A champion

My only sighting of a Himalayan Birdwing (Troides aeacus) came one evening in the Mizo hills area of Tripura. A very large black and yellow butterfly flew past overhead, headed straight for flowers at the top of a nearby tree. I took a couple of photos, but it was sitting edge on to me, and in silhouette I could no longer see the attractive colours. We talked about the then record-holder amongst Indian butterflies, the Southern Birdwing (Troides Minos), of which one specimen collected in 1932 had a wingspan of 190 mm (7.5 inches). I’d not seen one then, and I still haven’t. The butterfly we had just seen was easily as large as a sparrow, perhaps larger. But the photo was not very good, and I put it away.

This March a new champion emerged. One specimen of the Himalayan Birdwing turned out have a wingspan of 194 mm, beating its southern cousin by a whisker! When I read that paper, by Shristee Panthee and Peter Smetacek in Bionotes (Bhimtal), I had to dig out the featured photo. It is not a good photo at all, but if you look carefully, you can see that the hindwing is yellow and the forewing is black, with some streaks of white or yellow. When you have only one photo of a champ you are proud of it, even if he is not seen at his best.

Trucks

If you find yourself at a loose end in Agartala, you could just take a rickshaw to the border crossing to Bangladesh. It is a busy place. A vendor from across the border tried to sell us jhalmuri, but was told by guards from both sides that he could not cross the border. Nor could we, so I cannot give you a comparison between Bangladeshi and Indian jhalmuri. Many others with permits could go across. Individuals came on one rickshaw, crossed the border on foot, and then took a different rickshaw on the other side.

Trucks crossed in both directions. I’m used to seeing the message “Horn OK Please” across the back of every truck I see on Indian roads. I found that the same message was carried by trucks from Bangladesh.

Another truck had a beautiful painting of an unidentifiable bird. We discussed this a bit, and thought that the aggressive posture, and the shape of the beak, meant that it was a raptor. Perhaps a hawk or an eagle.

But the winner was clearly this painting on the door of a truck parked off to one side. Here was a person with a large heart. I just love that bucket below to hold the dripping blood!

Golden langurs

Gee’s golden langur (Trachypithecus geei, or just the golden langur) is the rarest of monkeys. Scattered reports of it were found in literature since the 19th century CE, but the first specimens were captured, and a description published only in 1956. Three of us, The Family, our friend and first wildlife guide, Doe, and I, had a completely unexpected view of a small group in Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura.

We’d reached the sanctuary late, walked for a bit into the forest, and given up hopes of seeing anything. Doe and The Family stood at the edge of the pond and chatted while I walked down a spit of mud to take photos of dragonflies. There was a bunch of about ten monkeys making a commotion overhead. Finishing my shoot I looked up, and found that they were pretty unusual monkeys. There are two populations of the golden langur, separated by about three hundred kilometers. One is in Tripura where we had our sighting, but the better known one is in Assam, north of the Brahmaputra, into south-east Bhutan.

The group was a little shy in the beginning, but as we stood there and took photos, they got used to the idea of being looked at, and went back to foraging. Eventually, as the sun was about to set, they relaxed and sat back to start grooming each other. They are classified as “endangered” in the IUCN red list, just a step up from the designation of “critical” which precedes extinction. The main danger they face is habitat loss, although, since they live near dense human habitation, there is incidental threat to them from power lines and dogs. The forest floor was quite dark as we walked back to our jeep, wondering whether the sun was setting on the species too.

Clouded Leopards

Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) are shy nocturnal creatures which spend days sleeping on branches of trees. In retrospect I realize that we were really lucky with wildlife sightings in Tripura. We saw two of these rare beasts in the Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary. Its habitat must have once ranged right from the central Himalayan range eastwards to Taiwan, across most of south eastern Asia and southern China. Now the population is fragmented; but a patchwork of forests and reserves from the Chittagong hills in Bangladesh, across Tripura and Mizoram, and into Myanmar holds a small number of these threatened animals classed as “vulnerable” by IUCN.

