Lost and found in Neora Valley - Part II

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

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In the ten days that I spent 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, the walk from Doley to Ambeok camp was the most memorable. 

Read Part I here.

Accompanied by Gorey Tamang from the forest department, we walked down the ridge that flanks Neora khola to the west. The walk started out along the pipeline that supplies water to Kalimpong but soon we left the pipeline behind and hit the ridge that we were to follow down to Ambeok. Gradually the undergrowth thinned out and the trees got larger, the soil softer. 

There’s a certain peace that descends upon you when walking through an old-growth forest. The sunlight filtering through the trees is mild, the breeze cool and moist. A few hours in, and you feel this rhythm in your step as each foot sinks into a soft layer of dead leaves and a feeling of insouciance rises up through your being. You breathe deeper and feel your very soul expand and reach out at the fringes.

Precious timber 

We reached the noisy patch where the feeding frenzy was underway - Mountain Imperial pigeons taking off with loudly clapping wings, Hill mynas trumpeting out fluty calls, Great barbets like heavy bombers.

The fruits that they were feeding on were clustered towards the ends of the branches, like some figs are. The branch-ends also looked a lot like figs, with stipules covering the growing tips of the branches so that they looked like little chillies. 

When we went looking for fallen fruits to identify the species, we were in for a surprise. They weren’t figs at all, but a species of Michelia. A relative of the magnificent Magnolias, Michelias –  Champa, in Hindi; Chap, in Nepali – too have sweet-smelling flowers that give rise to clusters of fruits enclosed in capsules. In time the capsules peel back to reveal fleshy fruits like soft red rubies, huddled together in twos and threes. 

We stood in a saddle on the ridge, and all around us were huge Michelias. Being a precious timber species and much in demand, Michelias get illegally logged throughout the north-east, so such sights are a rarity. 

A friend who knows of such things had once said: “A full-grown tree will get you a good motorbike.” And here we stood in a veritable Michelia orchard, right when it was fruiting! 

A hornbill lands

We’d gone barely twenty meters before we froze again, in mid-step, rooted to the spot by the heavy wingbeats of a hornbill landing.

Hornbills are big birds. So big, in fact, that you can hear their wingbeats from nearly a hundred meters away. It sounds like someone swinging a heavy rope right next to your head. Steady, if they’re flying by, grinding to a stop when they land.

We inched forward and saw parts of the thickly leafed canopy of a Michelia tree move as the hornbill hopped from branch to branch. Then slowly, in a peek here, a glimpse there, we saw a young hornbill feeding on the fruits. 

It had a rufous torso like a male’s, but then but all juveniles have that. The males retain the colour, while the females go black as they mature. 

One can age Rufous-necked hornbills by the slanting black marks on their beaks. They’re born with one and then get one for every year of their life for the first few years, the rate eventually slowing down so that the older ones have no more than eight or nine marks. Our hornbill had two broad marks on its beak. 

Refined feeding

Hornbills start breeding only after three years of age producing usually one chick – sometimes, rarely, two – every year and are known to live up to about forty years of age. 

They relish large seeded fruits, swallowing them whole and then eventually regurgitating the seeds far away from the mother tree, thus ensuring effective dispersal of the trees that they love. But clearly, their diet wasn’t made up of just large-seeded fruits. 

Here, before our very eyes, was this hornbill picking out the tiny red fruits of Michelia with the care of a refined host handling bone china. 

Hornbills have a way of turning their head this way and that to get a better view of things. That and their long eye lashes and the wrinkled skin around their eyes, gives them a wise, ancient look. 

In Rufous-necked Hornbills, the patch of bare skin is blue, the eye, red! Our hornbill seemed to appraise each individual fruit before picking it with the tip of its beak and tossing it down its gullet in one swift motion. Then, after a few minutes that seemed a long, long time, he sensed our presence and flew away, probably to another Michelia nearby.   

Beacons of hope

Rohit, his eyes wide with excitement, got busy taking pictures of the leaves and the fruits. He has studied hornbills for twelve years now, and though he’d always suspected it, he’d never had the opportunity to actually see them feed on Michelia before. But then, he’d also never seen a Michaelia orchard before. 

