Written by Divya Vasudev, photographs by Varun Goswami
I look up at the two figures in the trees, one jet black and one a soft fawn. The hoolock gibbon pair is high up in the only surviving fig tree in the village, surrounded on all sides by the arecanut trees that represent the main livelihood of the people. Emanating from the highest branches is the booming duet of these apes, the sound I have come to Garo Hills to hear. As the rhythm of their song resonates through me, I think of times when the valleys of Garo Hills would respond to this call; when the early rays of dawn would instigate a chorus of gibbon groups that awakened the landscape; when life’s journey for this charismatic ape was not restricted by impenetrable stretches of treeless ground. But try as I might, today I cannot hear their song’s echo. As I sit there wondering what the future of gibbons in Garo Hills will be, my field assistant sounds the last clanging bell of alarm. “There used to be three gibbons in this group,” he whispers, “but some men killed one. We never used to harm gibbons earlier, nor did our elders. But nowadays things are different; some people have even started eating gibbons.”
Sitting around the village fire one cold winter evening, I reflect that this is the best time to get an insight into the cultural relationship of people with gibbons. I look around and ask in my broken Garo for folktales, or as one would say in Garo, guolpos about gibbons. Garo people believe that the wisdom of village elders is preserved in the eyes of the gibbons, one old man tells me. So when one dies, he continues, the notes of the gibbon song decide if one’s soul attains peace. “Our elders have always told us not to harm gibbons. Something bad will happen to the village if they are hurt,” another of my companions explains to me.
Quite contrary to this attitude is that towards the capped langur and macaque species, the other primates found in Garo Hills. These monkeys are chased on sight from fields and plantations and when caught, make their way into the cooking pot. But gibbons, for some reason are seen in a different light. To a large extent, this is due to traditional custom. “Gibbons don’t damage the plants like the langurs do”, another person adds. I can readily believe that, for gibbons are by far the most graceful being I have yet seen in the trees. They move from branch to branch using their arms, brachiating, as it is technically called, more often than jumping, and their movements are like a well-rehearsed circus act. Also to their advantage, gibbons are found in close family groups, much like human nuclear families. A single adult male and female hold a territory with their infants, and juveniles must leave as soon as they are able to fend for themselves. These small groups of 4-5 members can surely not do as much damage as the langur groups, up to 20 strong, or the macaque groups which can be even larger.
Largely due to these beliefs, and also thanks to the custom of preserving sacred forests, gibbons are still found in many villages in Garo Hills. The region still has remnants of sacred forests, preserved as catchments of fuelwood, water, and other forest produce people find use for. But demands on the land are brutal, and arecanut, rubber and cashew are taking over once-majestic forest trees in large strides. Land, once managed by the village headmen and serving as agricultural fields on rotational bases is now subject to blind targets set by the rubber, cashew and arecanut markets. Forests stand little chance against this onslaught and along with them are lost their constituents. Tigers, once found in Garo Hills, have probably succumbed to the pressures of land-use changes years ago. Elephants, leopards, sambar and gaur, once common, are slowly retreating to less punishing regions. Gibbons are yet another victim of the change that has transformed the rich bio-diverse forests of Garo Hills to a monotonous stretch of arecanut trees.
Evolutionarily speaking, gibbons are the closest to cousins we find in the subcontinent. Only chimpanzees and gorillas of Africa and orang-utans of Borneo and Sumatra rank closer. Gibbons, in fact, are the only ape, apart from humans, found in India. Blood relations as they are, one would expect that their future would be safely secured in our country. But this is not so. Gibbons have lost up to 90% of their original numbers in a few decades due to mindless and uncontrolled forest clearance and degradation. While the world has recognised that the gibbon is now in grave danger of being lost to our country, and has indeed listed the western hoolock gibbon, the species found here, as one of 25 most endangered primates worldwide, our country has made no definite steps to secure their future. Neither have our people comprehended the magnitude or imminence of the loss we will incur if and when gibbons vanish from our lands.
For today, gibbons have found refuge in Garo folklore and in an adaptive leap from their erstwhile home in forests to villages. But time has been an enemy of this ape and our cousins are not out of the dark as yet. Once an animal of the canopy, even restricting their water sources to dew collected on leaves, gibbons find themselves in pockets of forests that are getting shorter and thinner by the day. Their small population sizes are a clanging bell to all conservationists – it is the sign of their habitat being splintered into small fragments. Their survival as one or two groups in each village means that there is little chance of their survival in the long term unless they manage to traverse confidently through vast stretches of plantations. Their journey has become all the more hazardous with the growing intolerance of their presence in plantations and fields that has come with jeans and Justin Beiber. Unless this attitude is reversed to strengthen the Garo cultural bond with nature once again, these apes will die out in all but the larger protected forests in a few generations. The hoolock gibbon has moved into our lands in the hope that they can survive the anthropogenic changes that have transfigured their forests; what happens tomorrow largely depends on how we live up to their leap of faith.
This article appeared in Shillong Times.