For India’s imperiled apes, thinking locally matters

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Eastern hoolock gibbons

Driving 120 kilometers (75 miles) north from Barekuri, the lush green fields of the easternmost corner of Assam gradually give way to the Mishimi Hills of Lower Dibang Valley district in Arunachal Pradesh state.

The Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary, the only protected area in India established to protect the eastern hoolock gibbon (Hoolock leuconedys), is located here. A sister species to the western hoolock gibbon, the eastern species is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, and is found mostly in Myanmar. The total population is estimated to stand at more than 10,000 individuals, with a 2013 survey putting the number perhaps as high as 50,000.

The species’ only known habitats in India are in Arunachal Pradesh and a small part of Assam. (And, in fact, there is some taxonomic debate about the gibbon population in Mehao; some primatologists contend it represents a distinct gibbon species.)

Field surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 identified 157 groups of gibbons within the sanctuary, with an average of about three gibbons per group. The villages on its fringes also host a substantial population of gibbons, estimated in a 2014 study at 116 individuals. A combination of threats has imperiled this vulnerable population and its habitat: conversion of forest land for commercial cash crops, logging, hunting, and infrastructure development. In certain forest fragments, the stress is so acute that gibbons have a home range of less than 1 hectare (2.5 acres), whereas naturally they require an area of about 35 hectares (86 acres).

Conservationist and nature photographer Anoko Mega works for hoolock gibbon conservation in Mehao, Lower Dibang Valley district, Arunachal Pradesh. Image by Prakash Bhuyan.

Anoko Mega, program coordinator with the Abralow Memorial Multipurpose Society, a nonprofit based near Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary, says he is intervening in his “own small ways,” to change the species’ seemingly bleak future.

“We’re taking a three-pronged strategy: creating mass awareness about hoolock gibbon conservation; planting trees in gibbon-occurring areas; and convincing landowners not to fell the trees on which gibbons are taking shelter,” says Mega.

One such effort was to convince local farmer Eketo Mendo not to fell trees on his land that host a gibbon family. In his farm in the village of Abango, the family of three hoolock gibbons — a couple and their juvenile son — can be seen swinging from tree-tops in forest spanning about 4 hectares (10 acres). Supported by a grant from the Mumbai-based Sanctuary Nature Foundation under its Mud on Boots project, Mega recently planted more than a hundred saplings on the plot of land Mendo spared.

Eketo Mendo, an Idu-Mishimi subsistence farmer in Abango, a village bordering Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary in Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, has left a forested patch of his farm uncultivated so that a family of eastern hoolock gibbons can continue to live there. Image by Prakash Bhuyan.

“Giving in to my persuasion, he’s agreed to keep that forest patch intact and spare that part of his farm for the gibbons. But it’s an economically pressing decision for a subsistence farmer like him to leave a plot uncultivated,” Mega says. It’s very hard to convince landowners if there’s no economic incentive to offer in return, he adds. “Without any money, it’s a near impossible task.”

However, cultural taboos do come in handy. The Idu-Mishimi, the tribe both Mega and Mendo belong to, believe that killing hoolock gibbons — aame epaan in the Idu-Mishimi language — is a sacrilege of the highest order.

“Let alone killing, even to spot the aame epaan is considered a bad omen,” Mega says.

The Idu-Mishimi and the Adi, another indigenous tribe, are the two communities that inhabit the villages on the fringes of Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. While Adis hunt hoolock gibbons, Idu-Mishimis don’t because of their adherence to the age-old cultural taboo.

Therefore, Mega says, “hoolock gibbons living in Idu-Mishimi areas are safe from hunting.”

Two decades ago, David Pulu, now a 42-year-old Idu-Mishimi tribesman from Roing village, shot dead a hoolock gibbon in Mehao, mistaking it for some game animal.

“It’s a nightmare I don’t want to recall,” Pulu, who had to do an elaborate propitiatory ritual to make up for the profanation, says remorsefully about the incident. “Such a thing should never happen to any Idu-Mishimi man.

“For us, Idu-Mishimis, killing the aame epaan is like killing someone from your own family.”

As a result, in Idu-Mishimi areas, simply working to make sure people are able to maintain traditional cultural practices is key to conservation.

Abralow Memorial Multipurpose Society, a non-profit based in Roing, Lower Dibang Valley, led by Anoko Mega organizes eastern hoolock gibbon conservation awareness programs in the Mehao area. This photograph is from one such awareness program held at a government school in Injono village. Image courtesy of Anoko Mega.

The way forward

“To protect hoolock gibbons, we need to check habitat loss and further fragmentation of habitats at the earliest and start at war footing the restoration of their habitats,” primatologist Sharma says. “Measures such as creating corridors between fragmented habitats by planting trees and establishing canopy bridges would also help.

“Basically what we need is sustained conservation efforts.”

But such sustained efforts need to take into account the specific factors at play in each habitat. The ongoing problems of deforestation and encroachment in parks and sanctuaries show that simply declaring an area protected isn’t enough.

“It is imperative that we adopt a context-specific approach to hoolock gibbon conservation that takes cognizance of each habitat’s unique issues,” says Aaranyak’s Chetry.

As the cases of Hima Malai Sohmat, Barekuri and Mehao show, there is no one-size-fits-all conservation solution for hoolock gibbons. Each gibbon habitat has its own challenges, as well as unique cultural strengths to draw on.

In Hima Malai Sohmat, if villagers could be given economic alternatives to broom grass and bay leaf cultivation, and enough income so that human interference in the forest is reduced, it could go a long way to protecting hoolock gibbons. By contrast, gibbon habitat isn’t so tightly connected to the livelihood practices of villagers in Barekuri. There, villagers themselves are calling on the government to establish a gibbon reserve.

On other hand, in the Idu-Mishimi villages of Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary, gibbons are safe from hunting because of a cultural taboo, but habitat loss is still taking a toll on them. There, local activists demand a halt to the use of mechanized chainsaws, and rigorous enforcement of regulations within the protected area.

Strategies that could be effective in one habitat seem likely to fall flat in others. Fortunately for hoolock gibbons, grassroots initiatives, deeply informed by local realities, are already working to protect these rare animals.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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