The last hope for degrading rainforests and vanishing gibbons of Northeast India

There is an immediate need for concerted efforts and interventions to conserve the lowland rainforests and hoolock gibbons of Northeast India to prevent further decline and potential extinction.
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On a lazy morning of 2012, I was reading a short piece published by Narayan Sharma, in a journal, on the trends in diurnal primate population and its local extinction in the lowland rainforests of the Upper Brahmaputra. This truly shook me. When one thinks of Northeast India, one imagines unlimited stretches of lush evergreen forests but here was a paper reporting that the last remaining rainforests are degrading and fragmenting at disturbing rates. From a decline in population to potential local extinction, the findings were horrific.

The forests of Bherjan, Borajan, and Podumoni in Assam have the highest biomass of primates compared to anywhere else in the Indian subcontinent, and it is evident that the deforestation of this tropical lowland has been on for two centuries now. However, in the last few decades, it has taken a turn for the worse at a rapid pace. What was once a contiguous forest is now just small patches of land separated by tea estates and agricultural holdings.

Sadly, these forests are the last refuge for some of the most threatened species of primates, specifically the hoolock gibbon. If such trends continue, there is not much hope for these forests, the primates, the rivers, and, needless to say, the Northeast as we know it. The only silver lining here is that there is still hope for reversing these trends, if we act fast.

Hoolock gibbon

The hoolock gibbon is India’s only non-human ape species and is exclusively arboreal with long slender arms and a hook-like grip. These gibbons are known for their swinging action because they navigate through thick canopies at great heights. This swinging motion is possible because of their thumb, which has been evolutionarily reduced, to the point that it is now vestigial. They are monogamous and live in very small families of three to four. The Gibbon pairs declare and defend their territories with intricate songs and calls that reverberate through the forest. Their main diet consists of fruits and leaves, and their territories are large enough to have a plethora of trees producing the same. Their unique qualities and nature make them a delight to watch.

In 2020, when I visited these lowland forests, the urgency of the situation was quite evident. The forests were rampantly converted into agricultural grounds for growing corn, rice, palm oil, or tea estates. And, unfortunately, in some of these farms, I found hoolock gibbon families on the last remaining four or five trees.

They were stranded, isolated, and probably doomed. These are arboreal primates who never lay a foot on the ground, and, when I watched videos and photos of them walking on their feet, I was heartbroken. Struggling to find food, they had taken to eating corn, something that is not supposed to be part of their diet. To top it all, their walking on the grounds made them easy prey for dogs, often leading to the death of these primates.

The hoolock gibbons were being forced to change their nature because of human actions.

There are several patches of forests like Borajan that are increasingly getting disjunct, leading the population of hoolock gibbons into isolation. These are signs of species going ecologically non-functional following the collapse of the local environments. If there was ever a case for urgent intervention, this is one. This ecosystem is a complex one wherein livelihoods of people, development, water security, climate resilience, and conservation of the hoolock gibbons are intertwined.

Our inaction will most definitely lead to the loss of not just the gibbons and the forests but everything that depends on them, including people, water availability, and the very real issue of climate-change-related catastrophic events.

The Habitats Trust has started a massive programme for conservation of these lowland rainforests and the hoolock gibbons. When we started looking at potential interventions, we realised that there are no records of the actual gibbon population. In fact, there is no methodology established to estimate their population accurately. The threat mapping is patchy and coarse, and there are no studies to suggest what is happening to the isolated populations at genetic and ecological levels.

On the other hand, there are no effective economic alternatives presented to the local communities for destructive agriculture or for reversing the changing land-use patterns. There are a few organisations and individuals who are doing some fabulous work but they are limited by capacities and resources to cover larger areas and bring in a lasting and wider impact. Taking all this into consideration, our programme is aimed at bringing together various organisations and individuals to address all these particular issues.

The Habitats Trust is filling up the resource, knowledge, and skill gaps for the conservation of the hoolock gibbons. The programme has started work in the four states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, and it intends to expand to all seven north-eastern states where we find these lowland forests and gibbons.

The hope is that, by involving all key stakeholders and pulling together a concerted effort for conservation, we will be able to come up with interventions that work and have a larger impact. Furthermore, it can serve as a primer for conservation of such species and forests.

Edited by Swetha Kannan

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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