THE boatman steered his craft upstream for four kilometres, against the current, then beached it on the sandy banks of the swollen Subansiri River, where a swift-flowing mountain stream joined it. I had seen a wisp of smoke curl up through the thick evergreen canopy and wanted to investigate its source.
Stepping out of the boat on to a large sand bank, I walked along the stream bed for just over a kilometre, delighted to see the pugmarks of a leopard Panthera pardus or perhaps those of the smaller clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa. The mud was so soft and wet that it was impossible to tell. I also saw the dung of a small herd of elephants whose footprints revealed the presence of at least one calf. And at the edge of the stream, I saw ungulate hoof prints half-filled with water, where the animals had come to drink.
False claims in an abundant valley
I was on the outskirts of the wildlife-rich Taley Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh on August 1 2001, on an official site visit to the Subansiri on behalf of the Indian Board for Wildlife. I was investigating claims by the promoters of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project that “no threatened plants or animals existed in the Lower Subansiri Valley.” Of course, the leopard and elephant spoor I had seen had put paid to that casual claim within five minutes of disembarking from the boat.
Several naturalists had surveyed this area over the years and they consistently affirmed that the Lower Subansiri Valley was one of the richest wildlife vaults in India. The sight of a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo flying overhead, and the call of a Himalayan Barbet floating across the forest, reminded me that 275 bird species had been officially recorded here. Heaven alone knows how many more awaited discovery – in this mountainous region, only the very fit and determined have what it takes to walk and camp.
I had read up all I could about this remote wilderness, which is accessible to all those who plan in advance and are willing to stay in the rough comforts of forest rest houses such as the one at Gerukamukh, or in tents pitched on sheltered slopes. Apart from the usual permissions that must be obtained from the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Arunachal Pradesh, visitors would be well advised to make arrangements to have an expert guide accompany them. More often than not, this will be a village youth who can interpret animal tracks and who knows the trails like the back of his hand. With such simple preparation and assistance, forests located just 10 kilometres away from the District Headquarters of Hapoli could conceivably throw up tigers, clouded leopards, marbled cats, fishing cats and civets. As with most densely forested wild places, the presence of ungulates is easier to establish through droppings and tracks. Here in Taley, this might well include wild buffalo, gaur and elephants. Taley’s botanical wonderland contains a mind-boggling 560 varieties of plants, including the thorny bamboo Chimonobambusa callosa and the extremely rare Pleioblastus simonii. The tropical and sub-tropical evergreen forests and grasslands rise to an elevation of around 1,000 metres to merge seamlessly with broadleafs, including the Assamese hollock (Terminalia myriocarpa). This is another world altogether, where creepers, lianas and ferns thrive alongside orchids in the moist and dark habitats created by the dense canopy. And if your legs are able to carry you higher, past the tree line, you would enter the ethereal world of snow leopards, wild sheep and goats, marmots, Lammergeiers and Golden Eagles.
Walking through the dense undergrowth, I stopped frequently to take in the sights and sounds of a forest so remote and roadless that even animal trails with fresh spoor were hemmed in by vegetation. The armed guard and the boatman who had walked ahead of me called out to draw my attention to a pot of fish and a simple wood-fire and grill on which wild-caught fish were being smoked.
But there was no one in sight. Clearly, the fishermen had run into the forest when they saw us approach. I would have run too had I seen strange men walking towards me armed to the teeth! Curious about their self-sufficient way of life, I wanted to speak with the fishermen and requested the reluctant armed guard to return to the boat, after which the boatman cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted into the forest that we were friends and that there was nothing to fear.
The peaceful Apatani folk and a proposed dam
Around us was pure paradise. Knowing we were being watched from inside the dense forest, we made ourselves comfortable, drinking from the stream and even turning a few fish over the smoking fire. After five peaceful minutes that I wished I could have stretched to forever, an Apatani villager walked into view, and then approached us, with a young boy (probably his son) in tow. With the boatman translating for me, I learned he had seen the elephants earlier and that some days ago a tiger had been sighted on the outskirts of his village. The fish he was catching would be smoked, dried and then shared with the entire community.
Peaceful people, the Apatanis live in a matriarchal society and are renowned for their traditional wet-rice agriculture on tiny plots carved out of steep forested slopes. Diverting stream water to irrigate a hardy paddy variety, they also supplement their diet with fish and other forest foods.
I left him to his devices, envious of his ability to take sustenance from a forest in which I would be helpless. However, I took some solace from the fact that I was among those who were working to prevent his world from being drowned by planners who understood little about sustainability and even less about development. Later that day, I flew along the winding course of the Subansiri River, which was densely clothed by rainforest vegetation on both sides of its banks. I took photographs. I spoke to engineers. I consulted colleagues across the country. The general consensus was that losing forests like these, in this day and age, was unthinkable. Yet, political support was growing for an ecologically ill-advised dam that would drown irreplaceable biodiversity under a reservoir over 40 kilometres long. Neither the fate of the clouded leopard, nor that of the Apatani people were ever factors to consider. At the time of writing, the Lower Subansiri Project is in trouble. It has violated the conditions on which it received environmental clearance, and the deadlock between those against the dam and the government is still to be cleared. Promoters are also worried about financial projections. But the possibility that the dam will eventually be built still looms large. Visit Taley while you still can, so you can tell your children: “I was there. It was beautiful.” Better yet, join in efforts to save Taley for posterity.