A Bridge Too Short For Saving The Hoolock Gibbon

Bureaucratic delays and uninformed decision of a Gibbon bridge on railway tracks in Assam falls short of connecting the Gibbon families and meeting the desired purpose as Anuraag Baruah observes while visiting the Gibbon Sanctuary

“It’s not working, not serving the purpose.” the lean, friendly looking forest guard, Mr. Bora shakes his head as I ask him the way to the bridge. We are walking on the railway tracks that pass through the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary near Mariani about an hour’s drive from the upper Assam town of Jorhat bordering Nagaland.

Hollongapar Reserved Forest was notified in 1881 and later upgraded to become the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary. Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the primary habitats of the Hoolock gibbons (Bunopithecushoolock), the only ape species found in India. Undisturbed primate biomass along with a three-tier canopy of greenery makes it a haven for conversationists and nature lovers.

The railway tracks we tread on now are fairly old and dates back to the time when the British laid them to connect Dibrugarh with Chittagong through Lumding. The tracks seem to be the only party spoiler in this conversationists paradise. Only few wildlife enthusiasts know that since they are laid, several Hoolock Gibbon families in the southern part have been cut off from the major section on the northern side. They are known to be exclusively arboreal as they never step on land thus finding it impossible to cross the railway track. The creation of a “canopy bridge” (over-bridge on the tracks connecting the two parts of the Sanctuary) was long due and considered to be the much-awaited solution.

“Around Rs 8-9 lakh was given by the Forest department and look what a disaster it is .”Mr. Bora is definitely not happy as he walks along side me towards the Bridge. “We don’t understand high officers and all that paper and file works. What transpired between the Railway and Forest officials is no concern of ours. We know the ground reality and the reality is that this bridge made after spending lakhs of rupees is not serving its purpose at all because they just missed the whole point.”

Even from a distance I can tell that the bridge is not long enough and manages to just cross over the railway track whereas its two ends should have been hidden deep inside the green canopy on both the sides.

“And Gibbons don’t climb on such thin wires that they have attached to the canopies from the two corners of the bridge,” he continues, “anyway the wires have come off on one side. The whole project is a meaningless thing now!” I admire the thick canopy on both the sides as we pass a sign that declares it as an elephant corridor. Elephants have also borne the brunt of the tracks over the years, as there have been many instances of speeding trains crushing elephants.

Mr. Bora laments the recent death of two elephants after being hit by a passing train. “Though there is a speed limit enforced, trains tend to ignore it”, he tells me. “Nowadays the elephants keep away from the track and instead ransack the nearby villages and tea-gardens.”

The tea estates of Dissoi, Kothalguri, and Hoolonguri have been confronting wild elephants as the animal corridor pass through them leading to the Dissoi Valley Reserve Forest and then to Nagaland. Elephants are not unfamiliar to the residents here but with the habitat loss of animals and rise of human population the human-animal conflict has escalated.  It is said that the local country liquor brewed by tea-garden labourers are a hot favourite among the elephants. Tales of elephants attacking breweries and getting drunk intersperse the local stories.

After 10 minutes we are near the bridge and I can see that wires have come off from one end.The state symbol of Assam, Hollong trees stand tall before us as cries of Hoolock Gibbon is clear. The nearest tree is almost 50-80 meters away from the two ends of the Bridge. Mr. Bora points out to me that if a Gibbon manages to come this far without the trees and the accompanying canopy, he or she might as well cross the track walking. Meanwhile Gibbons on the odd side of the track with the comparatively smaller population are developing serious genetic disorders due to inbreeding.

The Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary is the first to be named after Gibbons, the only apes to be found in India. Spread over an area of 20.98 sq. km., the sanctuary is home to seven species of primates including the endangered stump-tailed macaque.

Gibbon is on the Red List of Threatened Species (vulnerable) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).It is also enlisted in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (amended in 2002).And a disputed over-bridge on a railway track seems to be deciding its future.

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