Lost and found in Neora Valley

| 8th July 2019
Conservationists search for Rufous-necked Hornbills in West Bengal, through rich forests threatened by unrest and development.

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I spent ten days in Neora Valley National Park in December last year, with Rohit Naniwadekar of Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), and his collaborators Arkajyoti Shome and Sitaram Mahato of Nature Mates. We were there to survey for Rufous-necked Hornbills.

Read Part II here.

Tucked away in a corner of West Bengal, bordering Bhutan to the east and Sikkim to the north, the core of Neora Valley NP spreads outward from the two ridges that cradle Neora khola; khola being the Nepali word for river. 

We walked almost one hundred kilometers in the ten days that we were there, covering as much of the region as we could and interviewing forest workers and residents.

Soaring majestically 

Large tracts of this forest were once corporation forest, accessed by roads that were cut into the hillsides. The mountaintops, however, and the interiors, escaped this fate. 

A lot of the lower areas are dominated by straight-boled pioneers – like macaranga and exbucklandia – competing with the Cryptomerias left over from the plantations. But the higher reaches have the calm, settled air of perpetuity.

Neora Valley NP covers just about 160 km2, but it was herethat we walked through some of the best primary sub-tropical montane forests that we’d ever seen, and met some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated staff that we’d ever encountered. And yes, we also encountered Rufous-necked Hornbills.

These birds measure more than a meter from beak to tail and have a wing-span just as large, but they weigh no more than a new-born baby. Thus they soar majestically over the canopy, their large wings churning the air with flaps that resonate through the whole forest.  

Their black tail and wings end in sheer panels of white that light seems to pass clear through, and while the females dress all in black, the males have a torso of raw umber, their nape bristling with fluffy feathers of burnished red. They look like warriors ready for battle or revelers on their way to a bacchanalia, with the war-paint-like diagonal black marks on their pale-yellow beaks.

Forest ecology

Historically, Rufous-necked Hornbills ranged over large parts of South-east Asia, but today the Rufous-necked Hornbill is found only in two disjunct regions: northern Laos and the adjoining parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and China; and in north-east India, Bhutan and the adjoining forests of western Myanmar. 

These long-lived, slow-breeding birds play a vital role in forest ecology. Their own ecology, however, is poorly understood, with even the status and trends of their populations undocumented in large parts of their natural range. 

Rohit is part of NCF’s Eastern Himalaya Program, headed by Aparajita Datta. Having surveyed Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh over the last few years, they now wanted to cover North Bengal, the western limit of the Rufous-necked Hornbills’ range. 

They hope to slowly gather systematic data about the birds’ presence in the whole landscape, one valley at a time. Collateral information gathered during the surveys will let them assess how the various threats that they face in all these places – from hunting to habitat degradation – affect their numbers.

Luckily, to see a bird like that, one gets to walk the forests that it calls home. 

Awed silence

One of the walks that I did with Rohit was down the ridge that flanks Neora khola to the west, from Doley to Ambeok camp, accompanied by Gorey Tamang from the forest department. 

The trail starts out along the pipeline that carries water to Kalimpong before heading down the ridge, passing through undisturbed, old-growth forests. Men will cut roads – or lay pipes, for that matter – into the sides of steep hills as a matter of convenience, but it is always the ridge-tops that have the trails made by the denizens of the forest. 

These trails, as obvious as the channels that water makes, rise and fall with the rhythms of the hills themselves and have a way of making you feel a part of the forest – like you’ve been accepted. 

The forest too changed as soon as we hit the ridge. We walked in awed silence under the shade of massive, old trees draped in thick layers of moss. Every visible surface, from tree trunks to branches, to the very boulders rising up from the earth were covered in moss, and out of every nook and cranny that could hold the least amount of soil, there grew plants – saplings, climbers, orchids, ferns. 

So far in Neora, we’d had some great sightings of Rufous-necked Hornbills flying high overhead, or calling, perched on distant tree tops, but we were yet to see one close up. The forest we were in now seemed extremely promising. 

Loud fluttering

Suddenly, with a whirr like little engines starting, a large flock of Mountain Imperial pigeons took off from the treetops just ahead. By the time we got there, they’d circled and come back to join the cacophony of Hill Mynas who were flying to and fro in numerous flocks of a dozen or so each. 

The whole canopy was quaking with the loud fluttering, the air alive with the Mynas’ clarinet calls. Great Barbets added to the confusion with their short bursts of heavy flight, as if they’d eaten too much and could no longer manage to stay airborne. 

