Natural History & Its Unsolved Mysteries – In The Magical Orchid Conservation Trail of Tale Wildlife Sanctuary ( a travelogue)

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By- Novanita Sharma

Nestled amidst the blue hills of Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh lay the surprisingly flattened wide expanse of the Apatani valley, the beautiful abode of the industrious and artistic Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Ziro is the Headquarter of Lower Subansiri District, Arunachal Pradesh. The beautifully organized wet paddy fields of Ziro valley with green hills of the lower ranges of the Eastern Himalayas in the backdrop welcomes the visitors to this quaint place with an endearing charm of its own kind. I reached Ziro on 5th March, 2023 with my family and friends after a 10 hrs. long road trip from Guwahati. This is my long awaited, maiden visit to the Ziro valley. I look forward to explore and see this beautiful land, its people, their culture and many more. But I remain specifically focused on visiting the rich natural forest of Apatani valley, which makes Tale Wildlife Sanctuary my sought after destination in this part of Arunachal Pradesh. According to many the first Apatani community lived at the Tale valley, they later moved to Ziro valley looking for ideal grounds for agriculture and inhabitation. The Apatani valley has many legends and stories, one of such famous legend is about ‘Buru’, the cryptid lizard which according to Apatani folklore once roamed freely in the Ziro valley. The Apatani valley seems to be a treasure trove of hidden mysteries and I feel the ideal place to find these are the native forests of Apatani valley. The best part of this trip is that we were able to fix our itinerary in advance with a day devoted to visit Pange camp of Tale WLS. Comprising of an undisturbed climax vegetation harboring a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, this wildlife sanctuary was established in 1995. This forest is known to be home for many endangered species, many species are unique to this sanctuary. It includes Apatani Glory (Elcsyma ziroensis), the threatened Moth species which has been named after the Apatani tribe of the Ziro plateau, another unique species is Rhododendron pangeanum (Senyee Apu), a Rhododendron species endemic to Arunachal Pradesh and so far, reported from only Lower Subansiri District. It is named after the Pange Camp. The sanctuary is a floral paradise. The Tale wildlife sanctuary is named after the plant ‘Tale’ which abundantly grow in the valley. Tale in local Apatani dialect is the name of a wild variety of onion (Allium hookerii) and is called as ‘Tala’ by the Nyishi tribe. Tale valley is the sanctum sanctorum of the Tale WLS, it is located at 15km from the Pange camp and the Tale WLS is located at 16kms from Ziro. 

