On my third evening in Assam’s Nakachari town, the skies ripped open and rain lashed down for a good 15 hours. When the downpour finally abated at 7 am the next day, the soaked landscape — forest, tea gardens, and paddy fields — flourished with frogs, insects, and leeches. April is the month of Bihu, the Assamese New Year. Technically, it is spring in these parts, but torrential rains are not uncommon in Assam at any time of year.
That grey morning, I followed Pradeep Baruah into the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary for the fourth and final time. Pradeep da had been my guide for the entirety of my visit. An elderly resident of Lakhipur village on the fringe of the sanctuary, the jolly man is an overflowing fount of knowledge on the forest and its citizens.
Hemmed in by tea estates, the 20.98 sq km Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, near Mariani town in Assam’s Jorhat district, is unique in several ways. Home to a sizeable population of India’s only ape species — the endangered hoolock gibbon — the sanctuary is the only one in India named for a primate. Vehicles aren’t allowed inside, and exploring the wilderness on foot is a truly sensorial experience. As habitat to seven rare primate species, most of the action takes place not on the ground, but in the canopy.
Apart from the hoolock gibbon, the sanctuary is inhabited by other rare primates such as the elusive, nocturnal Bengal slow loris, the shy stump-tailed macaque, and the rarely seen Assamese macaques.
On a rainy day, the primarily arboreal residents of the jungle have preferred the cover of the canopy to foraging. I walked a narrow dirt path fully expecting to have no major sightings that day, but grateful to hear the buzz of the cicadas, breathe in the sharp air, and gaze up at the orange-tinged trunks of majestic hollong trees. Assam’s state tree is the dominant species in this forest, lending the sanctuary its name (Hollong-apar). The medium hardwoods can reach a staggering height of up to 150 feet, defining the upper canopy with their large elliptical leaves, feeding parakeets with their fruit, and providing gibbons safe lodging for the night, away from terrestrial predators.
The diversity of flora and fauna in this small pocket is astounding. The semi-evergreen forest is a tangle of tall rudraksh and ficus trees, dense bamboo patches where wild elephants roam, fern-lined paths, and wild mushrooms growing on fallen logs. Pradeep da points out several medicinal plants: the jamlakhuti, used to treat jaundice, and little lavender-hued flowers to soothe and clot wounds.
The bharamthuri tree has special significance during the Bihu season. Fresh red leaves and new shoots appear in April. When women dress up for the traditional Bihu dance, they smear the shoots on their lips for a red stain, earning the tree the local moniker ‘lipstick tree’.
I’ve been craning my neck upwards, trying to discern the goings-on of the tallest branches. But closer to the ground, the forest’s tiniest residents are as interesting.
Fat red fire ants march up tree trunks to their intricately woven leaf nests in the branches of the lower canopy. Giant female wood spiders perch grandly in the midst of their gossamer webs, awaiting tiny male suitors.
On my previous forays into the sanctuary, Pradeep da had introduced me to four of the seven major primate species here. The hoolock gibbon’s inimitable ‘hookoo hookoo’ call had reverberated through the forest. I had seen the dextrous tail-work of capped langur, watched a chubby female pig-tail macaque forage for seeds on the branches of a hingori tree, and said hello to the rhesus macaque, the monkey most commonly seen near cities.
Of the forest’s native squirrel species, I had observed two gorgeous specimens. From afar, I easily spotted the bushy tail of the ebony-hued Malayan giant squirrel as it leapt through the canopy. The smaller but equally handsome orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel, with its rust-coloured underside, scurried along the branches, looking like it was late to a meeting.
A hotbed of biodiversity, the sanctuary is home to more than 200 species of butterflies and avian life. The previous day, I had spied the rare lesser adjutant stork perched on a treetop, its fuzzy, bald head unmistakeable even from a distance. As far as sightings go, it had been a pretty spectacular visit already.
As we walked the main forest trail that grey morning, the jungle seemed unusually quiet to me. Pradeep da, however, interpreted the forest’s workings as only an expert could. Sniffing the air, he declared that a leopard had recently walked that path. Inspecting freshly broken bamboo stems, he gathered that elephants were here for their morning meal. As if on cue, we heard a guttural trumpet emanate from deep within the forest.