There were birds everywhere! It was so surreal that we stood transfixed, faces upturned, eyes glued to our binoculars.

Rohit said: “They love whatever it is that they’re eating,” turning to look at me for a moment. “And if the pigeons eat it, I’d bet hornbills do too.”

Extremely enthusiastic

Doley, where we started the walk, lies inside the National Park. The wildlife camp there was burnt down ‘during theagitation’, so we’d had to stay at the village of Kuanpani, outside, where the forest check-post is. Four members of the staff, including the Beat Officer, stay at the wildlife quarters there. 

Our survey was carried out on a shoestring budget so our sleeping arrangements were pretty basic: we’d usually just spread out our ground mats and sleeping bags in the porches of the forest department’s building wherever we went. But here the porches were too small. 

Seeing our predicament, the department staff surprised us by cheerfully offering us their own beds! Though deeply moved, we turned down the offer, of course, and went and found a room at the only hotel in the village. 

In all our years of traveling through protected areas in the country and interacting with the department, nowhere have we met staff that went so endearingly far to make us feel welcome. If one was to go by the tourism department’s tagline of West Bengal being the “sweetest part of India”, then the hills of North Bengal are definitely the sweetest part of West Bengal.  

Everyone we met was also extremely enthusiastic about our venture. “Only if we can show you how beautiful the place is, can you tell the world about it”, said 50-year-old Emraj Giri, who accompanied us on one of our first walks from Mouchuki camp up the ridge to the east of Neora khola, all the way to the top of the mountain called Thosum. 

Protected area

Emraj works with the Forest Department under the somewhat misleading designation of Casual Daily Labour, or CDL. He’s been a CDL for over a decade now.

It was humbling to walk the forest from Mouchuki to Thosum with Emraj, to hear him talk about it, to see it through his eyes – for this was where he grew up. 

Emraj’s father was a herder who had a camp, called a goath, 8 kms above Mouchuki, where the forest department camp now stands. Emraj would help his father care for the two dozen cows that they owned, until he was 13 or 14, which is when the forest was declared a protected area and they had to move out. 

The walk that he took us on was one that he must’ve done numerous times as a child, with his father and their cows. Even now, in spite of his work with the forest department, he has two cows at home. “I have to have cows”, he says, “to feel at home”. 

After they moved out, his father continued to walk the forest under the aegis of the forest department, to look for interesting orchids. He was fit almost right until he passed away at the age of 99. “I’ll also walk these trails at least till I’m 80”, said Emraj. And even at 50, he walked as fast as the best of us, guiding us through the forest that he knew and loved so well.

Gone wild

Emraj was an apt representative of the forest department, which gave us unwavering support throughout the survey and without which we could never have managed to conduct the survey with such efficiency. 

We’d reach a place in the evening, meet up with the Beat Officer or the Ranger and discuss the next day’s plan, asking their advice about the best places to explore. And then early the next day we’d be met by one or two CDLs and sometimes even a Beat Officer, assigned to accompany us into the forest. 

And so it was that the day after we got to Kuanpani, Gorey Tamang was waiting for us at six in the morning. We drove in for an hour and a half and got dropped off about a kilometer before Doley camp.

The morning was chilly, dew dripped from the leaves overhead and sunlight colandered in angled shafts through the trees. We walked past some stands of aged Cryptomerias: reminders that this was once corporation forest. 

Cryptomeria japonica, natives of Japan, were brought long enough ago to be now clubbed – along with native cypresses – into the local name dhuppigiven for all aromatic conifers that can be used as incense. Cryptomerias were the trees of choice wherever montane forests had to be converted into economically lucrative monocultures. 

But these trees had gone wild by now - cloaked in thick layers of mosses and lichens, they twisted around fallen trunks in charming disorder.  And any signs of historical disturbance were soon forgotten as we walked further in and the forest took on a more mature appearance.

Speaking softly 

Gorey has also been a CDL for over a decade. He went to work in Sikkim as a young man where he did heavy labour for two years before he came back and joined the department and he’s been going steady ever since. His face is youthful, but the hair graying at his temples give him away. At 49, he’s “over the ridge, as far as age is concerned”, he said. 

He wore an imitation leather jacket with the resin coming off in patches at the shoulders, and he replaced his woolen cap with a headband when the sun came up. I do the same to keep sweat out of my eyes.

I offered him biscuits when we stopped a few hours later and he said he wasn’t hungry. “I eat twice a day”, he said with an unassuming smile, “once in the morning and then again only in the evening. Like a camel, I can tank up and then don’t need food or water all day. 