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On 7th March, 2023, we set out for the most awaited day of this tour to Ziro valley. We drove to Monipalyong from Ziro. From here we hit the 7 km fair weather road which is a dirt trek covered with mud and slush in this season.  This 7 km takes one through the Hapoli territorial forest, the trek provides beautiful views of this rich forest and its wildlife on either side of it. After three and half hour of trek through the Hapoli Territorial Forest, we arrived at Pange, the Range Headquarter of Tale Wildlife Sanctuary. The first sight of the Pange river was such a respite after managing to walk past the 7 kms through this muddy, slippery road without breaking bones and at minimal amount of misadventure like one or two shoes getting sucked in the syrupy mud layers. The forest road through the Hapoli Territorial Forest was precariously covered with mud at several places, which was really difficulty to maneuver. This road opens to only light vehicles during the winters, in other seasons the only way to reach Pange is to hike through this fair-weather road across the Hapoli territorial forest. The Pange Range HQ is situated right next to the Pange river; the effervescent hill river flowing across the pebbled bed seems to offer customary welcome the everyone visiting the Tale WLS. The warmth of mountain rivers always endears me, I was delighted to meet this picturesque river at the entrance of Tale WLS. We crossed the small Bailey bridge built over this river to enter the Pange Camp. The idyllic campus of Pange Camp is situated at a beautiful spot amidst the sea of wilderness of Tale WLS. The traditional Apatani style kitchen made of bamboo and wood is the warmest corner in this place. This time my team of travel buddies comprised of three restless teenagers and seven adults which includes Mobia Habung, our guide in this forest visit. The youngest members of the team warmed up to this beautiful place immediately, cut off from the world of WIFI and modernity this place is a welcome change for these urban kids. The bamboo kitchen housed upon the stilts provided a comfortable porch for the adults to catch their breath after the difficult trek a while ago, tea served from the kitchen ringed in the necessary warmth to wade away the fatigue from everyone’s mind and body. Adding to the charm of this quaint place were three puppies; furry, naughty, and adorable these little munchkins stole everyone’s heart with their nonstop hustle bustle. Kush, Adi and Tweety, our little ones joined this bunch of mischief with full enthusiasm. While everyone found their own corner in this place, I stretched on the ground overlooking the forested hills of the Tale WLS wondering my prospects of visiting this absolute wilderness sometime in near future. We came for a day long visit to Pange, we will return to Hapoli after having lunch at this place. My heart was longing to spend more time amidst this wilderness. Habung had informed me about the possibility of making halt at Pange Camp; they have provisions for lodging at this place for 2-3 people but food must be carried from Hapoli. In fact, we carried the ration, vegetables, even meat for our lunch here at Pange camp this afternoon. One can visit Tale valley from here, the core area of the Tale WLS located 15km from the Pange camp. I was pondering over the possibilities of returning to Pange for a longer halt and plan my visit to the exotic Tale Valley, a secluded home of pristine Eastern Himalayan Forest ecosystem. I was dreaming of this future trip while basking in the warmth of the Pange camp when Habung came up to me with an irresistible offer. Right next to the Pange camp is the Orchid conservation trail, where visitors can enjoy the beauty of this climax forest patch with a rare chance to see a wide collection of orchids and epiphytes species native to the Ziro valley. The sky was overcast and I had limited time in hand, but I cannot miss this opportunity to get a closer feel of this forest, moreover the enthusiasm shown by Habung in taking me to this orchid trail is unbeatable. I said yes to Habung and I immediately rushed to the kitchen; I set off for the orchid trail after informing my team members who were enjoying the warmth in the cosy kitchen, it was the den for everyone amidst laughter and fun over the preparation for lunch. I will miss this fun but the prospect of visiting the forest is overpowering for me. So, I chose to grab this exclusive time in the beautiful forest of Tale WLS. Mobia Habung is a quintessential Apatani man, hardworking, ingenious, humble, and proud of his land and culture. He divides his time between his paddy field and his duty as a forest guard under the Forest Department of Arunachal Pradesh. The previous day he took us on a guided tour of the Apatani villages, an unforgettable experience for me and everyone in the team. His love for the Apatani traditions and culture equally matches his passion for the forests of his land. The seven hours trek through the Hapoli territorial forest was very enriching for me because of Habung’s company. He provided many interesting information regarding this forest and vegetation. His eagerness to know more about forest conservation is very heartwarming. Habung took me on the orchid trail from the Pange camp, it is a narrow trail making its way upwards towards a hill sharing the boundary of the Pange camp. He said it takes roughly one hour to complete the trail. I checked the time, it was 1pm, I said ‘good we will be back by lunch time’. As we began ascending the height of the hill, the drop of temperature was distinctly felt. As we advanced into the depth of the forest, the thickness of moss layers over the trees, branches and the forest floor increased manyfold. This forest was like a magical creation of some Moss goddess. I never saw such diversity and density of moss species in any forest of NE India before this. The moist temperature and shade under the thick forest canopy creates an ideal condition for this luxuriant growth of moss in this forest. I was amazed with the moss cover spread all over the forest, I lunged endless questions regarding this Moss vegetation on Habung.  He said such moss cover is characteristic of Tale WLS. After getting caught up in with the rich moss growth all around for considerable time, my eyes gradually got accustomed to spot other vegetations in the forest. Different species of orchids appeared on the intricate mesh of branches all around me. Habung drew my attention to the name plates kept next to each species of orchid. He explained how this orchid trail came into existence. Native orchid species from different parts of this forest and from different locations of Ziro valley has been translocated to Pange for the purpose of germplasm collection, education, research, and tourism. He explained how everyone in the department put effort to translocate these orchid species without causing damage to the plants and the natural environment while executing the whole process. Habung knew the exact locations in the forest to look for any species of orchid, he did not know many names but he explained me about the flowering and habit of those species from his memory. His involvement with this orchid trail is evident from his conversation, his enthusiasm was catchy. I was thrilled to be in this beautiful patch of Tale valley temperate forest, I never had a chance to give such dedicated attention to orchids in any of my previous forest visits despite my keen interest in flora. Whenever I visit any forest area, I do ensure to capture first hand sightings of interesting floral species of that forest and my quest does not end until I collect information about these species from reliable sources. We often remain so engrossed in our look out for fauna and species which are physically larger in sizes while visiting forests that highly specialized life forms like orchids which represent Nature’s master craftmanship goes unnoticed. This orchid trail at Pange is perhaps one of the rarest conservation initiatives in India which highlights the significance of wonderful flora like orchids growing wild in our forests. This trail offers a rare opportunity to visitors to see such a wide number and variety of orchid species of Apatani valley in one place within this 4km orchid trail. This is indeed a lifetime experience for any botanist or nature lover. While there is a mushrooming of orchidarium in many places now, many commercially approved varieties of orchids are grown for trading but the real beauty of orchid is in absolute wilderness. I am sorry to say but there is no use basking in false pride of growing orchids in your garden until you do not understand its botanical value, its significance in natural history. Orchids belong to forests, its natural habitats and not to your gardens. This Orchid trail provides a unique opportunity to revel the adventure of seeing a wide variety of orchids in its natural habitat; it is a magical orchid forest at Pange Camp laden with amazing biodiversity all around.  

