Monday, March 14, 2016

On Patrol in Pakke

Greetings Everyone,
From the snowy mountains of Ladakh our travels have brought us to the lush forests of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India.  Most tourists don't venture here.  In fact our trip leader, Avijit Sarkhel, had to get special permission to bring foreigners into Pakke National Park.  We weren't sure what to expect as there is little to no tourist infrastructure in this park.  Avi had to arrange for a driver, Konwar to bring his open jeep from Kaziranga National Park, about a 3-hour drive away.  We stopped at the park headquarters in the village of Seijosa where the Nykhum Festival had just taken place.  An old man was wearing a traditional Hornbill headdress and we stopped to take his photo.

Nyishi Man with Traditional Hornbill Headdress

At the entrance to the park we picked up Ohey, our local guide and two forest guards, Laguna and Rasambarah who would accompany us during our stay in the park.  We all piled into the Gypsy along with our bags for the drive into the core of the park.

Piled into the Gypsy (photo taken by Avijit Sarkhel)

We passed a very comfortable rest house at Upper Dekorai, about 20 km in, but were told that we wouldn't be staying here.  "Oh well, too bad" I thought as we continued our drive into the park.  We drove through forests and crossed dry river beds before reaching Tarzan Anti-poaching Camp.  To our surprise a small herd of wild Asian Elephants were hanging out there.  They were underneath the camp which is built on concrete stilts and were in the process of doing some damage.

Naughty Elephants at Tarzan Camp

Fortunately they moved off at our approach.

Off You Go!

By the time we arrived at our destination, Nameri East Anti-poaching Camp, it was dark.  Yes, we were going to stay with the forest guards at an anti-poaching camp, possibly the first foreign tourists to do so.  There were two buildings built on concrete pillars to keep us safe from the elephants.  We were to stay in the smaller building in a room where all our food supplies had been stored.  The guys had to move the supplies out and a second wooden bed platform in.  We had sleeping bags but no mattresses or pillows.  We would have to manage with a thin foam pad as a mattress and spare clothes as a pillow.

Marc in our Cozy Room
There was no electricity and dinner was being prepared by the forest guards over a wood fire.  We were served a simple but delicious fare of rice, dahl and curried vegetables.

Typical Meal

The next morning we headed out on foot to explore the area beyond camp.  Not far along the road we encountered a herd of wild elephants on the road. We backtracked and Laguna and Rasambarah readied their rifles as a precaution.  Nothing gets the heart pumping like encountering wild Asian Elephants while on foot!  We gave them a wide berth and they moved off into the forest.

Elephants on the Road!
We were on the road by 3:30 AM the next morning to look for nocturnal mammals.  We saw Barking and Hog Deer but no felines.  The road ended at the Nameri River.  On the other side was the town of Bhalukpong.  The guys took a dugout canoe across the river to get more petrol and fresh vegetables.  On our drive back to Nameri East we encountered a troop of Capped Langurs crossing the road.  They were not happy that we had split their group and screamed at us.  We moved on and the troop reunited.

Capped Langur

At night Pakke becomes a different world as a whole host of nocturnal creatures become active.  We were given permission to move around after dark, something which isn't usually allowed in Indian National Parks.  On our first night drive we encountered a Large Indian Civet and a Malayan Porcupine.

Large Indian Civet

Malayan Porcupine

We headed out at 4:15 the next morning to explore a new road.  It was pretty sketchy and led to a very steep pitch.  We had to turn around because "Gypsy" couldn't make it.  We drove back to the river crossing and started walking.  Just then, the forest guards pointed out a Northern Red Muntjac behind us.  

Northern Red Muntjac

We walked out to the main river channel where we spotted a lone elephant in the distance.  Marc, Avi, Laguna, Rasambarah and I decided to walk back to camp.  Our route took us along a side river channel into the forest.  The elephants had created some nice trails for us to explore. There were several mixed flocks of birds including minivets, broadbills and a Sultan Tit.

Sultan Tit

As we approached the road Laguna paused to listen.  He had detected an ominous sound in the forest.  About 50 feet away he saw a lone elephant feeding.  We backtracked and waited.  Had he detected us?  If he had he gave no alarm calls.  He moved off slightly and we quickly passed with hearts racing.  We reached a dry river bed where a second Northern Red Muntjac spotted us and moved nimbly off through the rocks.  We reached the road and breathed a sigh of relief.  At least here it was more open and you could see elephants.  We returned to camp around 8:00 where Ramu was preparing breakfast.

