I am shamelessly opportunistic when it comes to enlisting strangers in my travel plans. On a recent sojourn in Arunachal Pradesh, I approached an elderly Swedish couple to ask if I could join them on their day-long trip to the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. I must have sounded convincing for they agreed without hesitation. Soon I was in their vehicle, heading towards one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, comparable to the Andes in South America. Situated at the foot of the Himalayas in Arunchal’s West Kameng district, the sanctuary’s altitude is between 1,640 and 10,826 feet above sea level. The vast stretch of Eaglenest incorporates the nearby Bugun Community Forest. Roads to the highest point, Eaglenest Pass, are dotted with different camps (Lama Camp and, the Bompu and Sessni Camps, towards the lower plains).
The park is a dream for anyone wanting to sight uncommon birds, mammals, reptiles or butterflies—more species than I can remember. My sweet Swedish companions, having crossed their 60s, were laid-back. “We just want to enjoy the beauty of the forest. Too old to look for those tiny birds, but we would love to see some mammals, maybe some cats,” Mr. Dante said. An engineer and business developer, Dante loves to travel; the couple has visited one foreign destination every year for the past 40 years. I was not sure he knew that sighting any mammal in a forest is difficult, more so in the jungles of Arunachal, which have some of the rarest and reclusive species, many of them nocturnal.
I tried to explain this to them. “The sanctuary has cats like the clouded leopard, the marbled cat, the leopard cat, and the golden cat, but the chances of seeing them are slim,” I said. This didn’t faze them. The husband and wife were happy to serenely amble through the reserve’s carousel of landscapes—from cliffs and waterfalls as we climbed up to Eaglenest Pass, to evergreen forests as we descended. The area around the pass is the best place to look for gorals and serows and elephants.
We passed by Sundar View, a small camp that was originally called “Centre View,” as it offered a strategic view of valley to the Indian army regiment that was once stationed in the area. Chakhu, the next camp, was named after an Indian sniper named Chako. There were once barracks, camps, horse stables and tea-stalls here; this was where the first Chinese incursion occurred during the 1962 war with India. Our guide regaled us with implausible but entertaining stories of an irresistibly charming female Chinese spy, who managed a tea-stall in these parts, and extracted information from officers.
From Chakhu to Bongpu we passed tall moss-laden trees, with sap oozing out of their trunks. The undergrowth had a blanket of shrubs and some of the longest and most intricate ferns I have seen. Clouds drifted under the high canopy of trees, changing the vista dramatically. Every now and then, our guide Dinesh stopped to look for signs of bird activity. We saw a flock of beautiful sibias take turns sucking sap from a tree, while some hoary-bellied waxwings moved stealthily in the thickets near us.
Suddenly, our driver stopped the car and shouted, “Leopard cat!” I quickly grabbed my binoculars to look. A small cat, with large rosettes in its body, stood on the road ahead of us. Something didn’t seem right, and I focused on the cat’s unusually thick tail. It struck me that this wasn’t a leopard cat at all.
“A marbled cat,” I exclaimed. It was a very, very rare marbled cat. A tree-living species, it is found only in north eastern India. The cat stood still for a long time, unbothered, as I slowly stepped out of the car. It watched us with large, round eyes. Finally, it walked off the path, consumed by the forest.
As I boarded the car, I caught the beaming smiles on Mr. Dante and his wife’s faces. “Ten years—two times!” repeated Raju, our driver. For the rest of us, it was a precious first.
That was our final sighting for the day but my subsequent stay in Eaglenest yielded more fortuitous run-ins. Once, while lying down in my room in the Ramalingam camp, I was gazing out of the window at a hilly slope. There was a patch of rhododendron in full bloom. All of a sudden, I saw a pair of yellow creatures running towards it. Grabbing my binoculars, I was mildly surprised to see a pair of yellow-throated martens, a species found mostly in the Himalayas and notorious for their hunting skills. They resemble cute, smiling bear cubs. During a trek upwards from Lama Camp, I spotted the red panda, notoriously shy and rarely seen.
The park’s marvellous species diversity is a credit to the zeal with which the indigenous people of this region, together with the forest department and scientists, protect the ecosystem. While luck had something to do with me winning a lottery of sightings, the care with which Eaglenest is preserved has a lot to do with it too.
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.