The author with Mobia Habung in Hapoli Territorial Forest

Climbing this trail across the labyrinth of woody roots of the huge trees, all of them covered under thick diversity of mosses felt like a spy game. Misty and cold, the forest was covered under a mysterious aura of suspense. Checking almost every orchid in the trail, some in luxuriant leafy growth, some showing signs of recovery, yet others struggling with the resources to make life possible, at times we stumbled upon marks of failed translocation where orchids are not seen, and yet many times Habung was pleased to see tender shoots of orchids throwing hope of future growth on many branches. For Habung it was a time to update himself with the current condition of the trail, a chance of random follow up. We climbed for more than half an hour to arrive at the summit of this hill. Habung said that we will take a turn while climbing downhill to complete a circle around this hill. Remembering orchid names is not easy, the forest workers have labeled almost every orchid in the trail which is very helpful for identification and especially for research purpose. I saved some of these names in my camera which includes –   Gastrochilus intermediusOberonia manniLiparis bistriataDendrobium moniliformeCymbidium elegansLiparis bistriatBulbophyllum sp., Pholidota protractaCoelogyne longipesCeratostylis himalaciaDendrobium rotundatumCoelgyne barbataBulbophyllum retusiusculumOtochilus porrectusPlaeione praecoxCoelgyne fimbriataGastroclulus sp., Dendrobium longicornuCoelogyne occultataOberonia sp., Phalaenopsis taenialisPinalia excavateBulleyia yunnanensisCoelogyne strictaCymbidium cochleareBulbophylum scabratum, etc. But putting everything aside, this orchid trail epitomizes the dedication towards forest conservation of forest workers like Habung who truly love their forests. Mobia Habung’s dedication and motivation to do something good for his beloved forests of his ancestors is worth an applause. Forest conservation initiatives like this orchid trail at Pange will never be successful until we find people like Mobia Habung working for such initiatives. This requires pure love for forests and love for your own country, hefty salary packages and university degrees can lead to fancy boardrooms but working in forests requires the strength of nature-love. Mobia Habung’s simplicity, and eagerness to protect this forest truly motivated me; it assures me the possibility of finding people with true motivation to protect the native forests and mountains of NE India. Habung’s dedication to forest conservation and the Orchid Conservation Trail at Pange Camp is an inspiration for holistic forest conservation approach which can be adopted in other parts of NE India, including my home state of Assam. We walked past the thickets of the orchid trail meeting many more orchid species on our way. We completed the trail in an hour, I realized the time once we walked out of the dense canopy to feel the sunshine all around me. It felt like zooming into a different realm, the mysterious world of the temperate thickets will remain vivid in my mind forever. We crossed the fences to arrive at the Pange camp. The kitchen was alive, with kids lazying around the fire and everyone enjoying the warmth of this humble place, not to be found anywhere in our modern dwellings. Food was almost ready, chicken curry, dal, rice and freshly cut salad seem irresistible. Food was cooked over firewood by Soren Da, the official cook at Pange camp. We finished our lunch on the bamboo picnic tables standing outside the kitchen, food was finger licking delicious. Each one of us over ate though we had 7 km return trek ahead of us. Habung told me about the beauty of Tale valley, my imagination especially caught up with the Tale nature trail and the Rhododendron-Bamboo trail. The thoughts of seeing the exuberance of moss, Bamboo and Rhododendron evokes immense motivation to make my next trip to Pange Camp very soon. With my mind filled with happiness and a firm resolve to return to Pange camp at earliest, this time for a longer stay and an onward journey to the exquisite Tale WLS, I joined my team in our return march to Monipolyang.