a bear cub that could soon be free.

The stuff improbable dreams are made of.

Animal keepers are all locals, mostly Nyishi and Karbi tribesmen. The key to the long-term success of conservation projects is to give people from local communities a real stake in wildlife protection.
Photo: Maxence Gross/IFAW-WTI.



Pranav Capila is an editor and writer who tells stories about wildlife, wild spaces, and unsung heroes on the frontlines of conservation.

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