Update: In April 2020, during a nationwide lockdown prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Board for Wildlife recommended a part of Assam’s Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve for coal mining. Conservationists fighting to safeguard the forest say that the move will destroy the reserve. The announcement has sparked online protests in the state and country.
It is still dark when I enter the forest. A low mist hangs above me, as I look up towards the towering canopy, over 40 metres tall, feeling insignificant. Forty metres may seem small when written, but standing under these trees, in one of the country’s last lowland evergreen forests is something else.
We have to be silent, to avoid altering the birds to our presence but also to be vigilant for elephants. “Sorai bur ase,” says Bablu da, my field assistant, (The birds are there). “Kintu bohut taan dekhibo.” (but it’s very difficult to see them now). Sure enough, I can feel them moving close by. A flurry in the leaves, a shaking branch indicating take-off, a call every now and then — activity to which I am completely ignorant otherwise.
As the light starts filtering in, animals start taking shape. A lesser racket-tailed drongo, silently watches over a flock of sultan tits. A grey-headed canary flycatcher croons a melody that fills the forests. A flock of Nepal fulvettas scurry about the bushes, and a blue-winged leafbird sits perched on a branch, almost consumed by the green.
Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over 120 sq km, and is one of India’s last lowland evergreen rainforests. The landscape is dominated by towering Hollong and the Mekai trees, with other species such as beautiful Nahar (Messua ferrea), which puts out red, yellow, and silver leaves in spring. Cutting through the forest, is the Burhi Dihing river, which creates several sand islands that are popular with migratory roosting birds.
The park has two main access points: Soraipung Jeypore. Soraipung is a small village where the range officer and the interpretation centre is located; the closest town is Digboi, which is 10 km away. The Jeypore gate is a short distance from Jeypore town.
In terms of sightings, few places in the country are as enriching as Dehing Patkai. In part, this is due to the towering Hollong and Mekai trees, that provide a habitat to countless species. This makes spotting a lot of animals quite difficult, especially birds, but it isn’t impossible. In fact, one realises the importance of using other senses, such as sound and smell, to detect and appreciate the habitat.
The sanctuary’s most ubiquitous inhabitant is the Asian elephant. The mega-herbivore can be seen in herds as well as alone, and is considered a sight to behold, but also one to be wary of, especially for travellers on foot. Elephants can be unpredictable when threatened, so practice awareness and caution in their territory. Their stealthy nature can make them difficult to spot, despite their size, but there is ample evidence of their whereabouts, from footprints and piles of dung to its unmistakable smell.
Dehing Patkai sanctuary is relatively small, but it is home to a number of mammals, including rarities like the Malayan sun bear, binturong, crab-eating mongoose, marbled cat, golden cat, fishing cat, and clouded leopard. In fact, these forests have one of the largest assemblages of wild cats. More commonly seen are mammals such as the barking deer, Assamese macaque, capped langur, tree shrew, and the famed hoolock gibbons.
The canopy is teeming with life. Keep your eyes peeled for the Himalayan striped squirrel, Malayan giant squirrel, and Pallas squirrel, and don’t miss the birds. Dehing Patkai has over 283 avian species and a walk in the forest, especially at dawn or late in the afternoon, is great for sightings. Watch out for the long-tailed and scarlet minivets, pin-striped tit babblers, and drongos, including the bronzed, greater and lesser racket-tailed drongos. Maroon orioles, woodpeckers, and flycatchers sometimes form hunting parties, when birds of different species move together, in a same flock, to optimise feeding opportunities.
There’s plenty more to keep birders occupied. Those with luck on their side might come across the greater necklaced laughing thrush and red-headed trogons in good numbers, but the forest also hosts a population of the oriental bay owl and Austen’s brown hornbill, both found only in northeastern India. Occasionally, the oriental pied hornbill and the great hornbill too, have been reported, as well as owls, including the Asian barred owlet, collared scops, and oriental scops.
The best time to visit Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is in the months of winter and spring.
Nov-Feb end: Winter offers the chance to enjoy the sanctuary without the hindrance of rain and waterlogging. Plus, there are migratory birds at this time of year. Visit early to see the mist envelope the dense canopy, and the forest slowly come alive. Bird and small-mammal activity is at its peak from 7 am until 10-10:30 am, and then again from afternoon until sundown.
March-April: Spring brings rainfall, new growth, and breeding season. The birds become more vocal, most notably the barbets and the cuckoos. This is also a good time to hear (and spot) the blue-eared barbet, drongo cuckoo, common hawk, Hodgson’s hawk, and the highly sought-after violet and emerald cuckoos.
Unlike conventional national parks, Dehing Patkai Sanctuary does not have safari vehicles and canter buses. The park can be explored by vehicle (private or hired), by boat, or on foot. Taxis charge between Rs 1,200-1,500 per day, depending on the vehicle.
The Jeypore side has a number trails that offshoot the state highway, and cut right through the rainforest. My favourite is the Namsang trail, a motorable road that winds through the tea garden village of Namsang. Although in poor condition, the path runs alongside the Dehing river, and is extremely good for sighting birds and mammals (my friend saw a fishing cat from a bridge on this road!). The Kothalguri region has several walking trails, ideal for observing birds, trees, and other life forms. Among them are, the Kothalguri trail, the central road trail, the Gulmari trail, and the Hilikhali trail.
Soraipung (sorai = birds, pung = salty water pool) has a number of salt licks, which attract a lot of animals. This region can be accessed via the Soraipung village, and the entrance is right in front of the inspection bungalow. The road runs for 3 km inside the park, and then diverges into three trails.
Additionally, one can also explore the sanctuary by boat. Soak in views of the jade-coloured Dehing river, flanked by rainforest, and watch out for sandpipers, wagtails, ospreys, and turtles.
Taking a guide along is highly recommended for all explorations, and can be organised at any of the forest chowkis. The guides have a deep understanding of the park’s landscape, animals, and weather patterns, that is valuable and entertaining.
The nearest airport to Dehing Patkai is Dibrugarh. From the airport, one can hire a taxi to Jeypore (Rs 1,200-1,500, one-way), or take a bus to Naharkatiya (Rs 60), and then board a shared van to Jeypore Chariali (Rs 10).
Naharkatiya is the railhead closest to Jeypore (10 km/25 min), while Digboi has its own railway station. Buses ply regularly from Guwahati (and other parts of Assam) to Dibrugarh and Digboi.
Soraipung, Jeypore, and Digboi have forest guesthouses, managed by the forest department. The Jeypore guesthouse (better known as the Inspection Bungalow) is located 2 km from the sanctuary entry gate, at the end of a lane next to the river. The old, British-style bungalow has two rooms (doubles Rs 300) and Hollong, Mekai, and Bombax trees in the compound. Even if you don’t stay here, a visit is highly recommended. This does not need to be organised in advance: Simply ask locals for directions, and show up before sundown.
Getting a room in any of the forest guesthouses is cumbersome, but the locations are ideal. To make a booking, email the District Forest Officer in Dibrugarh prior to your visit. The email ID can be found here.
Alternatively, there are stay options in the towns of Digboi, Duliajan, and Tinsukia, but staying here will require an early start. There are several options in Digboi for visitors to choose from. Apart from the forest rest house, there are options like Namdang house, Jonki Panoi bamboo cottages, etc.