We spotted one sprawled across a sturdy branch near the bottom of the forest canopy above us. The grey pelt with the patches of darker fur give it its name. After a long unsuccessful wait to see its face we moved on, but luckily within a few hundred meters we saw another individual sleeping with its face towards us. We must have made some noise, because it raised its face a little, yawned, and then lay back down again. A list of sightings in the wikipedia page talk about a cluster of photos, apparently the first of this animal, taken in the early years of this decade, right about when we saw these animals. That makes me think that there must have been changes in land use just around then. The black topped road that allowed us to see these two magnificent cats probably were the first signs of human encroachment on their territory. It is sad to realize now that travelers like us are signs of the very destruction that we would like to prevent.

Day of lost species

November 30 is designated the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I think I will use this time to refresh my memories of Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus Phayrei, also called the spectacled langur). We saw a family group of six or seven (this included a juvenile) in Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary, sitting on a tree, munching away at leaves. At first we thought they were the familiar rhesus monkey, but when we looked at them we realized they were quite different. They are smaller, and the white fur around the eyes, the spectacles, is as distinctive as the moustache. The group size and behaviour was typical. When the juveniles are 4-5 years old they leave the group. Individuals can live up to an age of abbout 20 years.

Leaf monkeys developed in Southeast Asia about three million years ago and have radiated into about twenty living species, mostly threatened. The case of the Indian population of Phayre’s leaf monkey is typical. They are well protected in a few isolated sanctuaries, there are some international efforts at conservation, but the protected areas are small and well-separated from each other. As a result the populations are now quite inbred. The situation is not much better over the rest of its range: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Much of this region is densely populated, and forest land is being lost fairly rapidly.

The spectacled langur is classed as “endangered” by IUCN. If habitat loss continues, it will inevitably slide to “critical” and then to “extinct”. I have encountered many beautiful and strange species since 2005, when I started to visit wildlife reserves around India. Sadly, a large fraction of them are threatened.

At the other end of the country

2012-05-12 19.44.43Yesterday as we ate mawa jalebis, we noticed that there was a rival shop just across the lane. The two shops facing each other had the same name, each claimed that it was the original and oldest, and that it had no branches anywhere. The Family and I laughed at this petty display of what was clearly a falling out of partners. That, inevitably, reminded us of a trip to Tripura several years ago, and of our best meal in Agartala.

To get to Tripura from Mumbai you have to cross two countries: most of India, and then Bangladesh. Tripura is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh and connects to India only through a narrow neck in the east. We flew to Kolkata, and then over Bangladesh to Agartala. On the plane The Family found that we must eat in a restaurant called Adi Shankar. This was well-known in Agartala. We set out on foot from our hotel near the old palace, and eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, landed up in front of four restaurants in a row, all called Adi Shankar.

I was flummoxed. The Family looked around and found a small shed with a tailor’s shop. She asked the tailor which of the Adi Shankars was the best. The old man replied that the four restaurants belong to four brothers, who quarreled about their roles in their father’s establishment after he died, and ended up dividing the restaurant. He told us that the best food was made by the eldest brother, and pointed out his shop. Since this was the only review we had, we took it at face value, and walked in.

2012-05-12 19.44.13We were early for dinner by Bengali standards, and the place was completely empty. The result was that we got the owner-cook’s undivided attention. Adi Shankar specialized in Ilish, a fish whose name can cause some Bengalis to launch into interminable reminiscences. (It is the national fish of Bangladesh, one of the triumvirate of countries with a national fish.) The tastiest of the fish is supposed to come from the Bangladeshi river called Padma. We were assured that the fish served in this restaurant comes every day from the very same Padma. We had Hilsa four ways: fried, as a starter, cooked in a thin curry, fried and then cooked into a curry, and, finally, cooked in a mustard paste.

What can one say about a meal after three years? Only that the memory still remains fresh in our minds. We must have eaten other things that evening, but we remember nothing else; the memory of the taste of that fish has overwhelmed everything. We took photos of the owners of the restaurant before we left. We went back for dinner once more, but that evening a large party had apparently finished all their Ilish, so we had to make do with other fish. I hope the family is still in business, and that their love of food remains fresh, because some day I want to go back there.