Ramu Preparing Breakfast

After resting during the day we headed out around 4:00 for our second night drive.  Just as soon as it got dark the action started.  We spotted a Common Palm Civet posing nicely in a tree above us.

Common Palm Civet

Laguna spotted what he thought was a Slow Loris.  When we stopped to take a closer look, Avi thought it was another Common Palm Civet but something didn't look quite right.  After careful inspection after the arboreal creature moved into a better position, Avi could make out it was a Binturong!   It is uncommon in much of its range, and is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN due to its declining population  (30% over the last three decades).  The Binturong is the only Old World mammal and one of only two carnivores with a prehensile tail (the other is the kinkajou).


On our epic night drive we also saw Sambar and Northern Red Muntjac, Wild Boar, Elephants, Gaur or Indian Bison and Avi spotted the eye shine of a tiger some distance away!


We didn't return to camp until 11:15 and had a very late dinner of noodles.  It had been a very long but exhilarating day!

The next morning we headed out at 6:30 for Upper Dekorai Camp.  We saw some beautiful Scarlet Minivets along the way.

Scarlet Minivet

At Upper Dekorai, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters were swooping along the cliffs high above the river.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters

We kept talking about moving to this more comfortable camp but Nameri East had become our home and the forest guards and mahouts our family.  Back at camp I sat on a bench overlooking the floodplain of the river.   I could see a herd of elephants approaching, first 6, then 2 more and finally 2 more for a total of 10!  

Herd of Wild Asian Elephants Approach

They were here for the salt.  At one time there was a natural salt lick here but now Dharmasour, the head mahout, threw supplemental salt down to them.  Everyone from camp was out to see the elephants.  It was thrilling to watch wild Asian elephants at such a close distance but we were 40 feet above them and perfectly safe.  After about 30 minutes they disappeared back into the forest.

Watching the Elephants!

Elephants at the Salt Lick

Our late afternoon game drive was cut short by thunderstorms.  We returned sullenly back to camp where Konwar made us French fries to cheer us up.    What a scene! The guys were huddled around the fire in our cozy camp protected from the storm.

Cozy Campfire
Fortunately, the storms cleared and we were able to do a night drive.  The recent rain turned out to be a gift as it brought out some new mammals.  As were we turning around in a dry river bed, I spotted a Chinese Pangolin scurrying across the rocks!  Sadly, pangolins are the most heavily poached mammal in this area, so seeing one in the wild was a rare privilege.  I hope that humans will smarten up and stop hunting these amazing creatures before it's too late.

Chinese Pangolin!

The night also yielded Slow Loris, Sambar and Hog Deer, Common Palm Civet, Large Indian Civet, Malayan Porcupine and Himalayan Yellow-throated Marten.  What a night!

The plan was to leave Nameri East the following morning but we couldn't bring ourselves to leave this magical place so opted to stay one more night.  Yippee!

Nameri East Anti-Poaching Camp

In addition to seeing Pakke's amazing wildlife, spending time with the forest guards and mahouts was a real treat.  We got a full appreciation of the hard work they do to protect the park while living in very basic conditions.  Most of the patrols are done on foot but some are done on elephant back.  I wanted to pet Vijoya one of the camp elephants but was told by Amir her assistant mahout that she was too unpredictable and had killed 3 of her previous mahouts.  Yikes!

Amir with Vijoya
I will also miss the 3 camp cats, Gundha, Meow and Meekour.  They scurried around underfoot never allowing us to pet them.  Living in the jungle had made them semi-wild.

Gundha, King of the "Camp Cats"

Our last night and early morning drives did not yield any new mammals but we got better views of some we had already seen.  After spending 6 nights here, it was time to leave Nameri East.  We said our final goodbyes and thanked the team for a once in a lifetime experience to spend nearly a week at an anti-poaching camp in Pakke National Park!

Our Team at Nameri East (photo taken by Avijit Sarkhel)

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Map of Pakke National Park and our location at Nameri East Camp:

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