Into the wild of Pakke Tiger Reserve

[ Feppy Tayem ]
My village, Darlong, is on the fringe of the Pakke Tiger Reserve (PTR), in the western part of Arunachal. My home is 4 kms away from the Pakke Sobung river, which is one of the major water sources for our area, and after which the reserve gets its name.
My evenings at home are spent counting the wreathed hornbills that come to our backyard every evening. Eighty-four wreathed hornbills are the highest I’ve counted so far. From 5:30 pm onwards, these hornbills arrive with their respective partners and/or in small groups. I also sometimes get to behave like an expert (which I am not) and tell visitors, “Sir/Ma’am, you’ve arrived too late/early. I observe these hornbills daily, so I know the right time to see them.”
My experience of wildlife has been different from that of the previous generations who grew up around Pakke. I watched my parents and relatives try to get rid of wild animals, especially elephants, during the paddy season, as rice was the major crop we cultivated. We never stopped to think why and how wild animals should live with us. Today my village is very different from how it used to be 10-12 years ago. We don’t practice shifting cultivation, and our settled agricultural land has been washed away due to the flooding of the Pakke river. But many youths are employed by the forest department, and a few more by other conservation groups that focus on hornbill protection.
But it was not in Pakke that I got my first experience in research. I worked with Dr Umesh Srinivasan on a bird project in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, where our team (Micah, Bharat, Noctey, Mangal, Dinesh, Pradyuth, Nam and myself) ringed 1000 birds of 60 different species. In the beginning, I found the field work very difficult, as it was my first experience living in the forest, which was far away from home. I was not used to such conditions. Our daily field work was between 5:30-11:30 am, but we woke up at 4:00 am to leave the camp and get to our sampling plots. As the days passed, I was able to comfortably fit into this regular routine.
I still wondered if I would get an opportunity to go back to work in Pakke. I then met Laxmi Langlang, another budding Nyishi field biologist, who was doing her MSc dissertation. We were both guided by Dr Nandini Velho and were trying to understand the human-wildlife conflict in and around the villages of the PTR. This finally gave me a chance to explore the forests and understand the people in and around my home.
Some of the interactions I had with them still make me smile. I remember asking a 45-year-old man from Bhalukpong about his source of income. He answered: “Beti, hum toh farm murgi jaise hi hai, jungle se kuch nahi leta hai.” In other words, he meant that he was not involved in any illegal forestry activities and just sat idle at home.
It was also during this project that I finally got a chance to go into the PTR for the first time. I got to learn about life in the reserve. For instance, at Dhuna Nallah (which got its name for the Canarium resiniferum trees) I saw tins and bottles tied together on a rope around the camp’s boundary. This was the staff’s own mitigation strategy; it would produce a sound that kept elephants away and allowed the staff to sleep at night in their camps. Further away, in Upper Dekorai, I saw a wild pig, and this was my first mammal sighting inside Pakke. Since we were on a moving jeep, I could not take a photograph of it. With my previous birding experience, I was able to identify a blue kingfisher, a crested serpent eagle, and river lapwings that were along the same riverbank as the wild pig.
Our last stop was in the heart of Pakke. I did a test of my interview skills. I talked to long-time forest department staffer, Mabe Kino, whose daughter was my best friend growing up. He said to me: “Nana (sister in our Nyishi language), hum janwar log ko maarna achha nahi lagta hai kyunki voh log bahut achha hota hai. Lekin ye haathi ko toh bahut gussa lagta hai; mera kheti ka dhaan kha deta hai.”
While he said that he sometimes wanted to hit elephants with slingshots for raiding his crops, he also said that they are so innocent that it is difficult to hate them.
We then set out to walk the forests that he was already familiar with. Here I saw a treetop machan, where three wildlife filmmakers (Ram Alluri and two forest watchers, Paro Natung and Chandan Patro) would sit patiently for days on end and wait to film animals in 360 degrees with a remote control which they handled from the machan.
Paro told me that when the equipment arrived, he thought it would be very easy because the cameras were smaller than his palm. Instead, when he started shooting, he said, it felt tougher, since it required a lot of patience. But he said that a year later, their videos, shot from virtual reality headsets, were shown at every awareness programmes and the compliments they get inspire them to work harder. A few months later, I myself was one of those viewers, and was taken back into Pakke. I saw elephants, snakes and fish through the headset.
Finally, as the sun was setting, I returned home by another route inside the reserve.
I still remember when my parents had called me on Christmas day in 2014. I was studying away from home, pursuing my BSc in forestry in Dehradun. My uncle, Koru Tayem (a forest guard), had suddenly encountered an elephant and had lost his life. A rush of memories flashed back when I reached this point in the reserve. His daughter was my classmate, and he would drop us to school when he was not on duty. “Aaya hai” was how he would call out to me every time I visited their house. And that is how my heart was left inside Pakke for many reasons. (Feppy Tayem is an MSc Forestry student from Seijosa)