Places like Neora Valley NP are safe havens for an incredible array of plants, animals, soils and forest types. 

They are islands of native biodiversity holding out against the sea of development that’s razing everything to economically-viable uniformity. They are our beacons of hope, burning small but fierce. 

It isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep us going; enough for us to have faith that when we have had our fill of development, when we are done striving and shoving, and when we are finally ready to seek happiness in contentment, places like Neora valley might still be there to help us on our way.

Crumbling hillside

We reached Ambeok late in the afternoon and after a quick cup of tea, drove up to Lava in the quickly gathering dusk of the short winter days. 

Soon it was too dark to see anything except the road illuminated by the car’s headlights and eventually the lights of Lava showed up. It was not until after we’d walked the upper reaches of Neora Valley NP and were heading down this same road again that I noticed the hillside that the road had been cut into. 

Rohit was driving and I sat in the front seat. The road, which was being broadened and black-topped, went down a spur in a ridge parallel to the one that I had walked with Rohit and Gorey, lacerating it into thin ribbons of dirt. But for the rocks piled up on the roadsides, we could’ve been driving down a sand-dune. 

The hills here have only a thin layer of soil with loose rocks underneath that can’t hold their place once exposed. This, though true for the whole of the Himalaya, is especially evident in the North-East where the heavy rainfall causes the forests to grow incredibly lush, giving the false impression of rich soils underneath. 

The whole hillside, however, is held together only by the trees that grow on it, and once stripped bare, comes crumbling down. Stone and concrete walls were being built in places to hold up the slope, and the whole place, dusty and hot, had a sense of irreparable loss about it. 

Burden of guilt

This ridge too must once have been like the one we walked, I kept thinking, looking across to it, and my heart went heavier inside me. Here I was, sitting comfortably in a car that was speeding down the road that had killed the hillside. 

The muscles around my jaw and my neck began to throb under the dull burden of guilt.

I’d travelled with Rohit for two months by then, working in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, walking the forests, talking to people. Through that time, we’d had moments that shook us up inside, experiences that threatened to tear at the fabric of our realities. 

Luckily, the ebb and flow of our emotions were almost always out of sync, and if one of us was down in the dumps, the other was around to cheer him up. 

In Siang, Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, we often had to talk each other back from the verge of callous indifference. How else do you face up to seemingly unsustainable hunting in otherwise perfectly preserved community forests? To weasels and ground-dwelling birds and flying squirrels caught in rat traps? To going days without seeing any hornbills in the forest and then coming across the head of one drying by the kitchen fire? 

Sympathetic engagement

We had to rationalize our way back to the sympathetic engagement that was our staple stance. It’s no worse than living in concrete houses, we’d remind each other; no worse than adding day by day to our burgeoning landfills; no worse than a million choices that we make every day. 

And then the wife of the man who brought back the monkey refused to eat it, didn’t she? But for days afterwards, Rohit’s heart would skip a beat when he saw a hornbill flying by overhead, before he’d realize that we were in Neora Valley, a National Park, and that the bird was safe.

Now, driving down from Lava, I was silent. Our time in Neora was up, but being there has changed both Rohit and me in ways that we don’t fully realize yet. 

That walk we took from Doley to Ambeok, and the tide of sorrow that threatened to drown me on the drive down, are both experiences that I keep coming back to. But in that moment, I needed a hand to pull me out. I needed perspective to think this thing through. 

Hope

Rohit must’ve noticed it because he pointed to a saddle in the ridge that I was looking over to, “Right this moment they must be nicely at it, eh?!” he said, grinning. He was talking about the birds feeding in the Michelia orchard. 

“Yeah”, I managed to smile back, clutching at the straws that he offered me. “And the hornbills must be coming in to feed too; fearlessly.” 

Still smiling, he quietly reached into his breast-pocket and without taking his eyes off the road, placed something in the palm of my hand. I looked down at my cupped hand, and there lay four Michaelia fruits, smaller than split gram, bright as spilt blood. 

“There’s hope”, he said. “There’s still hope.”

Read Part I here.

This Author 

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

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