“How can you explore the forest if you have to keep worrying about such things?” he added with a smile, and his eyes crinkled up in an array of crow’s feet.

Completely at ease in the forest, he spoke only when spoken to, and even then, softly. He lives with his wife and his 21-year-old son. They don’t have fields or cattle since his wife is often ill and his son stays busy with his studies. He studies computers. “He hasn’t said what he wants to do next”, said Gorey, “but I guess he has a plan. He probably won’t stay on here.” 

Gorey’s elder brother and his nephews are farmers. “It’s a tough life”, he said about farming, “it was much easier during their parents’ time; one could access the forest and there was plenty of fodder available close to the villages.” 

He had a thoughtful way of speaking. He’d pause and look away, and then turn back to finish a thought. He did this now and turning back with a smile, added, “Also, people lived simpler lives then. No?” 

Agitation 

In half an hour, we got to the charred remains of what was once Doley camp. It was burnt down during the ‘agitation’ the year before. What had started as resentment over Bengali language being made compulsory in schools had escalated into a reiteration of the demand for the separate state of Gorkhaland; and that demand, once out in the open, was quickly hijacked by the more violent factions.

The staff had been staying in camp all through the agitation last year, Gorey told us. The physical presence of the staff was the only way of ensuring that the camps wouldn’t be vandalized. This was true of every forest camp that we visited. All the staff had stayed put, on strike, without pay, for a hundred and five days. 

The armed groups in support of the new state were hiding in these forests, and after a couple of gruesome encounters by Indian security personnel, they became convinced that the wildlife staff was giving out information about their whereabouts; thus the targeting of wildlife camps in the forests while the PHE (Public Health and Engineering) camps were seemingly spared.

Then one day during that time the staff at Doley ran out of rations and had to come down to Kuanpani. They got delayed and did not make it back the same day. That night the camp was burnt down, along with all their clothes and personal belongings – everything razed to the ground. All that remained were the charred cement posts of the foundation that we saw before us.

“Stupid people”, was the general opinion about the violent agitators current amongst the people that we talked to. 

“That’s no way to go about demanding a state” said Gorey. “Make a sensible argument, place your demand, talk; beseech if you must. What’s the point of burning things down? And who’s money is it anyway? Doesn’t go out of the government’s pockets. Goes out of our own pockets.”

Original inhabitants

Past the camp, we came across ample evidence of logging as well, all stolen during the agitation. We’d come across such opportunistic thievery in other places as well, because “patrolling was difficult during the agitation”, as one of the staff put it mildly. They could very well have been murdered for just being in the camps, on the pretext of being informers. But those days were behind them now.

A Beat Officer that we talked to told us: “It’s not going to happen now. The leader of the armed resistance – after the murder of a high-ranking police officer – is missing without a trace; a hundred and five days of strike and nothing to show for it.”

“It’s never going to happen again”, another CDL told us. “The CM’s too clever for all this. Look at the boards that she split us up into”, he said, referring to the ethnicity- or caste-based boards that have been formed and given favours in terms of job-quotas or subsidies.

“It was never going to happen anyway”, said another Lepcha CDL. The Lepchas were the original inhabitants of Sikkim and parts of North Bengal, long before the coming of Buddhist rulers from Tibet, or the more recent arrival of the Nepalese from the west. “What’s all this righteous talk of Gorkha-land?” he said. “All of this – and a lot of Sikkim as well – is actually Lepcha-land, isn’t it?” 

Water supply

Just above the charred remains of the Wildlife camp at Doley is a PHE camp. It survived the agitation unharmed. Water supply is probably too sensitive an issue even for armed guerrillas to take lightly; especially since this camp services the pipeline that supplies water to Kalimpong – the district headquarters and political hotbed of the movement.

Though there was no one in the PHE camp, the clothes put out to dry showed us that it was currently inhabited – probably by people repairing the pipeline along which our path now went. It’s a massive pipe that follows the contour lines here. It goes hugging the hillside, snaking around spurs, twisting into gullies, and then every once in a while, it shuns a particularly narrow ravine to reach out over vertiginous bridges. On an embankment before one such bridge, embossed in neat stone-work, is spelt out a large ‘1991’.

When I looked up old articles and reports about the pipeline, I realized that efforts to get the pipeline project – known officially as the Neora Khola Water Supply Scheme – sanctioned, started in the early 1980s. 

