A ficus full of life

After four months of desk work in Mysore, I was really looking forward to fieldwork in Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh with my Lisu friends. The Lisu are one of the local communities around Namdapha.

On day 1, I was marking a transect with my Lisu friends, Ngwayotse and Adusey,when suddenly Ngwayotse, whispered ‘Paigolo’. I was really excited—paigolo was their name for the the binturong—I might now get to see it! We quietly walked to a spot from where we could get a view of the animal. After ten minutes of neck stretching, we caught sight of something moving slowly along the branches of a tall strangler fig. All we saw were glimpses of its black body, long prehensile tail, and gray hair on its forehead, before it vanished.

binturong Photo: Pahi Tachang

Figs or ficus are a type of fruiting tree that occur in many kinds of forests. Figs fruit year round, providing animals with food in seasons when other fruit resources are scarce. The quantity of fruit they can bear and the diversity animals they can support, is stunning. Asynchronous fruiting—meaning that fig trees of the same species don’t all fruit together, they can fruit at completely different times of the year—ensures that animals can have a food resource even when other sources are scarce. And in turn, this ensures that fig seeds are dispersed far away from the source tree—quite an advantage for the tree as well.

We decided to go visit the same fig tree the next morning. The three of us sat under the tree before dawn, hidden in the undergrowth. Soon we heard a loud, rhythmic sound of wing flaps. The first day, first show of the ficus tree-watch featured Great Hornbills!

Three of them landed on the other side of the fruiting ficus. Soon, five Wreathed Hornbills came along. Being such large birds, one might expect them to be clumsy while eating the small fruits. But they neatly picked the figs from the branches, extending their long bills and neck.

In Namdapha, both the Great Hornbills and the Wreathed Hornbills were extremely cautious. They scanned the forest floor often. The slightest movement had the birds flying off francically. With good reason too; hunters often sit under fruiting trees and wait for the many unsuspecting animals that come to feed, including deer, primates, and large birds like hornbills.

Ten minutes later, a pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills arrived. These three large hornbill species often spend long periods of time on the ficus, not just to feed but also to rest and preen. Often while watching hornbills under figs, we see them regurgitating seeds of fruits from other plants eaten earlier. I have seen several different species of seeds, being dropped by hornbills under a ficus.

A few hours later, we saw the binturong again. This time, it stayed for a while. Then Aadusey spotted a pair of yellow-throated martens, running on the branches. These, unlike the binturong, run along the branches, often to the other extreme of the canopy, and spend some time feeding on the figs there, before moving on to the next branch. In doing so, they scare other birds and hornbills. They also keep leaving the tree and returning intermittently. Binturongs on the other hand are more methodical. They finish stripping one branch before they move to the other, and they take their time. Occasionally they stretch up on their hind feet to reach the higher branches, revealing their long bushy tail curled around another branch.

Several species of green pigeons, bulbuls and barbets, imperial pigeons, cochoas and thrushes, Himalayan striped squirrels and red-bellied squirrels, I’ve seen them all on the ficus. I once saw four different individuals of Himalayan striped squirrels feeding on figs! They pluck the fruits and then take them to a safer place to eat. Another time, I watched as a Malayan giant squirrel visited the tree to feed on the fruits when yellow-throated martens weren’t around.

After four hours of sitting under the tree, when Aadusey got up for a loo-break, we were startled by the alarm call of a barking deer up-close. The deer wasn’t aware about our whereabouts and we failed to see it because of the dense undergrowth.

The only thing I missed seeing that day on the ficus were hoolock gibbons. Gibbons also love figs. On one occasion, I had seen a large troop of stump-tailed macaques feeding on a different species of small figs along with Great Hornbills.

Time passes by very pleasantly when you sit under a ficus and I have spent many a day doing exactly that.
In seven months, I found eight species of ficus on which hornbills fed, seven of which were strangler figs. Ficus tree-watching is much more fun compared to other trees, because there always seems to be so much activity. There seems to be no competition between and across species. When you have several individuals of three species of squirrels and hornbills, two species of small carnivores, and at least two species of pigeons and barbets, happily feeding on a single tree all together, it’s a sight to experience and not to be read about in a book.
Ficus are often the last trees to be cut in degraded forest areas. Logging them is a waste of time. They have no timber value and are difficult to cut. In such areas, I still see Great Hornbills, gibbons, barking deer, and hordes of other birds on these standalone ficus.

These glorious trees are animal magnets and that is also the reason why hunters often built machans on them to hunt. In Rima, another village close to Namdapha, all the hunters go and sit under a ficus to hunt deer, primates and hornbills. From certain species of ficus, hunters also collect gum which they apply to branches of other fruiting trees to trap small birds like barbets and bulbuls.

On my way back from the field when I spent the day in Calcutta, I saw lots of ficus near Park Street but they weren’t half as fun without the hornbills, barbets, pigeons, gibbons, martens and binturongs. When I saw the ficus amidst the bustling city, I smiled, remembering some of the stunning sightings I have had. But I also felt sad that—sad that for the next four months, all I could do was revisit those memories whenever I saw the data in my Excel file!