Apart from its treetop residents, the sanctuary is home to more than 40 elephants, leopards, barking and hog deer, and other terrestrial creatures.
The canopy was quiet, but the terrain buzzed with life, unseen, but present. Then, out of nowhere, a lithe, shadowy black shape crossed the narrow forest path, less than 100 feet from where we stood. In a flash, the creature disappeared into the dense foliage.
“Leopard,” whispered Pradeep da.
I didn’t believe him at first. “Wild boar, maybe?” I asked, but I already knew the animal’s frame was too large for that. “Male leopard,” said Pradeep da definitively, and for the first time in three days, I saw a flicker of worry, and maybe even reverence on the normally breezy man’s face.
A cluster of dhuna trees stood at the spot where the leopard crossed into the jungle. The seeds of the tree are among the favourite foods of the barking deer, which in turn are prime prey for the leopard. The cats frequently lie in wait around dhuna trees, hoping to chance upon a meal.
Normally unseen during the daylight hours, the creatures sometimes emerge on overcast mornings, buoyed by cloud cover. Pradeep da, whose senses are finely attuned to the forest, had gathered a wealth of information from that maybe five-second sighting. The cat was drenched to the bone, making its coat appear darker than it actually is. “When the sun is out, you can clearly see its spots,” he told me.
We stood rooted to the spot for maybe ten minutes, unsure of which way to proceed. The swift, stealthy cat could be right alongside us, concealed in the thick foliage, and we wouldn’t even know it. As disbelief, shock, and awe gave way to fear, I was happy to make a 180-degree turn and retreat towards the sanctuary’s entrance.
In this relatively small protected space, pressure on all of the jungle’s residents is immense, but it is the larger species — the wild elephants and the leopards — who are forced outside the confines of the forest in search of sustenance. There simply aren’t enough food and water sources in the sanctuary to cater to all its terrestrial inhabitants.
Amidst the challenges of habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and human pressures, threats to these creatures are increasing every day. Thrilled as I am by the encounter, sighting a leopard while on foot was more than I had bargained for. Maybe the leopard feels the same way about us humans wandering into its territory uninvited.
20.98 square kilometres
Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary is located in Assam’s Jorhat district, near the town of Mariani.
The closest airport is at Jorhat, a 22 km/1 hour drive away. There is only one direct flight to Jorhat, which arrives daily from Kolkata at around noon.
The Forest Rest House has two double rooms (Rs 300/night). Rooms are usually booked out, so call the Beat Office at Meleng (9954410729) to check availability beforehand.
Gibbon Resort (9954403770) is a comfortable homestay in Nakachari, around 20 minutes away from the sanctuary. A double room costs Rs 2,300/night. They can organise your entire visit to the sanctuary
How to explore the sanctuary
Vehicles are not allowed in the sanctuary, and the only way to explore is to walk the forest trails accompanied by a guard or guide. Be prepared for extensive walking and a likelihood of rain. Wear sturdy, closed shoes and cover your arms and legs as much as possible to protect yourself from leeches. It is also advisable to wear leech guards.
The sanctuary is open through the year, from 7 am-11 am daily. Afternoon visits from 1 pm-3 pm are allowed sometimes, depending on elephant activity within the sanctuary. Check with the Beat Office at Meleng for the status that day.
Entry to the sanctuary costs Rs 50 for Indian nationals and Rs 500 for foreign nationals. Tickets can be purchased at the Meleng Beat Office at the entrance to the sanctuary. An armed forest guard, who doubles up as a guide, will accompany you.
It is best to explore the sanctuary with an experienced local guide, who has deep knowledge of animal behaviour as well as the forest’s local flora. The Beat Office can help organise this, but payment must be discussed directly with the guide, as they are not forest department employees. Charges start at around Rs 250, depending on the duration of your walk. Alternatively, Gibbon Resort can also organise excellent local guides for Rs 1,000/day.