Ironically, while the West Bengal Public Health and Engineering (PHE) department was trying to negotiate the terms of the project with the Central Environment Department, efforts were also underway to get Neora Valley – the very forest through which the proposed pipeline would pass – declared a National Park.   

The project, started in 1985, was supposed to have supplied 1.5 million gallons of water daily to Kalimpong, at an estimated cost of 22 Crore Rupees. Kalimpong then had a daily water requirement of about 750, 000 gallons, though recent estimates suggest that this has risen to a million gallons in recent years.

Sparkling streams

When it was inaugurated in 1993, the pipeline supplied about 500,000 gallons of water, of which 200,000 gallons were earmarked for the defense cantonment, since the defense ministry had chipped in when the project costs escalated due to delays. 

Disappointment at the failure of the Scheme to meet its purported goal is rekindled every year when the inevitable landslides and alleged illegal tapping disrupt the water supply. 

But the fact that the pipeline exists and continues to function is itself a source of wonder. The pipeline originates at what is quite enigmatically called the “Source”, a place in the upper reaches of Neora Valley National Park, which we were fortunate enough to visit. 

A number of small streams of sparkling clear water run leaping over mossy rocks, under ancient oaks or through dense forests of sleek, blue-grey bamboo. The streams come together to form the head-waters of the Neora river.  

At a place where the stream is big enough to ensure a year-round supply of water, a series of low weirs have been built, with the large, gaping mouth of the pipe in one corner. Here begins a journey that will take the water nearly 95 kilometers away, to a reservoir at Deylo – five kilometers above Kalimpong – before it sees the sun and open skies again. 

Amazing sightings 

I couldn’t help but wonder at how the heavy inter-fitting sections must’ve been dragged and levered into place, as we walked along the massive pipeline. 

Though we did pass over some bamboo bridges made during recent repairs, the originals are all lattices of wrought iron that soar high above the steep gullies. 

To a bird-watcher, they’re a canopy-walk in paradise. We stopped every time that a mixed flock passed us by and had some amazing sightings. This was Gorey’s regular patrolling route before the camp at Doley was burnt down; now they come this way less often. 

He was walking ahead of me and I asked him what he thought of the pipeline. It always amazes him, he said, just to imagine how far that water was going. 

Then a few steps later he turned and added with a smile, “Also, people settle in some strange places. No?”

Rising tourism 

We were in Lava the previous day and the forest department had offered to put us up in one of their unused quarters, but admitted that the daily water supply had been down for the last two days and there wasn’t a drop in the tank. They themselves had managed by tapping into the reserves of the nearby church. 

Normally, the town gets water for an hour every morning. “It’s really not so bad when you think about it”, I was told, “Kalimpong gets water for just half an hour every other day.” My friend, who runs a Café in Kalimpong, confirmed this. New connections are impossible to get and all the water they use at the Café has to be bought.

We checked into a hotel in Lava, leased out and run by a Bengali gentleman from Siliguri. One of its rooms was still a temple where the Buddhist owner offered prayers every morning, filling the place with the sweet smell of incense. 

The view from the window was dominated by conspicuous water tanks arrayed on all the buildings, the pipes leading to them like a swarm of tentacles. And yet, new hotels were coming up – there’s money to be made in tourism. 

It was a similar story in almost every place in North Bengal that we went to: precarious water supply, rising tourism, frequent disruptions. In some cases, like in the smaller villages, the pipes are no bigger than garden hoses travelling several kilometers and broken by no more than an accidental kick from a stumbling cow.

Precarity 

It would take more than that to disrupt the water supply to Kalimpong. But if the army had had their way, they’d have done much worse than mere disruption: they had proposed a road through the very source. 

This was to access the point where the border with Bhutan ends and the one with China begins, a sort of tri-junction of boundaries. That proposal, though halted for now, has not been entirely forgotten and will continue to raise its head every time relations between China and India heat up.  

If the proposed road does come, the pipeline would become redundant, for there wouldn’t be any water left to carry. The road would go right through the heart of Neora Valley NP, ravaging the bamboo-rhododendron forest that is home to the Red Panda and Satyr Tragopan, disrupting the numerous tiny streams that arise there and carry water to the forests downstream. 

In that forest, too fragile for words to describe, it was eerie to see blue arrows and codes on the papery barks and fair trunks of the rhododendrons, painted during a reconnaissance survey for the proposed road. 

It was a reminder of how easily all this could be lost; of how it has been lost, over and over again in so many places, on so many pretexts. 

Read Part II here.

This Author 

Sartaj Ghuman is a freelance biologist, writer and artist based in India. 

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